History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

29 August 2007

Killing Them Off

There comes a time in every writer’s life when she must kill off a family member. Oh, I’m sorry! Did I say that? I meant a character. She must kill off a character. But how to do it?

So far in my historicals I’ve killed people off via childbirth, stabbing, dangerous proximity to a cliff, carriage accident, duel by pistol, and arson. (Don’t worry, I’m not that bloodthirsty. Most of it is back story.) I’ve never killed anyone with poison, but I’m thinking about it. I was going through the boxes of books I’ve been lugging from house to house (waiting for my dream office to miraculously materialize) and I found a book I’d bought years ago called Deadly Doses: a writer’s guide to poisons by Serita Deborah Stevens. Ooooo. Good stuff. (Hey, I’ve actually marked a page! But it looks like I was noting an abortifacient, a Juniper bush called savin.)

Here are some interesting notes:

In medieval times, food was so highly spiced that even the bitterest poison might go unnoticed, hence the need for food tasters to try the food first.

Scientists were able to identify arsenic in a body as early as the 1830s! A Madame Lafarge was convicted of the murder of her husband in 1840 after a scientist showed there were substantial amounts of arsenic in his body. Anybody writing Victorians, keep that in mind!

In the seventeenth century, Antonio Exili, a notorious poisoner, made his living touring the courts of Europe, offering his services to whichever noblemen and woman could afford his fees.

Now for the fun part: the poisons! We’re all familiar with arsenic, strychnine and cyanide, or if you’re not, it’s easy enough to find the information. So I’ll skip these, aside from mentioning that arsenic poisoning was so common in Victorian England that the symptoms were called and/or mistaken for “gastric fever”. Anyway...

Belladonna (Nightshade) - We’ve all heard of this. The infamous eyedrops that women of the Renaissance used to dilate their pupils. All parts of the plants are poisonous and, when consumed, the poison causes the dilated pupils as well as blurred vision, increased heart rate, hallucinations, rapid pulse and respiration and “loud heartbeats audible from at several feet”. Ew! Death can come in several hours or several days. Fascinating note: Rabbits may eat the nightshade plant and pass on the poison to a person who eats the rabbit. I hear back-story, people!

English Yew (also American Yew) - This ubiquitous plant is poisonous when ingested and causes vomiting, diarrhea, pain, weakness and convulsions before death. “Survival after poisoning is rare.” And this is interesting… symptoms occur within one hour and the poison can only be detected in stomach contents. The poison is also an abortifacient, and this use often led to accidental death.

Tansy - Causes convulsions, frothing at the mouth, spasms, dilated pupils. Tansy oil was another abortifacient that could cause death. I feel so sorry for these women. Many of you probably know that abortion was actually an acceptable form of birth control throughout much of history. Herbal abortion was widely practiced but seemingly very dangerous.

Yellow jasmine - Wow. “At high doses, death occurs in ten minutes; at low doses, after several hours.” Causes weakness, frontal headache, tremor, paralysis of tongue, low temperature, labored breathing. Sounds to me like you could pass this off as apoplexy, though the pupils become dilated. Still, I think a villain could blame a stroke, especially if the death occurred deep in the country or perhaps even deeper in the city. *wink*

A few more you may want to look into: hemlock, Lily of the Valley, rhododendron, savin, corn cockle, fool’s parsley, meadow saffron, privet, byrony, ergot, ipecac, and dog mercury. I’ve concentrated on Northern Europe here, only because that is the setting I use. If you write American historicals there are even more to choose from. And if you are writing anything from the Regency on (and perhaps earlier), there are many, many exotic poisons that could be imported from India and Africa.

I hope I’ve given you some good ideas! Limit these poisons to your fictional world, please.


Blogger Sorrowful Jones said...

Thanks for the recipes! No doubt stories of assassination by rabbit stew will begin to proliferate like, erm, rabbits.


9:08 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks for the note on rabbit and belladonna. I knew there was a reason I never ate bunnies, or flowers for that matter!

9:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating! Despite writing historical suspense, I haven't killed off a character with poison. I've used stabbing, a blow a the head, smothering, falls, and a variety of gunshots but not poison-yet. Your post is great inspiration :-).

9:32 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm going to have to research boating accidents. All help will be appreciated.

Great post, Vicki, reminding me of the poisoning scene in Season Two of Rome.

12:11 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Very nice essay on poisons and rather timely. I need to have a slow accidental death.

2:21 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

My god, you people are bloodthirsty! *g*

Pam, I miss Rome. :-( And Deadwood. And now i'm gonna have to miss Big Love too because the season just ended. (This is an awesomely good show for someone living in Utah!!!)

5:33 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Excellent post, Vicki. Did you mention oleander?....The pretty, flowering, towering bush the California Highway folks planted down the medians and other places all over the state, until kids got sick from roasting their hot dogs on oleander sticks, and people's pets died from sampling the plant.

I remember an old, black and white, Vincent Price movie where the "good" husband was taking care of his sick wife by brining her oleander tea. There was a close up of the dregs in the cup and I figured out pretty quickly what her problem was....She did too, as I recall, and I think she started pouring the tea out when he wasn't looking. He was puzzled by her recovery.

I love a dumb bad guy. ;-)

8:44 PM  
Blogger Gabriele Campbell said...

I use ricin to kill someone. Em, one of my characters does. ;)

1:13 PM  

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