Daniel J. Kevles: A history of poison

Roundup: Talking About History

[Daniel J. Kevles teaches history at Yale. His works include In the Name of Eugenics and The Baltimore Case.]

Think murder by poison, and Lucrezia Borgia comes quickly to mind. Willful, beautiful, sexually promiscuous, and by historical reputation ruthless, she was said to rival her brother Cesare and her father, Pope Alexander VI, in jealousy, intrigue, and homicide, dispatching those who thwarted her with a dash of white arsenic in their drinks. But in a recent biography—Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love, and Death in Renaissance Italy—Sarah Bradford has contended that Lucrezia Borgia never killed anyone. Bradford argues that Borgia's reputation was tarred by her family's political enemies in Renaissance Rome and further blackened by Victorians who disapproved of her unrestrained sexuality and strong-minded independence. Her image might have been widely restored (or smeared) by a film about the Borgias that Oscar-winning director Neil Jordan was to begin shooting next month. Alas, the project has been canceled, so Bradford's book may be all Borgia gets.

Whether or not Lucrezia Borgia used poison, the weapon was a great equalizer. Murder required administering a poison in repeated or large doses, tasks that women could conveniently perform since they were trusted with the preparation of food and the administration of medicines. As a group, women had plenty of reasons to commit murder, too—lack of economic opportunity, limited property rights, and difficulty in escaping the marriage bond. In his recent book Elements of Murder: A History of Poison, John Emsley describes multiple cases of women who killed to gain courtly power, get rid of husbands, collect insurance, cover up swindling and theft during domestic employment, and receive inheritances. In France, arsenic came to be called poudre de succession, "inheritance powder." One marquise, a true experimentalist, tested dosages of arsenic for illness and death by sending gifts of food containing the substance to patients at a local hospital. She then poisoned her father to inherit his wealth and knocked off her two brothers so she would not have to share it.

The favored poisons of the late 19th century were also an appealing instrument of murder, at least for the villain, because their effects on the body were gruesome. Mercury, arsenic, antimony, lead, and thallium—the agents explored in Emsley's grimly clinical primer—induced repeated vomiting and diarrhea and turned the body into wasting, stench-ridden flesh. Mercury and lead damaged the nervous system and brain, producing symptoms including depression, insomnia, tremors, fits, and coma. Thallium promoted joint pains, supersensitivity in the feet, paralysis of the facial area, and failure of the heart and lungs. The advantage to the murderer was that such symptoms closely resembled those of common diseases. Victims were usually consigned to their graves as dead of natural causes rather than objects of foul play....

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