The Magazine Reader

Deadly Poisons and Their Known Anecdotes

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The guy doesn't feel good. He complains that his stomach hurts. His doctors at the University of Virginia can't figure it out. They keep running tests.

Meanwhile, the patient's wife visits faithfully, feeding her husband homemade banana pudding. Finally, the doctors do some toxicity tests. Turns out the guy is full of arsenic. And so is the banana pudding.

But by the time the mystery is solved, the patient is dead.

"We called the wife Banana Pudding Lily," says Marcella Fierro, the Commonwealth of Virginia's chief medical examiner, who cracked the case.

When it comes to murder weapons, poison just doesn't get enough respect. It's overshadowed by noisier, bloodier, less artful methods of eliminating unwanted humans -- guns, bombs, that sort of thing.

Fortunately, the gloriously ghoulish cover story "Poison: 12 Toxic Tales" in the May issue of National Geographic reminds us of the huge role that poison has played in the long, colorful history of man's inhumanity to man.

Socrates was executed with a cup of hemlock. Medieval Tatars catapulted plague-infected corpses over enemy walls to spread disease. Hannibal's sailors tossed pots of venomous snakes onto the decks of enemy ships. The British gave blankets infected with smallpox to Indians during the French and Indian War. At the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps during World War II, the Nazis killed more than a million people with a cyanide-based gas called Zyklon B.

In the 1960s, the CIA planned to poison Cuban dictator Fidel Castro's cigars or his scuba gear. In 1978, a Bulgarian dissident was assassinated in London with a poisoned umbrella tip. In 2004, Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin, which failed to kill him but caused his face to erupt in hideous lesions. He won anyway.

But the heyday of poison as a political tool was in Renaissance Italy, where, as Geographic senior staff writer Cathy Newman writes, "poisoning was as much an art as painting, architecure or sculpture."

Pope Alexander VI, of the infamous Borgia family, would appoint wealthy men as bishops and cardinals, encourage them to become wealthier, then invite them to dinner. "The house wine, dry, with overtones of arsenic," writes Newman, "neatly dispatched the guests, whose wealth, by church law, then reverted to their host."

Humans are not the only animals who poison their victims. Poison is, as one scientist puts it, "animal chemical warfare," used as a defense mechanism by 400 kinds of snakes, 200 spiders and 75 scorpions.

Among the 700 varieties of poisonous fish is the fugu, an ugly puffer fish considered a delicacy by brave (or stupid) Japanese gourmets, who pay $500 a plate to enjoy the pleasant tingling that fugu makes as it anesthetizes the tongue. Alas, sometimes the anesthetizing gets out of hand and the gourmet stops breathing -- resulting in one less customer for fugu.

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