The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison

The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison

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by John Emsley
     
 

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How can a chemical we need on a daily basis to keep us healthy be fatal at a different dose? Why should elements that are intrinsically dangerous be used in medicine? How did poisoners use the chemical properties of chemicals to cover their tracks? Emsley gives detailed histories of five of the most toxic elements - arsenic, antimony, lead, mercury, and thallium,

Overview

How can a chemical we need on a daily basis to keep us healthy be fatal at a different dose? Why should elements that are intrinsically dangerous be used in medicine? How did poisoners use the chemical properties of chemicals to cover their tracks? Emsley gives detailed histories of five of the most toxic elements - arsenic, antimony, lead, mercury, and thallium, highlighting some of the most famous murders and how the murderers used the chemical properties of elements to hide what they were doing. He shows how the elements have been behind many modern day environmental catastrophes including accidental mass poisonings from lead and arsenic, and the Minamata Bay Disaster in Japan. The array of fascinating stories shows how chemicals have impacted the lives of people ranging from the Greeks and Romans to Newton, Napoleon, Lucrezia Borgia, Mozart, Nelson Mandela, and Saddam Hussein. Emsley also touches on subjects close to home: cot deaths, laxatives, venereal disease, alleged cures for acne, hangovers, and insanity.

Editorial Reviews

Dick Teresi
Emsley mines what he calls ''the darker side of the periodic table'' with consummate skill, dealing out Mendeleyev's playing cards with the verve of an Amarillo Slim.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Emsley (Vanity, Vitality, and Virility: The Science Behind the Products You Love to Buy) hits a bull's eye in this fascinating, wonderfully readable forensic history of five deadly chemicals (mercury, arsenic, antimony, lead and thallium) and their starring role in that most intoxicating drama of pure evil: murder. A deeply knowledgeable chemist (he's science writer in residence at Cambridge University) with a gift for making accessible the dry and bewilderingly arcane, Emsley's at his best in case studies of infamous poisoners and their victims. During the reign of James I of England, for instance, the poet Thomas Overbury, having fallen out of royal favor, was administered three fatal doses of mercury, only to survive. For his stubbornness he was administered a fourth dose-by enema-and finally succumbed. Mary Bateman, the "Yorkshire Witch," was equally unlucky. Convicted in 1809 of poisoning a client, Mary was hanged and her corpse skinned so pieces could be sold as charms. Not all the incidents are in the past: Emsley also discusses contemporary environmental poisoning from mercury and Saddam Hussein's use of thallium sulfate on his enemies. Fanatical devotees of the macabre might thumb past sections devoted to less sensational history. But the general reader will not be disappointed: each of these deadly toxins was at one time or another promoted for its unique health or beauty benefits. 15 b&w illus. (June) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"A delightful potion of chemical erudition, forgotten science history and ghastly murder schemes.... Reading The Elements of Murder is like watching a hundred episodes of CSI, but without having to sit through the tedious personal relationships of the characters.... Along the way the bodies pile up as Emsley relates spectacular case histories of poisonings, accidental and criminal.... Emsley mines what he calls 'the darker side of the periodic table' with consumate skill."—Dick Teresi, The New York Times Book Review

"A fascinating anecdotal history of killing by five elements—mercury, arsenic, antimony, lead and thalium.... With something of interest on almost every page, it combines the satisfactions of a detective story, intriguing snippets of history, popular science, unsolved mysteries and murder. A powerful brew." —P. D. James, Sunday Telegraph

"Emsley captures the creepy common ground of science and homicide.... Beyond the scandals and celebrities, what makes 'The Elements of Murder' such a charming read is the absurdity of its anecdotes.... Hitchcock could make many films from this book."—Brenn Jones, San Francisco Chronicle

"Fascinating, wide-ranging and, let's not mince words, macabre new history of poison.... A truly guilty pleasure."—Wall Street Journal

"The list of the famous who may have been poisoned by one of these devious toxins is a long one, from Pope Clement II to Mozart. Emsley has dug up the dirt on these and a rogue's gallery of lesser-known cases.... If the golden age of poisoning is gone (replaced, to be sure, by other forms of mayhem), in Emsley's book it's still very much alive."—Laurence A. Marschall, Natural History

"Emsley retells enough juicy and lurid (and sometimes famous) stories of murder by poison to enthrall both true-crime fans and budding mystery writers.... The author certainly knows his stuff."—Booklist

"Emsley hits a bull's eye in this fascinating, wonderfully readable forensic history of five deadly chemicals (mercury, arsenic, antimony, lead and thallium) and their starring role in that most intoxicating drama of pure evil: murder. A deeply knowledgeable chemist with a gift for making accessible the dry and bewilderingly arcane, Emsley's at his best in case studies of infamous poisoners and their victims."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"I heartily recommend that this book be read and added to the library of every chemist, toxicologist, and avid crime fiction reader, wherever they may be around the world. This book is an absolute delight and, for the price, a bargain to boot."—Chemical and Engineering News

"Both as a natural history of poisons and as a near-encyclopedic who-used-what-how reference, the book fascinates. The glossary and bibliography are most helpful. So dangerous is the world that many readers will choose to stay home, working on that special sauce for mother-in-laws meat loaf."—Foreword Magazine

"This absorbing volume is equal parts chemistry, history and mystery, but you don't need to be a scientist, historian or murderer to appreciate all three facets."—BookPage (Beach Reading Selection)

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780191501203
Publisher:
OUP Oxford
Publication date:
04/28/2005
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Sales rank:
1,203,218
File size:
693 KB

Meet the Author

John Emsley is Science Writer in Residence in the Chemistry Department at the University of Cambridge. He wrote a "Molecule of the Month" column for the Independent for many years, received a Glaxo award for science writing and the Chemical Industries Association's President's Award for science communication. His books include Molecules in an Exhibition, Nature's Building Blocks, and Vanity, Vitality, and Virility: The Science Behind the Products You Love to Buy.

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The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a good read with many wonderful anecdotes that illustrate the concepts of metal toxicity. The book obviously does not illustrate the more complex concepts beyond a surface level treatment. As a professor for introductory chemistry it is very useful for colorful stories. Now for the but... in various places the book truncates the end of a paragraph. It took me a while to figure out that the truncated section is in the text of a previous footnote. Annoying, but workable. If it had been formatted right I would have given it 4/5.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago