Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Poison Book

Back in 2008, this strange object was sold to a private collector by German auction house Hermann Historica. It was billed as a "poison cabinet," since most of the ingredients listed on the tiny drawers are poisonous. This created quite a stir at the time, and many charges that it was an obvious fake.

But now the curators at the Met have gotten a good look at it, and they say it may be just what it seems: a small pharmacopoeia hidden in a hollowed-out 16th-century book. They did not suspect a recent fake. They suggest that rather than being a poisoner's cabinet this might just be a medicine chest, since all of the plants listed on the eleven small drawers were used medicinally.

But let's take a closer look at these eleven plants:

Hyocyamus niger, black henbane, a powerful hallucinogen often said to have been part of witches' salves, and a dangerous poison.

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy. This is not much of a poison, since you have to take a ton to kill yourself with it, but it has other sinister associations. Incidentally its most important medicinal use was in stopping diarrhea, including the fatal kind; it is still one of the best drugs for that purpose.

Aconitum napellus, monkshood, which is another deadly poison.

Cicuta virosa, cowbane or northern water hemlock, possibly the most dangerous poison on the list; one bite of the root can kill you.

Bryonia alba, white bryony or false mandrake, which is poisonous but you have to eat forty berries to get a fatal dose.

Datura stramonium, jimsonweed, which is a hallucinogen, deliriant, and poison, and also a medicine used to treat severe asthma among other things. People still regularly die of this, since the fatal does is less than twice what you need to get strong hallucinations but bored teenagers can't resist the allure of escape.

Valeriana officinalis, valerian, a medicinal herb widely used to treat anxiety and insomnia but not poisonous so far as I know.

Daphne mezereum, alias February daphne or mezereon, is poisonous, especially the berries, but not generally fatal.

Ricinus communis, castor bean, the source of castor oil and ricin. Castor oil was a very common medicine in old Europe and plenty of people still take it. Eating the beans can kill you, but you have to eat quite a few and they taste awful; also, death takes 3 to 5 days. But ricin can be extracted and concentrated into a very dangerous poison.

Colchicum autumnale, autumn crocus or naked lady, widely used in medicine (still) despite its toxicity; for example it is a common treatment for gout. Very much a deadly poison.

Atropa belladonna, belladonna or deadly nightshade. One of the most famous European herbs, used for cosmetics and medicine but a deadly poison. It is a strong deliriant and contains scopalamine, one of the drugs used to induce "twilight sleep".

This is not a normal pharmacy such an an herbal doctor might carry along on a house call. It is missing many common medicinal herbs  – e.g., heal-all, comfrey, licorice – that are not dangerous and would be part of any real herbal doctor's kit.

On the other hand it would not be much good for a real assassin. All of the poisons listed on these drawers taste terrible; it was precisely to protect us from these compounds that we mammals evolved our distaste for bitter foods. I have been trying for years to find out if it was possible to hide a fatal dose of any of the well-known European plant poisons in food, and I have yet to get good answers. But so far as I know this would be very difficult. (If there really were poison tasters, their job would have been, not to ingest the poison and die, but to recognize the presence of bitter alkaloids in the food.) The only poison on this list that I know can be used effectively in that way is ricin, but you must first go through an elaborate process to extract and concentrate the deadly molecule. (The process is said to be much like extracting cyanide from almonds.) Plus there is the poppy, which is not a poison, and the valerian, which is not dangerous at all but has a lot of literary and royal associations.

My guess is that this object is a product of nineteenth-century literary fantasy, like those vampire hunter's kits.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

Everything is a poison in the proper amount, and most things are medicine in the proper lesser amounts.

The average person's medicine cabinet is chock full of things which will kill you if you take too much, they just generally require larger amounts to do so than most "poisons" we think of.