Poison Throughout History
When people talk about murders, both in the past and in the present day, poison tends to get a rather short shift. It’s dismissed as a woman’s weapon, as something that is only used by the cowardly or the frail. The truth is that poison is effective, and many of the people who have fallen prey to it would never think of the humble servant woman or loyal wife would take control in that way.
The sheer number of people who have fallen prey to poison may never be known. In historical times, when death could come from common afflictions and infections, poison could be overlooked. Even in our current era, there are toxins out there that could not be easily detected by doctors or even autopsy reports.
As we examine the killers of the world, it is a poor idea to discount the poisoners.
The Romans were known to be a deadly lot, and Locusta was a woman who sped many Roman officials on to an early grave. She was so famous that emperors asked her aid in killing her enemies. She was rumored to have killed the Emperor Claudius with a plate of mushrooms. When she was convicted of poisoning a nobleman, the emperor Nero stepped in and gave her an enormous home to live in. He even sent students to learn her skills. Ironically, she was eventually condemned to death by drinking poison when her crimes became known.
Poison can also be extremely lucrative. During the 17th century a woman named Toffana invented a gorgeous white face paint that became all the rage in Naples. It gave the women of Naples a pure white complexion that was much sought after. However, given the fact that the poison had arsenic in it, its use as a poison is also very clear. Toffana would sell it to women, telling them to allow their husbands to kiss them while they wore it. The result was that a lot of women became very rich widows after a short time. Toffana’s fans turned against her when it was rumored that she poisoned the city wells, and she was tortured and strangled in the early 1700s.
Mary Ann Cotton
Locusta poisoned as a trade, while Toffana killed other women’s husbands. Mary Ann Cotton, whose death toll may be as high as 21 people, killed the people closest to her. After an unhappy childhood, Cotton went on to have a very unhappy married life. Her husbands seemed to die young, and her children died off at an alarming rate. Her mother and her step-children all died of lingering illnesses as well. Eventually, autopsies revealed that she had been poisoning everyone around her with arsenic. She was sentenced to hang, and it took her an excruciating three minutes to die.
Some poisoners just get away with murder, and as far as history is concerned, that is just what Adelaide Bartlett did. Her husband died, and when he was autopsied, it was discovered that he had a large amount of liquid chloroform in his stomach, far more than what it would take to kill him. However, there was no trace of the toxic chemical in his mouth or throat. He could not have drank the substance, because it has a foul taste and would have immediately resulted in vomiting. Because the court could not determine a way for the poison to have gotten into Bartlett’s husband, she was allowed to go free.
Not all poisoners are women. During the latter part of the 19th century, a Dr. Pritchard became the last man to be publically executed in Scotland. He wanted to marry his pregnant serving girl, and his wife stood in the way. He began to poison her with antimony, but unwilling to stop there, he also poisoned his daughter and his step-mother.
Poison gets a bad rap; after all, it’s quick, effective, and in many cases, it’s undetectable. Think about that the next time you sit down to a meal!