Poison Mysteries in Fiction by Charles John Samuel Thompson 1899
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POISONS IN FICTION
From a very early period poisoning mysteries have been woven into romance and story, and in later times have been a favourite theme for both novelist and dramatist. But unfortunately, the scientific knowledge of writers of fiction, as a rule, is of a very limited description, and the effects attributed by them to certain drugs are usually as fabulous as the romances of the olden times. They tell us of mysterious poisons of untold power, an infinitesimal quantity of which will cause instantaneous death without leaving a trace behind. They describe anæsthetics so powerful, that a whiff from a bottle is sufficient to produce immediate insensibility for any period desired. In fact, the novelist has a pharmacopœia of his own. After all, why should we question or cavil, and wish to analyse it in the prosaic test tube of modern science; for take away the marvels and mysteries and you kill the romance. The novel performs its mission if it succeeds in interesting and amusing us, and the story-teller has accomplished the object of his art when he is successful in weaving the possible with the impossible, so that we can scarce perceive it.
That master of fiction, Dumas, gives us an instance of this, in his wonderfully fascinating adventures of the Count Monte Christo. Nothing seems impossible to this extraordinary individual, and incident after incident of the most romantic and exciting nature crowd one upon another throughout the story; yet so beautifully blended by the wonderful imagination of the author, that it enthrals us to the end. The Count, who is supposed to have studied the art of medicine in the East, has always a remedy at hand for every emergency, from hashish, in which he is a profound believer, to his mysterious stimulating elixir, described as "of the colour of blood, preserved in a phial of Bohemian glass." A single drop of this marvellous fluid, if allowed to fall on the lips, will, almost before it reaches them, restore the marble and inanimate form to life. His pill boxes were composed of emeralds and precious stones of huge size, and their contents consisted of drugs, whose effects were beyond conception. His knowledge of chemistry and toxicology is equally astonishing, as instanced in the conversation he holds with Madame de Villefort, who, for nefarious purposes, desires to improve her knowledge of poisons. Monte Christo discourses on the poisonous properties of brucine, a drug rarely used in England, but largely used in France. "Suppose," says the Count, "you were to take a millegramme of this poison the first day, two millegrammes the second day, and so on. Well, at the end of ten days you would have taken a centigramme: at the end of twenty days, increasing another millegramme, you would have taken three hundred centigrammes; that is to say, a dose you would support without inconvenience, and which would be very dangerous for any other person who had not taken the same precautions as yourself. Well, then, at the end of a month, when drinking water from the same carafe, you would kill the person who had drunk this water, without your perceiving otherwise than from slight inconvenience that there was any poisonous substance mingled with the water." The Count thus explains the doctrine of immunity from a poison, by accustoming the system to its effect in small doses for a length of time, a process which is actually possible with some drugs, but not with all. His satirical description of the bungling of the common poisoner, as compared to the fine subtlety and cunning he advocates, is also worth quoting: "Amongst us a simpleton, possessed by the demon of hate or cupidity, who has an enemy to destroy, or some near relation to dispose of, goes straight to the grocer's or druggist's, gives a false name, which leads more easily to his detection than his real one, and purchases, under a pretext that the rats prevent him from sleeping, five or six pennyworth of arsenic. If he is really a cunning fellow he goes to five or six different druggists or grocers, and thereby becomes only five or six times more easily traced; then, when he has acquired his specific, he administers duly to his enemy or near kinsman a dose of arsenic which would make a mammoth or mastodon burst, and which, without rhyme or reason, makes his victim utter groans which alarm the whole neighbourhood. Then arrive a crowd of policemen and constables. They fetch a doctor, who opens the dead body, and collects from the entrails and stomach a quantity of arsenic in a spoon. Next day a hundred newspapers relate the fact, with the names of the victim and the murderer. The same evening the grocer or grocers, druggist or druggists, come and say, 'It was I who sold the arsenic to the gentleman accused'; and rather than not recognize the guilty purchaser, they will recognize twenty. Then the foolish criminal is taken, imprisoned, interrogated, confronted, confounded, condemned, and cut off by hemp or steel; or, if she be a woman of any consideration, they lock her up for life. This is the way in which you northerners understand chemistry." And so he endeavours to incite a woman, who is already anxiously contemplating a series of terrible crimes.
The recital of the ingenious experiments of the Abbé Adelmonte is a piece of clever construction, as the quotation will show. "The Abbé," said Monte Christo, "had a remarkably fine garden full of vegetables, flowers, and fruit. From amongst these vegetables he selected the most simple—a cabbage, for instance. For three days he watered this cabbage with a distillation of arsenic; on the third, the cabbage began to droop and turn yellow. At that moment he cut it. In the eyes of everybody it seemed fit for table, and preserved its wholesome appearance. It was only poisoned to the Abbé Adelmonte. He then took the cabbage to the room where he had rabbits, for the Abbé Adelmonte had a collection of rabbits, cats, and guinea-pigs, equally fine as his collection of vegetables, flowers, and fruit. Well, the Abbé Adelmonte took a rabbit and made it eat a leaf of the cabbage. The rabbit died. What magistrate would find or even venture to insinuate anything against this? What procureur du roi has ever ventured to draw up an accusation against M. Magendie or M. Flourens, in consequence of the rabbits, cats, and guinea-pigs they have killed? Not one. So, then, the rabbit dies, and justice takes no notice. This rabbit dead, the Abbé Adelmonte has its entrails taken out by his cook and thrown on the dunghill; on this dunghill was a hen, who, pecking these intestines, was, in her turn, taken ill, and dies next day. At the moment when she was struggling in the convulsions of death, a vulture was flying by (there are a good many vultures in Adelmonte's country); this bird darts on the dead bird and carries it away to a rock, where it dines off its prey. Three days afterwards this poor vulture, who has been very much indisposed since that dinner, feels very giddy, suddenly, whilst flying aloft in the clouds, and falls heavily into a fish-pond. The pike, eels, and carp eat greedily always, as everybody knows—well, they feast on the vulture. Well, suppose the next day, one of these eels, or pike, or carp is served at your table, poisoned, as they are to the third generation. Well, then, your guest will be poisoned in the fifth generation, and die at the end of eight or ten days, of pains in the intestines, sickness, or abscess of the pylorus. The doctors open the body, and say, with an air of profound learning, 'The subject has died of a tumour on the liver, or typhoid fever.'"
After attempting to kill half the household with brucine, Madame de Villefort changes her particular poison for a simple narcotic, recognized by Monte Christo (who in this instance frustrates the murderer) as being dissolved in alcohol. The name of the latter poison is not told us by the novelist, but on the doctor's examination of the suspected liquid we read, "He took from its silver case a small bottle of nitric acid, dropped a little of it into the liquor, which immediately changed to a blood-red colour."
Perhaps the most curious method of poisoning ever used in fiction is that introduced by the late Mr. James Payn in his novel, "Halves." The poisoner uses finely chopped horse-hair as a medium for getting rid of her niece. In this way she brings on a disease which puzzles the doctor, until one day he comes across the would-be murderess pulling the horse-hair out of the drawing-room sofa, which causes him to suspect her at once. This ingenious lady introduced the chopped horse-hair into the pepper-pot used by her victim. The inimitable Count Fosco, whom Wilkie Collins introduces into "The Woman in White," was supposed to possess a remarkable knowledge of chemistry, although he says, "Only twice did I call science to my aid," in working out his plot to abduct Lady Glyde. His media were simple: "A medicated glass of water and a medicated bottle of smelling-salts relieved her of all further embarrassment and alarm." This genial villain waxes eloquent on the science of chemistry in his confession. "Chemistry!" he exclaims, "has always had irresistible attractions for me from the enormous, the illimitable power which the knowledge of it confers. Chemists—I assert it emphatically—might sway, if they pleased, the destinies of humanity. Mind, they say, rules the world. But what rules the mind? The body (follow me closely here) lies at the mercy of the most omnipotent of all potentates—the chemist. Give me—Fosco—chemistry; and when Shakespeare has conceived Hamlet, and sits down to execute the conception—with a few grains of powder dropped into his daily food, I will reduce his mind, by the action of his body, till his pen pours out the most abject drivel that has ever degraded paper. Under similar circumstances revive me the illustrious Newton. I guarantee that when he sees the apple fall he shall eat it, instead of discovering the principle of gravitation. Nero's dinner shall transform Nero into the mildest of men before he has done digesting it, and the morning draught of Alexander the Great shall make Alexander run for his life at the first sight of the enemy the same afternoon. On my sacred word of honour it is lucky for Society that modern chemists are, by incomprehensible good fortune, the most harmless of mankind. The mass are worthy fathers of families, who keep shops. The few are philosophers besotted with admiration for the sound of their own lecturing voices, visionaries who waste their lives on fantastic impossibilities, or quacks whose ambition soars no higher than our corns."
In "Armadale," the same novelist introduces us to a poisoner of the deepest dye in the person of Miss Gwilt. This fair damsel, whose auburn locks seemed to have possessed an irresistible attraction for the opposite sex, was addicted to taking laudanum to soothe her troubled nerves, and first tried to mix a dose with some lemonade she had prepared for her husband's namesake and friend, whom she wished out of the way. This attempt failing, and a second one, to scuttle a yacht in which he was sailing, proving futile also, he was finally lured to a sanatorium in London, where she had arranged for him to be placed to sleep in a room into which a poisonous gas (presumably carbonic acid) was to be passed. At the last moment she discovers her husband has taken the place of her victim, and in a revulsion of feeling she rescues him, and ends her own life instead in the poisoned chamber. According to the story, the medical investigation which followed this tragedy ended in discovering that she had died of apoplexy; a fact which had it occurred in real life would not have redounded to the credit of the medical men who conducted it.
The heroine of Mr. Benson's novel, "The Rubicon," poisons herself with prussic acid of unheard of strength, which she discovers among some photographic chemicals.
On the stage, "poisoning" has gone somewhat out of fashion with modern dramatists, although it was a common thing in years gone by for the villain of the play to swallow a cup of cold poison in the last act, and after several dying speeches to fall suddenly flat on his back and die to slow music. The death of Cleopatra, described by Shakespeare as resulting from the bite of a venomous snake, is like no clinical description of the final effects of death from the bite of any known snake. Beverley, in "The Gamester," takes a dose of strong poison in the fifth act, and afterwards makes several fairly long speeches before he apparently feels the effects, and finally succumbs. The description of the death of Juliet, which Shakespeare, in all probability, conceived from reading the effects that followed the drinking of morion or mandragora wine, is an accurate description of death from that drug. The use of this anodyne preparation to deaden pain dates from ancient times, and it is stated it was a common practice for women to administer it to those about to suffer the penalty of the law by being crucified. We have another instance of the fabulous effects ascribed to poisons by the early playwrights, in Massinger's play, "The Duke of Milan." Francisco dusts over a plant some poisonous powder and hands it to Eugenia. Ludovico approaches, and kisses the lady's hand but twice, and then dies from the effects of the poison.
Miss Helen Mathers, in one of her recent works, viz., "The Sin of Hagar," a story warranted to thrill the soul of "Sweet Seventeen," makes some extraordinary discoveries which will be new to chemists. For instance, she tells us of strychnine that actually discolours a glass of whisky and water. One of the characters, a frisky old dowager, professes to be an amateur chemist, and this lady, we are gravely informed by the novelist, "detects the presence of the strychnine in the glass of whisky and water at a glance."
But Miss Mathers has still another poison, whose properties will doubtless be a revelation to scientists, and it is with this marvellous body the "double-dyed villainess" of the story puts an end to her woes. For convenience she carries it about with her concealed in a ring, and when at last she decides on committing suicide, we are told "she simply placed the ring to her lips, a strange odour spread through the room, and she instantly lay dead."
Sufficient eccentricities of this kind in fiction might be enumerated to fill a volume, but we must forbear. It is perhaps hardly necessary to state that the lady novelist is the greatest sinner in this respect, and stranger poisons are evolved from her fertile brain than were ever known to man.
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