The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison

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Overview

Was Napoleon killed by the arsenic in his wallpaper? How did Rasputin survive cyanide poisoning? Which chemicals in our environment pose the biggest threat to our health today?
In The Elements of Murder, John Emsley offers a fascinating account of five of the most toxic elements—arsenic, antimony, lead, mercury, and thallium—describing their lethal chemical properties and highlighting their use in some of the most famous murder cases in history. Indeed, we meet in this book a ...

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The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison

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Overview

Was Napoleon killed by the arsenic in his wallpaper? How did Rasputin survive cyanide poisoning? Which chemicals in our environment pose the biggest threat to our health today?
In The Elements of Murder, John Emsley offers a fascinating account of five of the most toxic elements—arsenic, antimony, lead, mercury, and thallium—describing their lethal chemical properties and highlighting their use in some of the most famous murder cases in history. Indeed, we meet in this book a who's who of heartless murderers. Mary Ann Cotton, who used arsenic to murder her mother, three husbands, a lover, eight of her own children, and seven step children, a grand total of 20 people. Michael Swango, who may have killed as many as 60 of his patients and several of his colleagues during the 20 years he practiced as a doctor and paramedic. And even Saddam Hussein, who used thallium sulfate to poison his political rivals. Emsley also shows which toxic elements may have been behind the madness of King George III (almost certainly a case of acute lead poisoning), the delusions of Isaac Newton, and the strange death of King Charles II. In addition, the book examines many modern day environmental catastrophes, including accidental mass poisoning from lead and arsenic, and the Minamata Bay disaster in Japan.
Written by a leading science writer, famous for his knowledge of the elements and their curious and colorful histories, The Elements of Murder offers an enticing combination of true crime tales and curious science that adds up to an addictive read.

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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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780192806000
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 9/28/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 525,922
  • Product dimensions: 7.60 (w) x 5.00 (h) x 1.40 (d)

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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Table of Contents

1. Deadly elements

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 19, 2013

    Fun read, but...

    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.

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  • Posted July 18, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Passionate About Poison?

    Ever wondered why hatters go mad? Or why arsenic is often administered in hot tea? This book will tell you, along with many more gripping facts about poison. It is an absorbing, well-written history of poison, including its more famous practitioners, like Agrippina, Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, and the mother and daughter duo who practiced in Renaissance Rome with a deadly arsenic mixture called "Aqua Toffana," thought to have killed over five-hundred unlucky husbands. The author is a scientist who combines history, chemistry and crime with his encyclopedic understanding of poison. It contains a wealth of reference, including an impressive glossary, a bibliography sub-headed by poisons, and a thorough index. A scholarly work written for the rest of us.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2008

    Dead on!

    A potpourri of Cold Case files and a poison primer. Spunky, sprightly fun writing and a handy reference for the mystery writer who needs to kill off a character or two. Delightful and informative.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 6, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews

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