Monday, July 11, 2016

Professional Poisoners in History by C.J.S. Thompson 1899

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Professional Poisoners in History by C.J.S. Thompson 1899

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The criminal destruction of life by poison has been practised from ancient times. Very little was known of toxicology in those days, and even the symptoms often passed unrecognised or were attributed to natural causes, and the poisoners' fiendish work was frequently undiscovered and rendered easy. In the early Christian era, poisoning, indeed, became quite a profession, and convenient individuals could be hired with little difficulty to administer a deadly dose to an enemy or rival. Agrippina, in refusing to eat some apples offered to her at table by her father-in-law Tiberius, must have had suspicions of this kind. Locusta, who is said to have supplied the poison by which Agrippina got rid of Claudius, and who also prepared the dose for Britannicus, according to the order of his brother Nero, is the first professional poisoner of whom we have record.

In the year B.C. 331 an epidemic broke out in Rome which was supposed to proceed from corrupt air, but it was observed that the principal patricians only were the victims. Their deaths, however, were attributed to infection, for poisoning was then scarcely known in Rome nor was there a law for its punishment. In the general grief, a female slave presented herself to the edile curule Q. Fabius and accused more than twenty Roman ladies of poisoning: designing specially Cornelia, a lady of an illustrious family of that name, and Sergia, another patrician lady. It is recorded that as many as three hundred and sixty-six ladies were similarly accused; but Cornelia and Sergia were detected in compounding their fatal potions. "When led before the popular assembly they maintained their preparations were harmless remedies. The slave, seeing herself accused as a false witness, asked that the ladies should be required to swallow their own potions; which they did, and by so doing avoided a more shameful death."

Later, there were, doubtless, many, both men and women of the baser sort, who professed to practise alchemy, and had dealings in the black arts, who for suitable consideration would procure poison for criminal purposes. In mediæval times a law was passed in Italy rendering the apothecary, who knowingly sold poison for criminal purposes, liable to a heavy penalty, and yet secret poisoning was practised to a very large extent; and there were probably many like the poor apothecary of Mantua in Romeo and Juliet, who, in response to Romeo's demand for poison, replied, "My poverty and not my will consents."

From the fifteenth to the seventeenth century two great criminal schools arose in Venice and Italy.

The Venetian poisoners who first came into notoriety, flourished in the fifteenth century. At that period the mania for poisoning had risen to such a height, that the governments of the states were formally recognizing secret assassination by poison, and considering the removal of emperors, princes, and powerful nobles by this method. The notorious Council of Ten met to consider such plans, and an account and record of their proceedings still exists, giving the number of those who voted for and who voted against the proposed removal, the reasons for the assassination, and the sum to be paid for its execution. Thus these conspirators quietly arranged to take the lives of many prominent individuals; and when the deed was executed, it was registered on the margin of their official record by the significant word "Factum." On December 15, 1543, John of Raguba, a Franciscan brother, offered the Council a selection of poisons, and declared himself ready to remove any person whom they deemed objectionable out of the way. He calmly stated his terms, which for the first successful case were to be a pension of 1,500 ducats a year, to be increased on the execution of future services. The Presidents, Guolando Duoda and Pietro Guiarini, placed this matter before the Council on January 4, 1544, and on a division, it was resolved to accept this patriotic offer, and to experiment first on the Emperor Maximilian. John, who had evidently reduced poisoning to a fine art, submitted afterwards a regular graduated tariff to the Council, which ran as follows—

For the great Sultan, 500 ducats.
For the King of Spain, 150 ducats, including the expenses of the journey, etc.
For the Duke of Milan, 60 ducats.
For the Marquis of Mantua, 50 ducats.
For the Pope, 100 ducats.

He further adds at the foot of the document, "The farther the journey, the more eminent the man, the more it is necessary to reward the toil and hardships undertaken, and the heavier must be the payment."

The school of Italian poisoners became prominent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the magnitude of their operations during that period struck terror into the hearts of the chief nobles and rulers of that country.

The mania for secret poisoning seems to have seized on all classes from the highest to the lowest, and no one who made an enemy was safe. Porta, in his work published in 1589, gives some account of the poisons used at the time, and seems to have made a study of the subject. He describes methods for drugging wine (a favourite medium of administration) with belladonna root, and also mentions nux vomica, aconite, and hellebore, in his account of poisonous bodies. He gives the following recipe for compounding a very strong poison, which he calls "Venenum Lupinum": "Take of the powdered leaves of Aconitum lycoctonum, Taxus baccata, with powdered glass, caustic lime, sulphide of arsenic, and bitter almonds. Mix them with honey, and make into pills the size of a hazel nut." He also recommends a curious mixture to poison a sleeping person. It is composed of a mixture of hemlock juice, bruised stramonium, belladonna, and opium. This is to be placed in a leaden box with a perfectly fitting cover, and allowed to ferment for several days; it is then to be opened under the nose of the intended victim while asleep. So long as the individual only got the smell and did not swallow the compound, it certainly would not do him much harm.


The most notorious of the Italian poisoners was the woman Toffana or Toffania, who carried on her practices from the latter end of the seventeenth century until she was brought to justice in 1709. Toffana resided first at Palermo, but removed to Naples in 1659 during the pontificate of Alexander VII. This later Circe gained large sums of money by the sale of certain mysterious preparations she compounded, which were afterwards proved to be simply solutions of arsenious acid. These were circulated throughout Italy in small glass phials, bearing the image of a saint, and labelled various names such as "Acquetta di Napoli," or the "Manna of St. Nicholas of Bari," and "Aqua Toffana." Any one in the secret could buy the poison for its supposed use as a cosmetic, or other innocent property, and then employ it for any purpose they wished. This infamous woman carried on her nefarious trade from girlhood until she was nearly seventy years of age, without ever having fallen into the meshes of the law, and it is stated over six hundred persons were poisoned through her instrumentality. She dealt only with individuals, after due safeguards had been built up, and she changed her abode so frequently, and adopted so many disguises, that her detection was rendered very difficult. She also called in the aids of religion and superstition, and those who were uninitiated in the history of her deadly elixir, imagined it to be a certain miraculous oil which was supposed to ooze from the tomb of St. Nicholas. The Popes Pius III and Clement XIV are said to have fallen victims to its use. The composition of the Acquetta di Napoli was long a profound secret, but it is said to have been known by the Emperor Charles VI of Austria. According to a letter addressed to Hoffmann by Garceli, physician to the emperor, he informed the latter that, being Governor of Naples at the time that the Acquetta was the dread of every noble family in the city, and when the subject was investigated legally he had an opportunity of examining all the documents, and that he found the poison consisted of a solution of arsenic in Aqua cymbalariæ. The dose was said to be from four to six drops in water, and that it was colourless, transparent and tasteless. When the manufacture and sale of the poison was at last traced to Toffana, she took refuge in a convent, from which the abbess and archbishop refused to give her up, and so continued to sell the water for twenty years longer, and evaded punishment for the time. Public indignation was roused to such a pitch, that at last the convent was broken into by a body of soldiers, who secured Toffana and handed her over to the authorities. She was tortured until she confessed in 1709, and then strangled, her body being thrown into the garden of the convent which had sheltered her.

Aqua Toffana was reputed to possess some very peculiar properties, and, among others, that of causing death at any determinate period, after months, for example, or even years of ill-health (a common supposition attributed to poisons in the Middle Ages). Its alleged effects are graphically described by Behrens as follows: "A certain indescribable change is felt in the whole body, which leads the person to complain to his physician. The physician examines and reflects, but finds no symptoms either external or internal, no vomiting, no inflammation, no fever. In short, he can only advise patience, strict regimen, and laxatives. The malady, however, creeps on, and the physician is again sent for. Still he cannot detect any symptoms of note. Meanwhile the poison takes firmer hold of the system; languor, wearisomeness, and loathing of food continue; the nobler organs gradually become torpid, and the lungs in particular at length begin to suffer. In a word, the malady from the first is incurable; the unhappy victim pines away insensibly even in the hands of the physician, and thus is he brought to a miserable end through months or years, according to his enemy's desire."

Toffana had many imitators, and some time after her death a similar scheme was attempted with a poisonous solution reputedly sold as a cosmetic, called the "Acquetta di Perugia." It is said to have been prepared by killing a hog, disjointing it, strewing the pieces with white arsenic, which was well rubbed in, and finally collecting the juice which dropped from the meat itself. This preparation was supposed to be much stronger and a more powerful poison than arsenic itself, but doubtless had the same fatal effect.

It is a curious fact that most of the notorious poisoners in mediæval times were women, and, indeed, in later years the frail sex seem to have retained a special predilection for this form of crime. In the year 1659, a secret society of women, most of whom were young wives belonging to some of the best and wealthiest families of Rome, was discovered in that city, the sole or chief object of which was to destroy the lives of the husbands of the members. They met at regular intervals at the house of one Hieronyma Spara, a woman reputed to be a witch, who provided her fellow associates and pupils with the required poison, and planned and instructed them how to use it. Operations had been carried on for some time, when the existence of the society was discovered and, says a chronicler, "the hardened old hag passed the ordeal of the rack without confession; but another woman divulged the secrets of the sisterhood, and La Spara, together with twelve other women implicated, were hanged." Many others who were guilty in a lesser degree were publicly whipped through the streets of the city.

In the seventeenth century the mania for poisoning seems to have spread to France, and great interest was excited by the disclosures which followed the discovery of Exili's conspiracy to poison a number of persons. Madame de Montespan, one of the favourites of Louis XIV, a woman of great beauty, died very suddenly at the age of twenty-six, on June 30, 1672, and it was generally believed she had been poisoned. The rumour seems to have been set on foot by one of her husband's old servants, who professed to know the individual who had administered the fatal dose. "This man," said he, "who was not rich, withdrew immediately afterwards into Normandy, where he bought an estate, on which he lived with grandeur a long time; the poison was powder of diamonds, mixed, instead of sugar, with strawberries."

Voltaire, who believed the whole story to be a myth, states: "The court and city believed the princess had been poisoned with a glass of water of succory, after which she felt terrible pains, and soon after was seized with the agonies of death; but the natural malignity of mankind, and a fondness for extraordinary incidents, were the only inducements to this general persuasion. The glass of water could not be poisoned, since Madame de la Fayette and another person drunk what remained without receiving the least injury from it. The princess had been a long time ill of an abscess, which had formed itself in the liver." For some time the young Chevalier De Lorraine, the favourite of the Duke of Orleans, rested under suspicion, it being openly stated that the motive was to revenge the banishment and imprisonment which his misbehaviour to the princess a short time before had drawn upon him. Public opinion was strengthened in the belief that the princess had met her death through poison, by the fact that just at this time the mania for secret poisoning seemed to spread over France. About this date a German apothecary and alchemist, named Glaser, settled in Paris, together with two Italians, one of whom was called Exili. Their professed object was a research to discover the Philosopher's Stone. Having lost the little they possessed in a very short time in the pursuit of this chimera, they commenced the secret sale of poisons. Through the confessional their nefarious trade became known to the Grand Penitentiary of Paris. This dignitary gave information to the Government, and the two suspected Italians were promptly sent to the Bastille, where one of them died; but Exili, while still in prison, managed to carry on his business, and found ready purchasers for his secrets, and the number of deaths attributed to poison increased to such an extent, that a special court for the investigation of poisoning cases, called "La Chambre Ardente," was formed. A few years later the whole of France was aroused by the confession of the Marquise de Brinvilliers of having poisoned her father, two brothers, and a sister. Her husband, the Marquis de Brinvilliers, invited a friend, one Captain St. Croix, who was an officer in his regiment, to lodge in his house. The too agreeable person of the lady of the house speedily charmed the visitor, and to her credit she endeavoured to inspire her husband with a fear of the consequences; but he obstinately persisted in keeping his young friend in the house with his wife, who was both young and handsome, with the result they soon conceived a passion for each other. The father of the marquise, one Lieutenant Daubrai was greatly incensed on hearing of his daughter's indiscretions, and obtaining a lettre de cachet had the captain sent to the Bastille. Here St. Croix was placed in the same cell as Exili, and the latter soon instructed him how he might easily revenge himself. The marquise, who found means of visiting her lover, was informed how to obtain the poison, and at once commenced operations on those members of her family who were most incensed against her, with the result, that first her father, then her brothers and sister fell victims to her revenge. Suspicion resting on her, she fled into Belgium, and was arrested at Liège. A full confession of her crimes, written by her own hand, was found upon her.

She was eventually beheaded, and burnt near Notre Dame in July, 1676. St. Croix is said to have accidentally succumbed to the effects of poisonous fumes in his own laboratory. The authorities on examining his effects, as he left no family, came across a small box to which a paper was attached, which contained a request that after his death "it might be delivered to the Marquise de Brinvilliers, who resides in Rue Neuve St. Paul." This paper was signed and dated by St. Croix on May 25, 1672. On the box being opened, it was found to contain a large collection of various poisons, including corrosive sublimate, antimony, and opium. When the marquise heard of the death of her lover, she at once made every effort to obtain the box by bribing the officers of justice, but failed. La Chaussée, the servant of St. Croix, laid claim to the property, but was arrested as an accomplice and imprisoned. On confessing many serious crimes he was broken alive on the wheel in 1673. Evidence was brought to prove at the trial of De Brinvilliers, that both she and St. Croix were secretly combined with other persons accused of similar crimes. Some distinguished people were implicated, including Pennautier, the receiver-general of the clergy, who was afterwards accused of practising her secrets. One crime seemed to bring another to light, and two persons, named La Voisin and La Vigoreux, a priest named Le Sage, and several others, were next haled before the tribunal, and charged with trading with the secrets of Exili and inciting people with weak minds to the crime of poisoning. It was alleged that through their instrumentality a large number of married women had hastened the decease of their husbands.

The Chambre Ardente, or Burning Court, as it was commonly called, was established at the Arsenal, near the Bastille, and was rarely idle. Persons of the highest rank were cited to appear before it; among others, two nieces of Cardinal Mazarin, the Duchess of Bouillon, and the Countess de Soissons, mother of Prince Eugène. The Countess de Soissons had to retire to Brussels.

The Marshal de Luxemburg was the next sensational arrest. He was carried to the Bastille and submitted to a long examination, after which he was allowed to remain fourteen months in prison. La Voisin and his accomplices were eventually condemned and burnt at the stake, which seemed to put a check on this series of abominable crimes which spread throughout France from 1670 to 1680.
Maria Louisa, daughter of Louis XIV, who married Charles II, King of Spain, is said to have died from the effects of poison in 1689. Voltaire states: "It was undoubtedly believed that the Austrian Ministers of Charles II would get rid of her, because she loved her country and might prevent the king, her husband, from declaring for the allies against France; they even sent her from Versailles what they believed to be a counter-poison." This did not arrive until after her death. In the memoirs of the Marquis de Dangeau, he says: "The king announced the death of his daughter at supper in these words—'The Queen of Spain is dead, poisoned by eating of an eel pye; and the Countess de Pernits and the Cameras, Zapeita, and Nina, who eat of it after her, are also dead of the same poison.'" It is more than probable the unfortunate queen and her ladies succumbed to some putrefactive poison in the fish itself, and were not killed by intent. Nothing was known of animal poisons in those days, and such was the state of the public mind that nearly every sudden death was at once attributed to poison.

The close of the reign of Louis XIV was marked by the sudden deaths of no less than six members of the royal family in close succession. The public sorrow and excitement were great, and rumours and suspicions of poisoning were revived with fury unexampled. The prince had a laboratory, and among other arts studied chemistry. This was considered by the ignorant to be sufficient proof, and the public outcry became terrible. On a visit of the Marquis de Canellae, the prince was found extended on the floor shedding tears, and distracted with despair. His chemist and fellow worker, Homberg, ran to surrender himself at the Bastille, but they refused to receive him without orders. The prince was so beside himself on hearing the public outcry and suspicions that he demanded to be put in prison so that his innocence might be cleared by judicial forms. The lettre de cachet was actually made out, but not signed. The marquis alone kept his head, and prevailed upon the prince's mother to oppose the lettre de cachet. "The monarch who granted it, and his nephew who demanded it, were both equally wretched," says the historian.

The "poudre de succession," famous in Paris as a secret poison, was at one time supposed to consist of diamond dust, but, according to Haller, was really composed of sugar of lead. This was used by several notorious criminals during the seventeenth century.

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