A small quote received some attention last week because it combined several components that are most frequently reserved for a film plot starring Helen Mirren, Matt Damon and Damon’s snug black shirt. The components are as follows: mysterious women, assassination plots, secret agents and the spiritual leader of Tibet.
“We received some sort of information from Tibet,” the Dalai Lama told Britain’s Sunday Telegraph in an interview. “Some Chinese agents training some Tibetans, especially women, you see, using poison — the hair poisoned, and the scarf poisoned — they were supposed to seek blessing from me, and my hand touch.”
The Chinese government denied any knowledge of such a plot.
It is possible to read such a description from His Holiness the Dalai Lama and think that His Holiness the Dalai Lama, is, after all, rather old. Poisoned hair and scarves? (If one would be poisoned by touching the scarf, would one also not be poisoned by wearing the scarf? Would this plan not result in the deaths of the assassins? Is that the whole point?)
But again, one must remember Georgi Markov.
One must remember that in 1978, the Bulgarian defector- turned-journalist was waiting at his London bus stop when a man strolled past with his umbrella, poked him in the leg and poisoned him to death with the little pellet of ricin hiding in what was not, as you might have guessed, an umbrella, but rather an air gun concealed to look like one.
One must remember that incident.
One must also remember that Fidel Castro, according to his former security chief, was the victim of multiple poison-related U.S. assassination attempts in the 1960s. The entire premise of one relied on Castro accepting the gift of a wet suit that had been infused with fungal spores, which, theoretically, would have given him a skin disease called Madura foot if the plot had been carried out — which it wasn’t.
The Dalai Lama is safe. Repeat: According to our extensive intelligence (Googling), the Dalai Lama is safe.
But in an era of “targeted drone attacks,” it is surprising that such a cloak-and-dagger (cloak-and-vial?) rumor would start, because we have seen “CSI” and we have seen “Bones,” and we know what Emily Deschanel can uncover with postmortem tests. She could uncover poison.
“The golden era of poisoning was probably in the Renaissance,” says Paul Wax, the executive director of the American College of Medical Toxicology. “Italy and France — the Medici family was known to have a lot of poisoners. It was a common way to knock off people,” because it was virtually undetectable.
It was about this time in England that Sir Thomas Overbury was poisoned not once but four separate times, after he angered his friend the Earl of Somerset by speaking out against the earl’s extramarital affairs. His poisoner stirred arsenic into a variety of soups and tarts, but Sir Thomas didn’t die until, already weakened by three attempts on his life, he was given an enema of corrosive sublimate, which we now know as mercuric chloride, and which was used to treat patients with syphilis until doctors discovered it killed people instead. The Countess of Somerset admitted guilt; Sir Francis Bacon presided over the trial.
“They were all using arsenic then,” says John Emsley, the British author whose “Elements of Murder” is the seminal encyclopedia on chemistry-as-weapon. The substance became known as the “succession powder” because impatient heirs would administer it to their guardians to speed along their ascension to power.
This, of course, is what has made poison such a gruesomely fascinating means of assassination. Aside from hypothetical scenarios involving poisoned darts across a crowded square, poisoning is something that involves close contact, deceptive kindness, the betrayal of trust. In 2004, Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko’s face transformed from striking and handsome to striking and disfigured — his skin covered in pustules and cysts that were believed to be the result of dioxin poisoning. He traced the alleged poisoning to a dinner party of Ukrainian government officials. He survived — in fact, he won the election — but such an event is hardly a way to instill a spirit of bipartisanship, no?
Dioxin is detectable; blood tests will show unnatural levels of it. Most poisons are these days, thanks to the trailblazing work of people such as Charles Norris, New York’s first appointed medical examiner, who pioneered the field of forensic toxicology in the 1920s.
It’s now rather hard to carry off an undetectable poisoning. The death of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 was the last high-profile incident. The former officer of Russia’s Federal Security Service had accused the Russian government of terrorist attacks. He was killed by ingesting radioactive polonium-210, which had been sprayed into his tea while he had lunch with two former KGB officers. It was the first documented incident of such a material being used this way; although it could be detected, its effects could not be reversed.
It was a tragedy. It arrived and departed like a ghost, leaving only the barest traces behind. And though it silenced Litvinenko, he became as well-known in death as in life.
But back to these women, these theoretical women in scarves.
John Trestrail is a forensic toxicologist. He has written several books on the subject and provided expert witness testimony at criminal trials, and he is founder of the Center for the Study of Criminal Poisoning. The front of his personal Web site is a garish skull and crossbones. When this alleged plot to harm the Dalai Lama is described to Trestrail, he says he can think of no poison that would function in the way the Dalai Lama described.
“I think that would be pretty slim and far between,” he says. He mentally runs through his database of poisoning incidents — about 1,200, he says — but comes up short. When asked to describe an incident or two, Trestrail hesitates.
“I always tread very carefully on the fine line between education and encouragement,” he says. “Because there could always be someone out there saying, ‘Yeah, good idea.’ ”
Just so. People, it seems, have horrid enough ideas on their own.