From the Archives: Poison 2

Aconite [Wellcome Collection Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)]
This month, I’m sharing more cases from my history of forensics research (part 1 went up in April). Here are some cases from the Madras Chemical Examiner’s report for 1897:

  • Deadly astrology: “The viscera of an infant sent for examination contained mercury; the complaint being that the father of the child poisoning it ‘as it was born under a bad star and was unsafe to his health because he could not recover from some illness.'”
  • Love charm: “A love philter, guaranteed ‘to secure unfailing love,’ was found to contain an arseniate and metallic mercury.”
  • Menstrual pain: “A woman is reported to have died in consequence of having drunk some juice for painful menstruation. In the stomach and its contents were found over 5 grains of white arsenic, also strychnine.”
  • Cooking lesson: “The fresh juice of the root [Manihot Utilissima or cassava]…contain prussic acid and is poisonous, while the boiled root is a staple article of food in Southern India. Tapioca is prepared from the tubers of this plant, the poison being dissipated by the roasting which the starch is subjected to.”
  • Mother-child attempted suicide-murder: “A case which called for pity was that of a woman who had been in good circumstance, but had been reduced to do coolly work by the death of her husband and by the stress of famine. She and her children had been starving, she sold her nose ornament, bought some gingelly-oil [=sesame oil] and opium and administered it to all her children and to herself, saying ‘We have no meals, what is the use of life?’ One of the children died, and the mother was convicted of murder in spite of the gallant attempt of her little son, who tried to save her by stating that the act was voluntary on his part, and in spite of the opinion of the assessors which the Judge considered did ‘more credit to their hearts than to their heads.’” (Judges often ignored the views of Indian “assessors” in court. This case is one such example.)
  • Trial by ordeal?: “…a quack with a reputation for detecting thefts was engaged to trace a stolen jewel. All the villagers were summoned, given each a pill and told to re-appear next day; but an additional pill was administered to the deceased, who suffered from intense symptoms of aconite poisoning. Meanwhile, the quack was going through a sort of hypnotic performance with a boy who was made to stare at a light and to whom leading questions were being put as to whether he could see in the light a person resembling the deceased. The appeals of the suffering woman for an antidote were met with the reply that if she would restore the jewel she would be all right. When the quack at last yielded and gave her some gruel, it was too late, she could not swallow and she died in a short time.”

Source: IOR/P/681-2 (19 May 1898): Reviewing the Reports of the Chemical Examiners to the several Local Governments for the year 1897 (May 1898-Oct.1898), British Library. [License:]