Thursday, December 21, 2017

For a few, the perfect gift

As a writer of murder mysteries and a dreamer of dastardly deeds against people whom I dislike, I’m always on the lookout for ways to kill.  And the more horrific the better.

I recently stumbled across something that meets most of my requirements: easy to find; practically irreversible; agonizingly painful; and impossible to trace.  For this, I thank the wonderful publication called Atlas Obscura, which is full of quirky information.  The article in question was written by Dan Nosowitz.

The Apiaceae family contains some of the most common and tastiest of foods, including carrots, celery, cumin, dill, fennel, parsley, anise, parsnip, and coriander.  It also contains a plant that meets my criteria above.  It is called spotted water hemlock (cicuta maculata), and grows almost everywhere in North America, typically in marshy or swampy areas.  It is present in New York City (take note, Annamaria) and the west and everywhere else, except Newfoundland.

cicuta maculata - spotted water hemlock 
spotted water hemlock flowers
It grows a few feet tall and has pretty, umbrella-shaped white flowers not unlike Queen Anne’s Lace.  Its stem and roots look a lot like wild parsnip and, when cut, has a carroty-parsley smell.

You may ask how it differs from poison hemlock – the method Socrates is reputed to have taken to end his life.  Poison hemlock provides a gentle death, with your breathing stopping and your heart stopping.  No fuss, no bother.
Poisonous hemlock

On the other hand, death by spotted water hemlock is described in the following way by foraging expert, Steve Brill:
Every single muscle starts firing and contracting, so you have convulsions, you chew your tongue into ribbons, you vomit but then you can’t open your mouth because the jaw muscles are contracting 10 or 20 times as hard as they normally do, and you die a horrible death.

In a 1941 book on Iroquois suicide rites, the following piece describes death by spotted water hemlock:

There is nothing good about the plant. Those who eat it will die in two hours. It must be a painful death. It twists the arms and ankles and turns the head back. Finally, they die in a last wretching convulsion. They say it turns the eyes back. 

To quote the article I read: 
The primary toxin in the spotted water hemlock is called cicutoxin, which works on the nervous system as an incredibly potent stimulant. Humans, and other mammals, have a neurotransmitter called “gamma-aminobutyric acid,” which is usually cheerfully abbreviated to GABA. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which means it functions basically—apologies to neuroscientists for all of this simplification—like an emergency brake on a car. It serves as a balancing force, stopping stimulants from running rampant and telling your brain to press all the buttons that control your body. Cicutoxin is a GABA antagonist; it turns off the brakes. Without that GABA emergency brake, the brain goes nuts: everything starts firing. Anyone unfortunate enough to ingest cicutoxin starts sweating, vomiting, and salivating violently. Kidney failure is common, as is an irregular heartbeat and difficulty breathing. Muscles start contracting so hard they can dislocate bones.
What is particularly appealing about spotted water hemlock is that the cicutoxin is present in all parts of the plant, with the highest concentration in the roots.  And even a very small portion can kill you.

There is a very small possibility that someone ingesting spotted water hemlock can be saved. This may happen with immediate dosing of various barbiturates and benzodiazapines, which bolster the GABA. So, if you’re going to use it, make sure these aren’t present!

What a Christmas present that would be: plum pudding a la circuta maculata.

Time to dust off my gift list.

With those cozy thoughts, I wish all my fellow bloggers and all readers a very merry holiday season, and a healthy, happy, and fulfilling New Year.

Cheers.  Clink.


  1. I wonder what kind of wine you could make from it...

  2. We have giant hogweed. It is very, very toxic to humans when it comes into contact with human skin that is then exposed to sunlight. So we are safe 363 days of the year....

    1. Can we import it to the sunny Southern Hemisphere??

  3. You do realize, Stan, that you're making the Grinch seem more and more like Bob Cratchit. And yes, I have it on the farm, close by the watercress. Should I bring some to CrimeFest?

  4. Please do. It's probably preferable to whatever Yrsa is going to bring.

  5. And happy holidays to all of you. And no munching on the holly,mistletoe or poinsettas -- not good for your health.