The Most Famous Poisons in History


Poison is one of the oldest weapons in the world - quite literally!

Before the Stone Age, when tools were first utilized, poisonous plants grew in abundance. It’s not hard to imagine that some ancient cavewoman, furious at her caveman lover for his infidelity, served up a larger batch of berries than usual, including a few that ultimately led to his untimely demise (she got him before the saber tooted tiger did!). Poisons have been used throughout history to kill off a lot of renowned figures—emperors, kings, lords, and scholars among them. Indeed, entire armies have been decimated or brought low because of poisoned food or water.
Let’s take a little walk through history and learn about some of the most famous poisons and their victims:

Poison Hemlock – Poison hemlock is derived from a tall, flowering plant that has a root system oddly similar to a carrot. The entire plant is packed with alkaloids that are highly toxic. Poisoning typically leads to paralysis and ultimately death by respiratory failure. The poison inhibits movement but its victim is still aware of their surroundings—not a pretty way to go!
Greek philosopher Socrates is poison hemlock’s most famous victim. He chose to drink hemlock after being found guilty of heresy. Plato described Socrates’ death in “Phaedo”—he drank the poison, walked around for a while, then laid down in bed once his legs started feeling heavy. Slowly, a lack of sensation and a chill settled over him, starting from his feet and moving upward until it reached his heart.
Belladonna – Belladonna is arguably the most famous poison in history—reportedly used by Macbeth to poison the Danes invading Scotland, and likely the poison used to kill Roman Emperor Claudius.
The plant, also known as “deadly nightshade”, got its name “bella donna” from Italy, where it was popularly used as a cosmetic to blush the cheeks or an extract that dilated the pupils.
Belladonna is loaded with atropine, solanine, and hycosine (also known as scopolamine). It takes just ten berries or one leaf to kill someone. Even just minor exposure to nightshade can lead to sickness, nausea, vomiting, and weakness. In fatal doses, it paralyses its victims, reduces heart rate, and ultimately relaxes all the muscles in the body until the victim suffocates to death.
Asp Venom – I know, “technically” venom isn’t the same as poison. But for the sake of this piece, we’re totally counting it because it’s responsible for the death of one particularly famous woman. Cleopatra of Egypt.
It’s uncertain whether Cleopatra was murdered or committed suicide—if it was the latter, it was a truly grisly way to go, because the venom would take time to kill her, rather than a quick, mostly painless death induced by other poisons.
The venom of an asp, or Egyptian cobra, is loaded with cytotoxins and neurotoxins that initially cause pain, swelling, and blisters, but moves on to paralysis, nausea, convulsions, and headaches. In the end, the cause of death is typically respiratory failure after the venom effects the lungs and heart.

Read the entire article in the November 2021 issue of InD'Tale magazine.

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