Thursday, July 20, 2023

The queen of poison

 Michael - alternate Thursdays

If someone asked you about “The Queen of Poison,” you might be tempted to nominate Agatha Christie. She was particularly partial to cyanide, although arsenic, strychnine, digitalis, and morphine were also favorites. She's reported to have claimed, “Give me a decent bottle of poison and I’ll construct the perfect crime.” She certainly made it hard for her protagonists, but they always found the flaw in the perfect crimes she constructed.

However, the title of "queen of poison" is usually reserved for Giulia Tofana who found that poison had a ready market in Rome in the early seventeenth century. Unhappy wives found everything stacked against them. Separating from their husbands led to poverty as they would have no support and no way to work other than in the oldest profession. On the other hand, they could become rich widows. Giulia had the answer to assist them to escape bad marriages and abusive husbands. She set up a line of cosmetics that included a makeup called Aqua Tofana. However, Aqua Tofana wasn’t designed for the lady’s face, unless it was to put a smile on it. The liquid was generously laced with arsenic, lead, and belladonna. Not only were these poisons untraceable in the body at that time, but they were tasteless and produced convincing symptoms of illness. The first dose would cause flu-like symptoms. The second would produce nausea and vomiting. The third and fourth would lead to death.

Giulia did an excellent trade, and expanded her cosmetics to “franchises” run by a number of friends. It is estimated that, over a period of around ten years, more than 500 men were killed in this way, indicating both her entrepreneurial skills and the number of dreadful husbands about.

 You may choose your own end to the story. Some reports suggest that after a long career, she retired to a nunnery and died of natural causes, leaving others to face the music. Others suggest she was forced to confess under torture and came to a sorry end. In this version, one of her unhappy wives had a change of heart at the last minute and stopped her husband taking the poison. He then beat the truth out of her, pretty well establishing that she'd been on the right track in the first place. The final twist in this version of the story is that a number of her poorer clients were also executed, but that the Pope requested that many of the aristocratic ones be pardoned. No doubt indulgences changed hands.

Nevertheless, the fear of the poison continued. Even Mozart claimed to be a victim of it, although there is no evidence to suggest that he was correct. But there wouldn't be, would there?

From a crime fiction point of view, to be useful a poison really needs to be effective when ingested. That excludes many attractive options such as snake and spider venoms. Namibia has a very rare cave-dwelling spider with a venom reputed to be so toxic that the bite is always fatal. Fortunately, it's rare and shy.

Wooly foxglove
The main issue facing modern mystery writers is that forensic science has advanced dramatically since the seventeenth century. Giulia wouldn’t have lasted long today because her clients' victims corpses would indicate the toxic chemicals that they’d been given. An unidentifiable poison is remarkably hard to find, and even those often will leave effects that show that some poison was to blame. Thus a popular option is digoxin (digitalis) from the foxgloove family (one of Agatha's favorites). The useful part about it is that it causes heart attack. That could well be passed off as natural causes. Hmm...

Diamphidia nigroornata (Bushman arrow-poison beetle)

A case can be made that the Bushman peoples actually should be the kings and queens of poisons. Traditionally, they hunt by shooting the prey animal with a poisoned arrow and then running with it until the poison takes effect and brings it down. Different groups use different venoms, some extracted from snakes, some from poisonous plants. Perhaps the most remarkable is extracted from the lava of an ordinary-looking beetle that they need to find in its underground home. It’s always amazed us how they discovered about the poison in the first place. One imagines a person digging for grubs and then eating one with a cut hand or an ulcerated mouth. It wouldn’t have been pleasant death. Even today there’s no antidote and it would be a major battle to identify what had caused death. It makes a crucial appearance in Death of the Mantis.

Anyone know of any other useful poisons you'd care to share?



  1. I love this post, Michael. I've yet to used poison as a weapon, but now I'm wondering why I didn't use one of the many venomous snakes in Bali in the one that's coming out this fall. Damn. We live to write another day.

  2. I don't know about poisons, but I think this squirrel is onto something for a murder mystery plot:

  3. New to me, so thank you very much, Michael! I love Giulia Tofana but I want to make her the protag--finishing off wicked / murderous/ abusive villains for a fee... only now thanks to Everett I keep seeing her with a squirrel assistant!

  4. I think that plot's a winner, Ovidia. The squirrel can do the deliveries!