Poisons are said to be the perfect tool for all would-be killers; some are silent, others untraceable, almost all are lethal (even in microscopic doses) and - even better - you don't even need to be in the same room, street or city as your intended victim to administer the poison. Hence why when you look at the murder method of most serial-killers, those who poison often have the highest IQ, as seen in my blog on serial killer IQ's. Different poisons are used by different killers for different reasons, all of which have different effects, but all are there to - ultimately - bring about death.
This week, Murder Mile blog investigates the world's deadliest poisons as used by some of the world's most infamous murderers, serial killers and despots. A non-comprehensive list follows.
Aconite derives from the plant Monkshood (also known as Wolfbane) and is almost untraceable during postmortem - as having absorbed the poison by merely touching the leaves with your bare hands - it quickly causes a rapid heart arrhythmia, asphyxiation and finally suffocation. Although beautiful, small doses cause a slow painful death over 2-6 hours, with large doses causing death instantly. Read more.
Arsenic, a common metal on the periodic table that was virtually undetectable as a poison until the discovery of the Marsh Test in 1836 (which detects arsenic in food or water), even though trace elements of arsenic are essential in most mammals diets. Up until the 1950's, arsenic was used in a variety of household goods including wallpapers, paints and even cosmetics but was phased out as long exposure caused jaundice and skin rashes, with high doses of arsenic resulting in a slow painful death (vomiting, diarrhoea and internal bleeding) usually with a few hours. Read more.
Antimony, similar to arsenic, Antimony is a common metal on the periodic table, and although it causes sweating, vomiting and cardiac arrest just 30 minutes after ingestion, it is easy for the intended victim to spot owing to it having an acrid metallic taste and - like arsenic - can be detected during autopsy as it irritates the lining of the alimentary tract. Antimony was most famously used by Graham Young - "The Teacup Poisoner". Read more.
Botulinum Toxin, commonly abbreviated to Botox, is a muscle paralytic which - although used to cure excessive sweating, migraines and to alleviate wrinkles in vain & expressionless people - it can lead to Botulism, a fatal condition causing paralysis of the lungs, liver and heart. Botox is the most poisonous substance known to man and it is estimated that one single teaspoon of botulinum toxin is enough to kill over 1 billion people. Read more.
Batrachotoxin, a neurotoxin extracted from the skin of the Golden Dart Frog as used on the tips of the hunting darts of Amazonian Indians. Although barely thumb-sized, the Golden Dart Frog produces enough venom to kill ten people, the equivalent to just two grains of salt, which - as a paralytic and a cardiotoxin - causes death within minutes. There is no know antidote.
Belladonna (translated from the Italian for "beautiful woman"*) is a plant more commonly known as Deadly Nightshade, which was used in the 18/19th century as a pain reliever, muscle relaxer and - of course - a cosmetic, as when drops were rubbed into the cheek would create a blush effect and when added to their eyes would cause the pupils to dilate (a sign of sexual attraction). That said, a single leaf - if ingested - is lethal. Read more.
* surely everything in Italian translates as "beautiful woman"
Cyanide is a chemical-compound commonly found in a wide variety of fruits (apple pips, almond and apricots stones) as well as tobacco, which is safely excreted via the urine in small doses. For humans, 1.5mg per kg of body weight is a lethal dose with death occurring in minutes. Cyanide is recognisable by its bitter almond smell and primarily causes the body to stop producing its own energy, with further symptoms including hyperventilation, dizziness, nausea, headaches, convulsions and death. Cyanide is the active ingredient of Zyklon B, the gas used in the Nazi extermination camps. Read more.
Dimethylmercury is an organic chemical compound with very few useful applications. It is a colourless liquid which is one of the world's strongest known neurotoxins, whose symptoms don't become apparent until months after exposure, with lethal doses being as little as 0.1ml. On 14th August 1996, chemist Karen Wetterhahn spilled a few drops on her latex gloved hand and promptly took the necessary precautions, but it wasn't until April 1997 that the symptoms - loss of balance and slurred speech - occured, later developing into resistance to pain, and leaving her in a vegetative state. She died ten months later.
Hemlock, (conium maculatum) a plant indigenous to Europe and North Africa, has been used as a deadly poison since as far back as 400BC, as it disrupts the central nervous system and slows the rate at which oxygen can reach the heart, brain and all other vital organs. Death can be prevented by artificial respiration until 48-72 hours after the symptoms have worn off, but even 0.1mgs of hemlock can be fatal. Read more.
Polonium, a radioactive poison with no cure. It was famously used on the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko whose cup of tea was spiked with a dose 200 times higher than that which is fatal, even though a single gram of polonium 210 could kill 10 million people and is 250,000 times more potent than hydrogen cyanide (which is used in gas execution chambers). Polonium causes a slow but complete breakdown and failure of the internal organs owing to its radioactive compounds. Litvinenko died three weeks later.
Mercury, a metal on the periodic table, which is commonly used in car batteries, thermometers and (as with Mozart) a cure for syphilis, and although harmless if touched, it can be lethal if inhaled or ingested. Symptoms include rashes, muscle weakness, memory loss, numbness and issues with sight, hearing and speech, with the latter stages of the poisoning resulting in excessive sweating, rapid heart-rate, hypertension and - finally - death. Although organic mercury is commonly found in tuna & swordfish (so long-term consumption should be restricted to 170g per week) it can be potentially deadly over long period of time.
Sulphar Mustard is a cytotoxic (toxic at a cellular level) chemical warfare agent, as used in the World War One trenches, and is more commonly known as Mustard Gas owing to the yellow-brown colour of the gas and its garlic smell. even though the active ingredient is actually chlorine. Although fatal in less than 1% of cases, Mustard Gas causes burns and blistering to the skin, eyes and lungs, which can lead to suffocation, but mostly victims die from secondary infections caused by the burns and - even if they survive long enough - cancer.
Ricin (ricinus communis) derives from the castor oil bean and is so poisonous that even a few grains could kill an adult human. Like mustard gas, Ricin is cytotoxic (meaning it attacks the body at a molecular level; in this case) by preventing the body from synthesising protein, which leads to the failure of all vital internal organs. Although quick-acting, the victim often dies within a week to ten days, but the symptoms often don't occur for at least 24-48 hours.
Strychnine, derived from the seed of the tropical Dog Button plant (Strychnos Nux-Vomica), it is a crystalline alkaloid previously used in common pesticides which - when ingested - causes paralysis, asphyxiation, violent muscle convulsions - so powerful that the victim's body appears to jack-knife on itself - and ultimately death within 2-3 hours. Although still used in rat-poison, drug dealers have been known to use it as an added ingredient to alleviate some of heroin's less favourable symptoms.
Sarin, a colourless and odourless nerve agent developed during World War Two, it's an organophosphate which is 26 times more deadly than cyanide, which shuts down the body's nerve endings, resulting in asphyxiation, the total loss of all muscle control (including bowel, stomach and bladder), coma and eventually death within an hour. Sarin was used by religious cult Aum Shinrikyo on the Tokyo subway system (20th March 1995), killing 13, injuring 54 and affecting 980+.
Tetrodotoxin, derived from the blue-ringed octopus and the puffer fish, both are deadly poisonous but in different ways; the octopus injects its venom via painless bite (storing enough to kill 26 adult humans) and killing its prey in minutes by paralysis, and the puffer fish, which is a Japanese delicacy that is only deadly if you eat it and it hasn't been prepared correctly. Quite why you'd want to eat a poison fish is beyond me?
VX; an entirely manufactured nerve-agent (by the UK, oh well done us); it's a tasteless and odourless liquid with an amber-like colour, which is more potent than Sarin and causes instant respiratory failure, paralysis and was designed to kill as many people as possible, although thankfully it was outlawed by the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993. The UK and USA have destroyed their stockpiles of this weapon, with Russia following suit. As recently used in the killing of Kim-Jong Nam.
If you "enjoyed" this blog post try; Odds of a US Presidential Assassination, Killer Couples Part 1 & Part 2, Famous British Serial Killers - Where Are They Now? Serial Killers & Murderers Who Were Never Caught, London's Deadliest & Often Forgotten Disasters, Killers Born During a Full Moon, Killer's Star Signs, Serial Killers Who Were On TV, Celebrities Who Have Killed, London's Railway of Death, Serial Killers as Kids and the World's Weirdest Death Rituals
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten quirky & unusual things to do in London” and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totalling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster of Murder Mile UK True Crime and creator of true-crime TV series.
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