From the Archives: Poison 1

I’ve come across many tragic and strange cases while working on a chapter about planted poison for my forensics book project. Here are some lowlights from the 1896 Madras Chemical Examiner’s Report:

Camphor branch circa 1887 (Wellcome Collection)
  • There are many cases in these reports involving “native quacks” whose medical remedies contained poisonous substances. There are also many cases of murder attempts through poison, often involving romantic intrigue. But this case caught my eye because it combined these two things: “Aconite.–Two cases of poisoning from this cause came under notice, in one of which a native quack poisoned his fiancée’s brother because he would not give his consent to their union. The offender in this case was sentenced to death.”
  • There are many cases of suicide by poison. These two cases were especially sad because they involved the suicide (or suicide attempt) of a parent after the loss of a child: “Calotropis Gigantea…In one case a man is reported to have committed the act in a fit of inconsolable grief for the death of a child” and “A liniment (of camphor, belladonna, chloroform and aconite) was drunk by a woman who was in grief for her daughter’s death. She soon became profoundly insensible, with pupils almost fully dilated and deep stertor. Prompt treatment with the stomach pump and washing the stomach with Condy’s fluid were the means of saving her.”
  • Here is another suicide case, this time involving a photographer who used mercury. Photographic studios included a wealth of poisonous substances that could be deadly: “In a case of suicide by mercurial poisoning, nearly eight grains of corrosive sublimate were found in the visceral and vomited matters. The unfortunate individual suffered such intolerable agonies from the poison that he rushed into the backyard and jumped into a well from which he was rescued and taken to hospital. He was a photographer by profession, and the chemical examination was extended to every substance found in his dark room, besides the examination of various articles of food and drink, before suspicion which rested upon innocent persons was removed.”

And finally, the strangest thing I came across:

  • an attempt to lighten the skin of a fetus: “A novel effect was claimed for arsenic in a case in which a woman narrowly escaped death after drinking milk in which ‘something’ had been mixed, which was said to have ‘the virtue of imparting a good complexion to her child in utero.'”

Source: IOR/P/5185 (British Library)