Modern science's race to stay ahead of global terrorists and political assassins began with some devious poisoners in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
In 1906, Belle Gunness started running personal ads in Midwestern papers. She described herself as an attractive widow with a lush Indiana farm property, interested in an equally affluent new husband. She included a tart postscript: "Triflers need not apply."
Suitors answered her call by the dozen—and disappeared at a similar rate. After Ms. Gunness herself vanished in 1908, the La Porte, Ind. police department eventually set the body count at more than 40. This figure included her children and stepchildren, pieces of whom were found buried around the farm.
A conspirator later detailed Ms. Gunness's favorite method for murder: a little chloroform in a tumbler of whiskey, followed by a strychnine chaser. Once her gentleman callers dropped dead, she would wait for dark to dismember and bury the bodies.
Ms. Gunness was one of the most successful poison killers to belong to the era historians call the golden age of poisoning, from the early 1800s to the early 1900s. The rise of spectacular poisoners like Ms. Gunness—or Mary Ann Cotton in Britain, who was hanged in 1873 for eliminating more than 20 people with arsensic—drove a sense of urgency among scientists, eventually leading to the creation of forensic toxicology. Unfortunately, that didn't mean the end of homicidal poisonings. Under pressure, killers simply became more secretive and creative in their plans.
And thus began a deadly cat-and-mouse game, with scientists and poisoners pitted against each other as intellectual adversaries. The rate of poisoning has declined, yet the competition grinds on today, with the overhanging threat of global terror. In 2005, the National Academies of Science warned that the U.S. milk supply was a vulnerable target to poison attack by terrorists. In 2006, former Russian KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko died in England after the radionucleotide polonium-210 was slipped into his tea. The radioactive material had not been used as a poison before and was not identified until after his death. Mr. Litvinenko was a fierce critic of the Russian government, living in political asylum, and his death is widely considered a political assassination. The old-fashioned poison murders haven't gone away either. Homicides by poison still regularly occur in India, where access to plant poisons like strychnine remains easy. The poison diethylene glycol, found in anti-freeze formulas, has been used in the last few years in murders in Europe, Africa, Latin America and the U.S. And the risky poisons of the early 20th century still haunt us—a report in the New England Journal of Medicine last year told of more than 50,000 accidental carbon-monoxide poisonings, an increase over previous years.
Until the early 19th century, few tools existed to detect a toxic substance in a corpse. Sometimes investigators deduced poison from the violent sickness that preceded death, or built a case by feeding animals a victim's last meal (in one trial, a courtroom poisoning of frogs led to a rapid guilty verdict).Yet, poisoners walked free more often than not. As a result, murder by poison ﬂourished. It became so common that the French nicknamed the metallic poison arsenic "poudre de succession," or the inheritance powder.
The earliest recorded evidence of homicidal poisoning is from the hieroglyphics of Egypt, a reference to "death by peach," taken to mean the use of cyanide, which concentrates in the fruit's pits. By medieval times, poisoning had grown into a weapon of choice. The Italian Borgia family made poison murder both famous and feared in the 14th century; they reputedly cooked up an arsenic-based poison called "la cantarella." The recipe was so deadly it was ultimately destroyed but the reputation of poisons continued to grow. In 17th century Naples, a woman only now remembered as "Toffana" taught wealthy women how to eliminate their husbands with the arsenic-based face paint she sold them. By some accounts she was responsible for 600 deaths before she was sent to prison.
The wholesale use of poison got another boost during the chemical revolution of the 1800s. Scientists learned to isolate and identify the basic elements and the chemical compounds that deﬁne life on Earth, gradually building a catalogue they called The Periodic Table of the Elements. In 1804, the elements palladium, cerium, iridium, osmium, and rhodium were discovered; potassium and sodium were isolated in 1807; barium, calcium, magnesium, and strontium in 1808; chlorine in 1810. Once researchers understood individual elements, they went on to study them in combinations, examining how elements bonded into familiar substances, such as the sodium-chlorine combination that creates basic table salt, or deadlier mixtures such as the carbon-hydrogen-chlorine formula for chloroform.
Most of the pioneering scientists who worked in elemental chemistry weren't thinking about poisons in particular. But some were. In 1814, in the midst of this blaze of discovery, the Spanish chemist Mathieu Orﬁla published a treatise on poisons and their detection, the ﬁrst book of its kind. Mr. Orﬁla suspected that metallic poisons such as arsenic might be the easiest to detect in the body's tissues. By the late 1830s, the ﬁrst test for isolating arsenic had been developed, and within a decade, more reliable tests were successfully being used in criminal prosecutions.
The very science that made it possible to identify the old poisons, like cyanide and arsenic, also made available a lethal array of new ones. Morphine was isolated in 1804, the same year that palladium was discovered. In 1819 strychnine was extracted from the seeds of the Strychnos nux vomica tree. The compound coniine was isolated from hemlock the same year. Chemists extracted nicotine from tobacco leaves in 1828. Aconitine—described by one toxicologist as "in its pure state, perhaps the most potent poison known"—was found in the beautiful ﬂowering monkshood plant in 1832.
And although researchers had learned to isolate these alkaloids— organic (carbon-based) compounds with some nitrogen mixed in—they had no idea how to ﬁnd such poisons in human tissue. Mr. Orﬁla himself, conducting one failed attempt after another, worried that it was an impossible task. One exasperated French prosecutor, during a mid-19th-century trial involving a morphine murder, exclaimed: "Henceforth let us tell would-be poisoners: do not use metallic poisons, for they leave traces. Use plant poisons ... Fear nothing; your crime will go unpunished. There is no corpus delecti [physical evidence], for it cannot be found."
With determination, researchers do learn how to get ahead of threats and win their turn in the game. In the 19th century, for instance, after murderers turned to plant poisons, scientists redoubled their efforts to capture those alkaloids in human tissue. And in 1860, a single-minded French chemist named Jean Servais Stas ﬁgured out how to isolate nicotine, an alkaloid of the tobacco plant, from a corpse. Other plant poisons soon became more accessible, and chemists were able to offer new assistance to criminal investigations.
Police detectives and chemists, who had rarely worked together, began to consider themselves allies. "One can be a famous poisoner or a successful poisoner, but not both!" the British toxicologist John Glaister said proudly. And Britain had made progress in catching and executing famous poisoners: An estimated 100,000 people watched the Glascow execution of the Scottish poisoner Edward William Pritchard in 1865, after he was convicted of murdering his wife and her mother with the metallic poison antimony. Thomas Neill Cream was hanged in 1893, after poisoning three London prostitutes with strychnine.
The scientific knowledge and scientific determination, spread across the Atlantic to the U.S. The 1896 book "Medical Jurisprudence, Forensic Medicine and Toxicology," co-written by a New York research chemist and a law professor, documented the ﬁerce race between scientists and killers. In one remarkable case in New York, a physician had killed his wife with morphine and then put belladonna drops into her eyes to counter the telltale contraction of her pupils. He was convicted only after Columbia University chemist Rudolph Witthaus, one of the book's authors, demonstrated the process to the jury by killing a cat in the courtroom using the same gruesome technique. There was as much showmanship as science, Mr. Witthaus admitted; toxicology remained a primitive ﬁeld of research ﬁlled with "questions still unanswerable."
In the early 20th century, industrial innovation ﬂooded the U.S. with a wealth of modern poisons, creating new opportunities for the clever poisoner and new challenges for the country's early forensic detectives. Morphine went into teething medicines for infants; opium into routinely prescribed sedatives; arsenic was an ingredient in everything from pesticides to cosmetics. Mercury, cyanide, strychnine, chloral hydrate, chloroform, sulfates of iron, sugar of lead, and carbolic acid were among the new chemistry that stocked the shelves of doctors' offices, businesses, homes, pharmacies and grocery stores. During the Great War, poison was established as a weapon of warfare, earning World War I the name, "The Chemist's War." And with the onset of Prohibition a new Chemist's War raged between bootleggers and government chemists working to make moonshine a lethal concoction. As the government worked to make supplies of alcohol more poisonous—seeking to discourage bootlegger thefts—critics compared the national policy to mass murder. In New York's smoky jazz clubs, each round of cocktails became a game of Russian roulette. Some years, the death toll easily topped 1,000.
In 1918, however, New York City made a radical reform that would revolutionize the poison game and launch toxicology to front-page status. Propelled by a series of scandals involving corrupt coroners and unsolved murders, the city hired its ﬁrst professional medical examiner, a charismatic pathologist named Charles Norris. Once in office, Mr. Norris swiftly hired an exceptionally driven and talented chemist named Alexander Gettler and persuaded him to found and direct the city's ﬁrst toxicology laboratory. Together Messrs. Norris and Gettler helped elevate forensic chemistry in this country into a formidable science, so much so that Mr. Gettler would come to be known as "the father of American forensic toxicology." Trailblazing scientiﬁc detectives, they earned a respected place in the courtroom, crusaded against compounds dangerous to public health, and stopped a great many Jazz Age poisoners in their tracks.
They were part of another boom in the history of the poison game, a fierce drive to improve the science of forensic medicine. The National Research Council launched a scathing review of coroner operations around the country, citing death certificates that listed conclusions such as "either an auto accident or diabetes." The NRC championed the New York City department as a national model, with its dedicated laboratory, full-time chemists and research partnerships with universities. And the country's major cities rapidly followed suit, with labs springing up in Boston and Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
In one 1929 case in Northern California, a young woman named Eva Rablen, was accused of getting rid of her deaf husband, Carroll, by putting strychnine into his coffee during a dance. The coroner had found no trace of the poison in Carroll Rablen's body. So the sheriff's department called in one of the new forensic scientists, Edward Heinrich, who redid the autopsy, turned up strychnine in the body, and also found it in the coffee cup and even in some stains on her dress, after learning that she had stumbled while carrying the cup. Eva Rablen changed her plea to guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. Mr. Heinrich, who was based at the University of California, Berkeley, became popularly known as "The Wizard of Berkeley."
In a 1933 case, Alexander Gettler provided damning evidence in a case against a Bronx foursome who had created a murder syndicate to collect insurance money from the death of a friend named Mike Malloy. After numerous false starts, the group killed Mr. Malloy with carbon monoxide. Although Mr. Malloy had been dead for months when the investigation began, Mr. Gettler was still able to prove that the man had been killed by the poisonous gas. All four of the conspirators died in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison.
The Malloy case and the Rablen case—which drew such large crowds that the trial was held in an open-air dance pavilion—sent a very public, very unmistakable message that scientists were now capable of catching the most scheming of poisoners. They could find strychnine in a coffee stain, carbon monoxide in a rotting corpse. They'd developed tests and built new devices. They had found increasingly sophisticated means of finding poisons in tissue, both living and dead. They were polishing up the profession; by the early 1930s, both New York University and Harvard had created forensic medicine programs. And as ever more sensitive machines—like the gas chromatograph—were put into play, those detection abilities would become ever better tuned.
These days, homicidal poisonings are rare. A study conducted last year at the University of Georgia looked at federal mortality data between 1998 and 2005. It found 523 poison murders in the U.S. during that period, less than 1% of all homicides. On the other hand, the researchers, Greene Shepherd and Brian Ferslew, spotted a slight increase in such killings, from 0.2 cases per million in 2000 to 0.3 cases per million in 2005. Infants accounted for most of these victims, followed by the elderly. Mr. Shepherd said, "We may never know the true incidence because some cases undoubtedly evade detection and classification." Which is another way of saying that scientists and poisoners are still playing that same old cat and mouse game, and it's only getting harder.
Pick Your Poison
From deadly snakes to toxic mushrooms, a look at history's poison garden.
-The hemlock plant, which contains a potent alkaloid, that causes convulsions, paralysis and death—was a favored method of execution in ancient Greece. The most famous victim of hemlock executive is the philosopher Socrates, who died in 399 B.C.
-So many people believed that the sudden death of U.S. President Zachary Taylor on July 9, 1850 was due to arsenic poisoning that his body was finally exhumed from a Louisville, Ky., cemetery in 1991. The analysis found low levels of arsenic, but not enough to be considered lethal. Most now consider the actual cause to be food-poisoning.
-Egyptian queen Cleopatra II famously committed suicide in the year 30 B.C. by letting an asp (a member of the exceptionally poisonous pit viper family of snakes) bite her on the arm.
-The most dangerous mushroom known is the Death Cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides). It is responsible for most accidental mushroom poisonings and suspected as the agent in a number of historical assassination, including the death of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV.
-The great Hollywood scandal of 1920 involved the poison death of screen star Olive Thomas, who died Sept. 20 after accidentally—or so it was reported—drinking the bichloride of mercury used to treat her husband Jack Pickford's syphilis.
-The sedative Phenobarbital, first marketed in 1912, has a dark history of high profile suicides and murders, among them the solved murder of New York City socialite Starr Faithfull and the 1996 suicide of Margaux Hemingway.
-Agatha Christie's debut novel "The Mysterious Affair at Styles," first published in 1920, involved homicidal use of the poison strychnine.
-In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a poisonous snake could be considered a "deadly weapon" after a Montana man threatened two police officers with his Rhinoceros Viper
By DEBORAH BLUM
January 22, 2010
Wall Street Journal