History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

21 March 2007

How to poison someone...

Assuming no treatment is available, the estimated lethal dose for the Devil's turnip, also called the British Mandrake, is about 40 berries. This climbing plant with green-yellow flowers blooms in June and July. It is commonly found in public gardens of England and Wales. The berries are red with a dull surface and contain mottled black and yellow seeds. The plant has an acrid milky juice with an unpleasant odor and the thick, fleshy, white roots can be mistaken for parsnips or turnips.

After ingestion: The mouth begins to burn and the juice blisters the skin of the victim. Violent diarrhea, convulsive coma, nausea and vomiting occur. Finally, death comes within several hours from respiratory arrest.

The historical "cure" that sometimes worked: Keep the victim warm and quiet while giving them milk and eggs. Force fluids--water, juice--down their throat.

When the berries are distilled like an alcohol, it can cause abortions.

Medically, it can be used as a diuretic.

This is a great book: Deadly Doses, a writers guide to poisons by Serita Deborah Stevens with Anne Klarner


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, bring on the poisons!

Any lovely snake bite treatments? I don't care if they worked or not, just wondered what someone might try...Regency period.

8:11 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Oooooooooooo, excellent info. I love this kind of stuff (must learn to be meaner to my characters, LOL!).

8:42 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

That's a great bit of information, Jessica. Was it commonly known as a poison - are their any records of its use in poisoning someone aorund the Regency? Not that I'm killing anyone in a book anytime soon but it sure is worth remembering. Hmm, could it be used to scare someone -- a less than lethal dose with a bit of the same miserable effects. Now THAT I could see happening.

8:46 AM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

I just laughed when I first read the title. Poisoning someone doesn't occur to me in daily life, nor does it in my WIP. However, I need to attempt something outside my comfort zone next time around. Poisons are a nice way to go. And there was plenty of interest in the study of poisons during that period.

10:48 AM  
Blogger RevMelinda said...

Love the info on poison. . .have any of you been lucky enough to visit the Poison Garden at Alnwick Garden in Northumberland? It sounds fascinating. . .


12:04 PM  
Blogger Jessica Trapp said...

Thank you all for your comments!

Mary, Gillian... I don't really have an answer to your questions. The truth is I hate research unless it involves expensive vacations to foriegn countries. (Grin) But, I do love to torture my characters...

Alnwick Gardens sounds REALLY FUN!!! Thanks for the link.

:) jes

12:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love this. Never know when it might come in handy. Hubby better be nice to me. :)

1:27 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

Here is an entry on the plant from a 1931 botanical (be wary of the sources and the supposed medicinal uses, there are slim citations).

The amusing anecdote here is how it came by the name "mandrake". It has a very large root that can be mistaken for mandrake and some hucksters would place a human shaped mold around the roots of a young plant to force it to grow into the proper shape.

When I use historical descriptions of herbs and their effects (good or bad), I also try to find modern understanding of the herb and effects. Given the potential for our forebears to not understand physiology, chemistry, neurology and the like, descriptions of effects are sometimes burdened with an author's biases.

For example, the reference to a diuretic seems to come from homeopathy which purports that extremely small amounts (to the point where there is zero) of active agent can have specific effects. Homeopathy is not considered credible in the US, but is in Europe (particularly Germany).

I am, unfortunately, unaware of Regency period herbals off the top of my head as it's not my area of interest. I think the regency period is the beginning of the rise of mineral/chemical based pharmaceuticals.

Ah, but what you want are poisons. This might do the trick:

The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison
by John Emsley

There's a nice write up in Slate.

Looking through amazon, I found encyclopedia's of poisons and source books for writers.

And to set the mood while you are writing (or to scare the bejezzus out of your partner), may I recommend Jill Tracy's "The Fine Art of Poisoning" (YouTube).

4:08 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Thanks for the "Deadly Doses" reference, Jessica.

I tried to look up the history of abortifactants on the web and didn't find all that much . . . mandrake root and a few others turned up, but they were rarely documented as being used for that purpose (or for birth control, but I bet a lot of poisons were).

9:28 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'm not a writer but this still might come in handy some day! :D

12:37 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I love when Scott visits!

8:24 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

Kathrynn, for good starting point of herbal contraceptives and abortificants, I recommend "Eve's Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West" by John M. Riddle

12:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

More info and pictures can be found at:


Scroll down to look at the lists under "Dragon's Apothecary."

8:09 PM  

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