Murder by poisoning may seem like an old-fashioned phenomenon interesting only to fans of mystery novels and the odd toxicologist. But the new book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, suggests the threat of poisons and poisoning is ever present.
I spoke to author Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer-prize winning science journalist, about the eerie and shocking history of poisoning in the U.S., and why it continues to captivate the public imagination.
Why are people — especially mystery writers and their fans — so fascinated by poison?
I think some of it is the basic creepiness of it. Poisoners themselves are such wonderfully creepy killers. I think they’re the coldest of killers. It’s always premeditated. With almost any other weapon, you can do it by impulse.
There’s something about the heartlessness plotting and planning that really catches people’s imaginations. And there’s a running thread through murder mysteries [because of this]. We don’t have that many great poisoners now, though, because since the 20th century, they’re much easier to catch.
When you go and look at homicide statistics, poisons are a really small part of it. Most murderers are not cold plotters and planners. The rareness gives it an added cachet.
Some of it is also the gruesomeness. Poison deaths are also [usually] wicked deaths. I’ve had people come up to me when I’ve given talks and they ask, ‘What would poison would you use if you wanted to cause a painless death?’
My guess is opioids?
With opioids or even carbon monoxide, if you get the dose right, they will drift off to sleep. As toxicologists say, the dose makes the poison. If you wanted a quick death, you could do something like cyanide. That’s superfast but you’d have a few very bad minutes.
Tell me about carbon monoxide.
It’s such a good poison, so efficient. We know so much about it and it’s still so dangerous. We don’t take it seriously enough. It consistently kills 500 or more people every year.
It’s a byproduct of incomplete combustion. What makes it interesting as a poison is that, normally, when we inhale air, the oxygen binds to proteins in our blood and those drag oxygen to every cell in the body. But carbon monoxide bonds much more efficiently to those proteins. It loves them, so even though there might be oxygen in the air, if you breathe carbon monoxide, the oxygen never gets [to the cells].
I think of it as a big muscular bully — it shoves the oxygen off and so you suffocate. As your blood becomes more and more saturated, there’s huge individual variance. Some people die very quickly from not that much; some live a bit longer.
The way it bonds sets off chemical reactions and the blood becomes an intense cherry pink. It’s so strong, it literally stains you. People find the corpse, which would normally be pale, but with carbon monoxide, it looks pink and rosy.
That’s a real giveaway. For example, someone kills his wife with pills and breaks a gas pipe [to make it look like a carbon monoxide death]. But when they find her, she’s pale and that gives it away. It’s a wonderful example of how if you just know a tiny bit of chemistry, it could help you solve murder. That pink tells you something about what this very poisonous chemical does in the body.
Do you think that poisoners are typically sociopaths?
I think you have to be a [sociopath]. If you look at poisoners today, when you are looking at the criminal prosecutions, they’ve been on their computers researching this away. The hard drive evidence shows up in court trial. They sat down and carefully planned it.
There was woman who planted an ornamental plant called foxglove. It contains an alkaloid called digitalis that can stop your heart. She said to her husband, “Gosh I think you need to eat more greens,’ and starts mixing up poison salads. He got sick and they pumped his stomach and she got caught.
If you think about the kind of mind that does it, that’s a sociopathic mind. They’re game players. Poisoners fit the psychopathy checklist perfectly. It’s a game they’re figuring out how to win — that’s poisoners to a T.