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Poison: A History and a Family Memoir

Poison: A History and a Family Memoir

by Gail Bell
     
 

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Years after Dr. William Macbeth died, his ornate medicine case passed to his estranged son. Over the protests of his family, the son buried it deep in the ground, out of sight and out of reach.

Then ten-years-old, Macbeth's granddaughter Gail Bell watched the mysterious case of elixirs arrive at her home. She watched her father treat it like a poison chalice.

Overview

Years after Dr. William Macbeth died, his ornate medicine case passed to his estranged son. Over the protests of his family, the son buried it deep in the ground, out of sight and out of reach.

Then ten-years-old, Macbeth's granddaughter Gail Bell watched the mysterious case of elixirs arrive at her home. She watched her father treat it like a poison chalice. Only decades later would she understand why: the case concealed evidence of her family's deadly secret.

In 1927, Macbeth was accused of poisoning two of his sons. He never stood trial. Bell, determined to discover how this "calm, warm, and caring" healer could become a cunning murderer--and evade detection--eventually uncovered the dark secrets that her father had tried to hide from the world. But as the unexpected twists of her investigation reveal, nothing is as straightforward as it seems.

At the same time, she explores what the crime of poisoning reveals about humanity, through the perspectives of myth, history, fiction, and the great poison trials. A pharmacist by profession, and the granddaughter of a suspected poisoner by circumstance, she is perfectly placed to revisit the cases of Cleopatra, Emma Bovary, Napoleon's doctor, Harold Shipman, and Dr. Crippen, and she is equally well-suited to chronicle the devastating effects of poison's many forms, from hemlock and belladonna to arsenic and strychnine.

Poison is at once a fascinating history of the science and sociology of poisoning, and a true, first-person account of one woman's struggle to understand its mysterious role in her own family's murderous history.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Bell has given this cunning and original history of poison an intimate inflection, in keeping with the current autobiographical tendency. The stories overheard by her ear to the glass against the partition wall confirm that even if the poisoned apple is not much more than gossip, its potent dangers should not be underestimated. — Marina Warner
Publishers Weekly
Readers with a strong stomach will enjoy this unusual memoir laced with a natural history of poison. The author, an Australian journalist, short story writer and pharmacist, has both a professional and personal interest in her subject. From family gossip, Bell learned that her paternal grandfather, William Macbeth, deliberately poisoned two of his sons. He and his wife divorced after this dark deed, and Macbeth, an herbalist and chemist, continued to practice his trade. The author's interviews with her great-aunt revealed that her grandmother was reluctant to accuse Macbeth out of fear for their two remaining sons. Bell's exhaustive investigation of this family secret and her effort "to see the man in the monster" leaves her, finally, with a version of events that differs sharply from her great-aunt's recollections. Along the way, she offers scientific details on many types of poison and a series of engrossing but graphic and unsettling accounts of legendary poisonings, both real and literary, murderous and suicidal. Included is Flaubert's horrific description of Madame Bovary's death; the case of Mary Anne McConkey, who was hung in Dublin in 1841 for sprinkling her husband's lunch with aconite, which killed him in three torturous hours; and a 20th-century man who accidentally murdered his love interest by giving her what he thought was an aphrodisiac-Spanish fly. (Oct.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
We can find poisons in history with Socrates and hemlock, in literature with Madame Bovary and arsenic, and in a modern news report with an execution by lethal injection. But do we know where poisons come from and how they work? At the same time, there are poisons that are nontoxic and nonchemical but equally deadly; these are in the lies or half-truths that are passed down within a family. Bell, an Australian pharmacist, was prompted by an odious poisoning story within her own family over 75 years ago to begin a detective story that spans a decade. The result of her expert and determined sleuthing is a factual account of this past event, one that rewrites family history with truth. Chapters on her detective work alternate with chapters that trace a multitude of poisons through history, myth, paintings, and literature. Bell tells us where these substances come from, how they are administered, how they poison, etc. The writing is lucid and fascinating. Readers will enjoy Bell's personal saga, her scientific and historical facts, and the resolution. Highly recommended for all collections. Michael D. Cramer, Schwarz BioSciences Inc., RTP, Raleigh, NC Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An Australian pharmacist debuts with a lively, if disorganized, story of poisonous death in her family framed within an informal history of toxic substances.

In 1980, the author's great-aunt confirmed the family legend that Bell's grandfather had poisoned two of his sons in 1927. A doctor of naturopathy and an herbalist working around Sydney, William Macbeth allegedly killed his retarded four-year-old son because the boy was expensive to support and then forced his three-year-old son to drink a strychnine tonic as punishment for trespassing in his dispensary. Bell’s research reveals that Macbeth had learned pharmacology as a drugstore clerk but claimed an impressive and uncheckable pedigree including study in Pennsylvania. His bestselling product, labeled Macbeth's Strengthening Tonic (supposedly tested in the Highlands of Scotland on descendants of the great warriors of Culloden), contained a low dosage of strychnine. While gathering information on her crooked family tree, Bell offers a beginner’s course on fatal drugs: strychnine comes from the seeds of the Koochla tree and acts as a paralytic; arsenic is a tissue poison, causing the heart, liver, and kidneys to stop functioning. The author also ventures into famous historical and literary deaths. Cleopatra, who tested snakebites on servants, probably chose a cobra over an asp because the death is easier and the corpse better-looking. Emma Bovary and Napoleon died of arsenic poisoning, and Bell describes Emma's probable treatment if she had arrived in a modern ER. She considers George Orwell's 1946 essay "Decline of the English Murder," which laments the end of poisoning’s golden era, dated by Orwell from 1850 to1925, before theadvent of toxicological testing and the preservation of stomach contents. Bell relishes unusual cases like Anne McConkey's poisoning of her husband with wolfsbane in 1841 and a pharmacist/lover’s attempt to seduce a colleague with Spanish Fly, which killed her and another co-worker.

Messy, morbid, and entertaining.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781429970754
Publisher:
St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
10/11/2002
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
288
File size:
288 KB

Read an Excerpt


  Chapter OneThe pleasures of found glassWHEN I WAS A GIRL of ten my father showed me a kind of sample case, made, he said, of the best wood, lacquered, embossed with gold initials, hinged and fastened with brass. When you undid the clip and lifted the lid an inner shelf levered into view. On the shelf were beautiful bottles each with a glued-on label, handwritten in ink script, and sealed with glass stoppers. One bottle had a thick sludge at the bottom, like tar. Idly, I picked it up, extracted the top (which was stiff and unyielding) and put the end of the stopper to my nose, as you would with perfume. My father snatched it from my hand and said ‘Never, never do that. You could die.’The sample case had arrived in a carton delivered to our house a week after my father’s stepfather passed away. The strange thing was, nothing inside the package had belonged to the stepfather; it was what was left of the belongings of my father’s real father, and for some reason had been hoarded, probably forgotten, until the relatives tidied up and wanted to be rid of them. We laid the other things out on a table: two leather suitcases from the 1920s, a collar box, a tie box, calling cards, a smoking jacket, a silver-handled walking cane and a small bundle of photographs. Looking at them seemed to give my father no pleasure at all.‘What’s in the bottles?’ I asked.‘Rubbish,’ said Dad. ‘Bad stuff, poison.’Hearing this, my mother ordered the bottles out of the house.I asked if I could keep the sample case but my father had made his decision. The next day he took it to work and buried it in the footings of a house. He put the other things back in the carton and put the carton in the shed where it sat for another twenty-five years, undisturbed.


My father worked on building sites for years and one of his pleasures was to uncover old bottles and bring them home. Clear ones with glass marbles in the neck, slender green ones that looked like schoolgirls, early Coca-Cola models that might be worth something one day. He lined them up on a shelf in his workshop where the sun caught their colours and threw them onto the walls. He showed me how to hold glass so its weight sagged in the cradle of my hand and warmed to blood temperature. Sometimes the delicate ones felt like little live things.Often we cleaned them together, scrubbing at the clay with old toothbrushes and pliable pointed sticks my father had whittled to suit the work.Years later I started bringing home my own glass: old tincture bottles, mortars, pestles, ampoules of sealed liquid, measuring cylinders, beakers, hollow tubing that could be melted and moulded on a Bunsen flame; all saved from the rubbish bins of pharmacies that were rushing into the 1970s without a backward glance.Not once, in all those years of bottle collecting, have my father and I spoken about those bottles in the wooden sample case. He would say, if I asked him, that he couldn’t remember which house he buried it under, wouldn’t know if it’s in concrete or fill, couldn’t hazard a guess as to the possibility of excavation.We’ve gone on appreciating the pleasures of found glass in this denying but comfortable togetherness that, for him at least, confirms his opinion that some things are best left buried.When he retired from work he gave me the best of his bottle collection and sold or gave the rest away. He was done with dust collectors, he said.I still line up the ones I like best — the green ones — on sunny ledges.POISON: A HISTORY AND A FAMILY MEMOIR. Copyright © 2001 by Gail Bell. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.


Meet the Author

Gail Bell was born in Sydney, Australia in 1950. A graduate of the University of Sydney, where she studied pharmacy and education, she has since written award-winning short stories, travel journalism, and many thousands of words about medicines and poisons. Poison is her first full-length work of non-fiction.

Gail Bell was born in Sydney, Australia in 1950. A graduate of the University of Sydney, where she studied pharmacy and education, she has since written award-winning short stories, travel journalism, and many thousands of words about medicines and poisons. The Poisoner is her first full-length work of non-fiction.

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