A Brief History of Poison

Murder, passion, treachery. Poison.

These things go together like laundry and lint, sugar and spice, Bill Haley and sock hops. The history of poison is macabre, but filled with drama, so naturally I’m drawn to it.

The nefarious use of poison is old, old, old. Socrates and Cleopatra come to mind, but the list of famous poisoning deaths is quite long.

Paracelsus figures big in the history of poison


Paracelsus (a.k.a., Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim) was a Renaissance physician, botanist, alchemist, astrologer, and general occultist who lived from 1493-1541 and founded the discipline of toxicology.

I find these medieval occult scientists extremely captivating. For all I know, Paracelsus may have been a lovely person, yet he is exactly the sort of scholar who is the inspiration for my villain, Maestro Lodovicetti, in The Conjurers.

According to Paracelsus, “Everything is poison, there is poison in everything. Only the dose makes a thing not a poison.” And yet clearly there is a hierarchy of wickedness in poisoning. Take for example the Chinese gu poison, as described on its Wiki page:

“The traditional preparation of gu poison involved sealing several venomous creatures (e.g., centipede, snake, scorpion) inside a closed container, where they devoured one another and allegedly concentrated their toxins into a single survivor. Gu was used in black magic practices such as manipulating sexual partners, creating malignant diseases, and causing death. According to Chinese folklore, a gu spirit could transform into various animals, typically a worm, caterpillar, snake, frog, dog, or pig.”

Still going strong

And as much as poisons are a weapon of ancient times, they are also a reality of the present. A recent article in the Washington Post by Michael Miller (“Why the ancient art of poisoning appears to be making a killer comeback”) is a fascinating read. According to Miller:

“The past decade has seen a handful of infamous poisoning incidents, from the disfigurement of Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko in 2004 to the bizarre polonium poisoning of Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. In 2011, a Chinese billionaire died after eating a dish of cat-meat stew believed to have been laced with the same kind of plant poison detected in (Russian whistle-blower Alexander) Perepilichnyy…

“…Add that to recent exhumations of historical figures suspected of being poisoned — from Simón Bolívar to Pablo Neruda and Yasser Arafat — and poisoning appears to be en vogue.”

PoisonUsually, one expects that the idea behind poison is to kill the victim without them knowing that what they’ve just ingested (or been injected with) is going to harm them. Certainly poison is supposed to be an anonymous form of murder. Or maybe even look like it’s not murder at all, just a heart attack such as one might get from eating out too much at cheap, greasy diners frequented by exceptionally sallow people in thigh-high compression hose.

However, according to Pablo Neruda’s driver, the Chilean poet, Communist, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature died after being injected in the stomach with poison by agents of his country’s dictator, Augusto Pinochet. Not too subtle, that.

Poison certainly makes its appearance in my writing, but it’s a staple for any literature of intrigue. Take for instance the ever-so-righteous poisoning of King Geoffrey in Game of Thrones. Allowing for the fact that poisoning someone in real life is grotesque, I believe it can make for good reading in fiction. The poisoning of Duke Atreides and (through him) the attempted assassination of Baron Harkonnen in the novel Dune, is the best I can think of. Can you name a fictional poisoning that stands out?

Read Michael Miller’s entire article on poisoning at The Washington Post.

  • There are a number including all the ones in Shakespeare’s Hamlet – seems poison was the weapon of choice for Claudius, even though he could a ‘touch’ of it in the end. Think the Bard used poison a few times, although I wonder if we should actually blame the Ancients for some of those.

    • Yes, Shakespeare used poison often and well. From what I’ve read, you probably can’t kill by putting it in someone’s ear (a la Hamlet’s father), but it is a very effective image

  • I researched poisons along with numerous other ways to die before settling on poison mushrooms in The Tattooed Angel. The thought has occured to me more than once, that if my husband dies under suspicious circumstances and someone gets ahold of my computer, I’m toast.

    • It can be dangerous work researching for a book. I was thinking about doing a story with a Middle Eastern flair and ended up on a Jihadist site. Little bit scary, actually. I imagine that somewhere a sleeping Homeland Security super computer named R.I.C.K. blinked awake and put me on a no-fly list.

  • […] Here’s a brief, entertaining history of poisoning fr David Waid. From Paracelsus to Chinese gu, Neruda and Game of Thrones. What’s in your coffee this morning? Click here for David Waid “A Brief History of Poison”  […]

  • Arsenic and Old Lace ring a bell?

    • I love that movie. Anything from Frank Capra and Cary Grant. However, I can’t seem to get past the fact that the two comedic old biddies are remorseless angel-of-death-type serial killers. It seems like a big thing to gloss over.

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