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PoisonsFrom Hemlock to Botox and the Killer Bean of Calabar
By Peter Macinnis
Arcade PublishingCopyright © 2006 Peter Macinnis
All right reserved.
PrologueBooks often have peculiar provenances. I began this one in whimsy, chatting to Emma the Excellent Editor about Mr. Pugh, a character in Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood. Poor Mr. Pugh was a schoolteacher, and Thomas gives him a "moustache worn thick and long in memory of Doctor Crippen." Henpecked Pugh sat at the breakfast table, reading his book, Lives of the Great Poisoners, and dreaming of poisoning Mrs. Pugh.
I said in the middle of a conversation about something completely different that I was sure nobody had ever written a book called Lives of the Great Poisoners, and within a few minutes I was arguing to write Mr. Pugh's Breakfast Table Book. Later I saw that most of Mr. Pugh's Great Poisoners were abject failures, because they were found out. The clever ones, as Balzac pointed out, got away with it, eluding both punishment and fame.
Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublie, parce qu'il a ete proprement fait. (The secret of great fortunes for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been found out, because it was properly executed.)
It mattered little. By then Iwas looking more widely at poisons, where they are found, why they do harm, and how they are used to do good. That led me to the evolution of poisons, medical poisons, the poison battle between toxic bacteria and drugs, and the battle played out in the nineteenth century between the poisoners and those seeking to stop poisoners, if only by demonstrating that any poison could be detected in a corpse, no matter how cleverly the poison was administered, and thus taking away the hope of eluding detection.
You can take almost any starting point and trace a trail of poison. Let me demonstrate. (All the instances mentioned here will be met later in this tale.) George Bernard Shaw was a good socialist who kept company with socialist writers and men of letters like H. G. Wells, Clive Bell, and Leonard Woolf: suppose we take this small and select group of Fabians as the epicenter and see how they were all associated with poisons in different ways.
Shaw met Madeleine Wardle, formerly the famous or infamous Madeleine Smith, who had been cleared of the arsenic murder of her lover by a "Not Proven" verdict. She had then married the Pre-Raphaelite painter George Wardle. Shaw said later that he found her quite pleasant. Shaw's friend Wells exposed the evils of lead poisoning in the potteries of England, where plumbism was rampant, while Leonard Woolf and Clive Bell were married to the Stephen girls, Virginia and Vanessa.
Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell had an uncle who was the judge in Florence Maybrick's trial for the murder by poison of her husband. Some people say that James Maybrick may have been Jack the Ripper; another unlikely suspect was the judge's son, the cousin of Virginia and Vanessa, the poet J. K. Stephen. Yet another Ripper suspect was the doctor and convicted poison murderer Neill Cream. Cream was a medical student with Arthur Conan Doyle, himself recently accused of committing a poison murder, almost a century after the death in question.
Florence Maybrick's husband and Madeleine Smith's lover were both reported to be addicted to arsenic, and another Pre-Raphaelite, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, married his model, Elizabeth Siddal, who used arsenic to make her complexion paler. She later poisoned herself with laudanum.
On top of this, George Wardle worked both for and with William Morris. Morris inherited a fortune that came from arsenic mining, a fortune that he added to by designing and selling wallpapers in which the main pigment was a salt of arsenic.
The poison chain can go on and on-we might mention yet another alleged candidate for Jack the Ripper, Lewis Carroll, who wrote (disapprovingly) of children drinking poisons in Alice in Wonderland: "if you drink much from a bottle marked 'Poison,' it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later."
People find a delicious fascination in viewing at a safe distance the acts of psychopathic murderers and terrorists, but the most effective wielders of poisons around humans are bacteria and those who can manipulate them. They, in truth, are the best of the Great Poisoners, but we cannot understand them without understanding the more traditional poisons as well.
And so this book was born. No more is it Mr. Pugh's breakfast table book, an account of the lives of the great poisoners. It is a tiptoe among murderous herbs and minds, a chance to taste-test in complete safety some of the more interesting poisoners-and their poisons.
Excerpted from Poisons by Peter Macinnis Copyright © 2006 by Peter Macinnis. Excerpted by permission.
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