Ten Cunning Methods of Poisoning by Karen Maitland
Posted on: 17/08/2016 with tags: author blog piece, karen maitland, poison, Wicked Children, Medieval, Tudor
The obvious method of poisoning someone was to add the toxin to the victim’s food or drink, but it was not always possible, especially when the rich and powerful employed food tasters and the poisoner might not have access to the kitchens or if he did, would immediately be suspected. So the successful poisoners of history had to come up more ingenious ways to get the poison into their victims.
- Killing Ointment – This was made from arsenic, vitriol, baby’s fat, bat’s blood and hemlock and was intended to be smeared on door handles and gate latches in the middle of the night, so in the morning those opening doors or gates would get it on their hands and at some point would touch their mouths or eyes, causing the poison to enter their system. In 1536, an ‘association of women’ in Cassalis, Italy were accused of having made ‘forty crocks’ of this ointment and daubed it on doors and gate posts, poisoning whole families. But the story was probably invented as part of the accusations of witchcraft against these women.
- Poisoned Chalice – The Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII of Germany returning from Italy in 1313, celebrated the Easter Mass in Buonconventis, but after receiving the sacraments died in agony. It was believed at the time either the bread or wine had been poisoned, though in fact he was already ill with malaria. In the 20th Century, a priest called Donata Marulli suffered the same fate in Abruzzi. Suspicion fell on the sacristan who’d prepared the wine, so prove his innocence he grabbed the chalice and drained it in front of the congregation. Unfortunately he too died. It seems a young cleric had mixed a corrosive substance with the wine to dispatch the old priest, so that he could be promoted.
- Poison knife – Of course, any blade could be coated in poison, so that even a scratch could prove fatal. But by the 16th century special poison knives had been invented that were designed to harm the user of the knife, not the victim. The secret lay in a hollow handle in which the knife blade was fixed against pivot. When any pressure was put on the cutting edge of the knife, three sharps spikes would spring out piecing the user’s hand then retract as soon as the knife was dropped, leaving no trace.
- Poisoned Egg – In Diss in Norfolk , there is a monument to ‘Matilda, Daughter of Robert Fitzwalter, The Valiant’ who died from eating a poisoned egg. In 1213, King John tried to woe the beautiful Matilda, but her father would not consent. Having banished her father along with other barons with whom he quarrelled, and seized his castle, lands and possessions, King John tried again to force himself on Matilda, but she refused him. King John’s messenger poisoned a hardboiled egg, which she ate. It isn’t known if she was tricked into eating it, not realising it had come from the king’s messenger, or ate it in the knowledge that it would kill her, to preserve her honour and escape King John.
- Poisoned candle – in 1533, Pope Clement VII is said to have been poisoned by the fumes of a burning torch or candle which was deliberately carried in front of him in the procession, others say that it he’d eaten poisoned fungi, either way his death was recorded as due to poison, but that may simply have a symptom of the paranoia of the time.
- Love potions – These could inadvertently prove fatal especially when as in the case of some emperors, kings and poets they were being secretly fed them by both their wives and their mistresses at the same time. If the love-potion contained ingredients like love-apples otherwise known as mandrakes, the man would hallucinate and repeated doses would kill him. But other ingredients could prove equally hard to stomach. Some love-potion recipes listed ingredients such wolf’s penis, ground earthworms, newt brains, blood, testicles and even, young swallows which were buried alive in the earth, then dug up when decayed. If their beaks were open they added to the potion as this would ‘provoke love.’
- Poison rings – Many so called ‘poison rings’ were never intended for poison. The hollow was constructed to contain a memento such as a lock of hair or relic. But one 16th Century ring made for an Italian cardinal opens to reveal a secret hollow which, so the story goes, contained a powder made from a poisonous fungus.
While imprisoned in Fotheringhay castle, Mary Queen of Scots is said to have been sent a ring set with a carbuncle in shape of a skull, full of poison, but whether this was intended for her to use on her guards or to use on herself, as Hannibal did with his poison ring, is not known.
- Poison key – Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503), father to the Borgia brood, is rumoured to have had a cupboard in the Vatican with a lock that was deliberately kept stiff. He would ask his intended victim to open it for him and, no doubt hoping that the pontiff might be about to bestow some gift on them, they would do so, only to be pricked with the sharp point concealed in the key which would pierce the skin with a lethal injection believed to be a mixture of lead, arsenic and phosphorus.
- Killed with a Kiss – It was believed that Indian Courtesans knew how to coat their lips with an impermeable ointment to protect themselves, then cover it with a preparation made from aconite. They would then kiss their enemies to death or those they had been paid to kill. A dose as low as 0.7mg of pure aconite can be fatal, but even if these poisoned kisses didn’t kill their victims, it might have made them weak enough for assassins lying in wait outside to do their work as the men staggered away.
- Holy Relic – Around 1659, a woman called Toffana arrived in Naples and prepared batches of deadly poison which she sold in glass phials bearing the sign of St Nicholas of Bari, and purporting to contain some of miraculous healing water that oozed from his tomb. The shrine at Bari did in fact sell bottles of this holy water in the same phials to the faithful. Toffana sold these phials of poison to women who wanted to dispatch husbands or others. It was a clever plan, for the wives appeared to be kind and loving when they gave their husbands a phial of the precious holy water to drink. Toffana checked the women out thoroughly first before selling the bottles and took care to frequently changed addresses, so she couldn’t be tracked down. It is thought she dispatched over 600 people including two Popes and other priests and apparently got away with her crimes until she was in her seventies.
But there is another unusual method of poisoning which not mentioned in the list. Although if you want to find out what that was – you’ll have to read The Vanishing Witch.
Karen Maitland’s Wicked Children: Murderous Tales from History – a free e-short – is out on 25th August