Ian Dale Talk

How to Murder Your ………..- A Short History of Poisoning

Ian started on a musical note by reminiscing on Tom Lehrer’s 1950s song ‘Poisoning pigeons in the Park’, an anarchic ditty familiar to our generation.  However, he quickly moved on to the serious subject of poisons starting with the observation that they have been used since before man could write through the simple expedient of trial and error and watching what happened.  And, of course, applying the results such as poisoning arrow heads to improve hunting success.

Available written records from Egypt to China suggest that the use of poisons were well embedded from at least 3000 BC.  One of the best known historical incidents known to most is the poisoning of Socrates in the 5th Century BC.  Hemlock, the poison used, causes muscular paralysis and eventually kills when it paralyses the heart.  Ian observed that poisons can be sourced in many ways including minerals, plants, animals, micro-organisms and synthesised from chemicals.  Scarily we discover that dosage levels are very rough.  Testing historically has been done on rats but scaling up to humans is not necessarily accurate!  So Ian’s advice is that if you are planning to get your forehead botoxed to iron out your worry lines, make sure you go to an practitioner who is good at arithmetic.  The botulinus toxin is extremely poisonous in small amounts.  With some irony Ian observed that poisoning is a very middle or upper class means of killing.  Indeed, it was the Roman ladies preference of choice for removing unwanted husbands.  Keep this knowledge from your wives, gentlemen.

During the medieval times, there was great interest in poisons and poisoning.  There was even a School of Poisoning in Venice in the 16th Century.  An assassin of the time, John of Ragusa is claimed in 1543 to have a price list for dispatching well known figures of the time such as the Great Sultan for 500 ducats, the King of Spain for 150 ducats, the Pope for 100 ducats, etc!!  Ragusa, is now better known as Dubrovnik on the Croatian coast albeit that it was within the orbit of the Venetian Republic in this period.  To make his point Ian showed a photograph of a Dubrovnik pharmacy founded in 1315, believed to be the oldest in the world.  In medieval London Italy was recognised as the main source of poisons, so much so that someone who was poisoned to death was said to have been ‘Italianated’!

Arsenic has proven to be a popular poison through the ages, it’s advantages being easy to obtain and that it’s symptoms could match many possible known ailments or conditions and therefore unsuspected.  Unfortunately for would be poisoners, in the 19th Century a chemist, James Marsh, developed a test (1836) which meant that the poison could be detected.

While Ian referred to Glasgow’s infamous cases of Madeleine Smith and Dr William Pritchard (the last person to be publicly hanged in Scotland), perhaps one of the most audacious cases he referred to was the attempted poisoning of former Nazi Camp Guards held in Stalag 13 after the war.  Jewish partisans got jobs in the bakery serving the prisoners and added arsenic to the bread.  It poisoned nearly 2,000 prisoners.  However, it’s believed that only a few died.  What added to the poignancy of the story was that the planned poisoning of the bread was Plan ‘B’.  It turned out that Plan ‘A’ was to poison the water supply of cities such as Berlin, Munich, Weimar and Nuremburg.  However, it is believed that Chaim Weizman, later to become the first President of Israel, vetoed the idea because of the humanitarian consequences and the impact on the reputation of Judaism.

Ian covered many different poisons and poisoners both in the real world and in fiction not to mention consideration of their military use.  We were reminded of the use of scopolamine as a truth drug against Callan and the CSI story where poison absorbed by the skin was used.  Saddam Hussein favoured using Thallium because it is tasteless and even the CIA had considered using it in their many hapless attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro.  It was comforting to hear that the British government actually rejected using Anthrax, a biological agent, in World War 2.  Mind you, this was only after scientists realised that German cities would remain uninhabitable for decades if it had been used.  Gruinard Island, the ‘test centre’ in 1942 off the West Coast of Scotland, was only declared safe in 1990.  In the French and Indian Wars in North America in the 18th Century General Lord Amherst had no such scruples about biological warfare and instructed Col Henry Bouquet when there was a smallpox outbreak amongst his men to gift smallpox ridden blankets to the native Indians in the hope of spreading the disease among them.

In 2007 Ian received an unexpected request to assess the cause of death from a very small sample of blood.  It transpired that the blood had come from a man who had ingested 373 coins weighing 2.8 kilograms into his body.  This gave Ian a toxicological clue to check for zinc and copper in the blood.  It turns out that it was the zinc which killed him!  It makes the mind boggle!

Forensic science despite dealing with horrendous crimes is often portrayed as an unemotional search for evidence to help solve crimes.  However, in 1996 Ian found himself having to analyse blood samples from the Dunblane School Massacre, this proved to be a very emotional experience.  No elaboration was required for those who lived through the event which moved the world.

Ian gave a very intriguing talk.  His subject is one where all of his audience have a familiarity from newspapers, books, films and folklore.  However, Ian’s exposition shed light into the subject which gave members a new perspective on poisons and their use.  Thus, a rewarding talk to all.  In closing, Ian anticipated everyone’s question, how can you poison someone and not be detected?  He tantalisingly indicated that he charges for this advice!

Ian Dale Talk