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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 8th September 2011

Yesterday was the 33rd anniversary of the murder of Georgi Markov. I find it strange that some murders stay in the public mind a lot more than others but I think it results from the reporting of the event at the time and, especially, if it is a long-running story for some reason.

Markov was attacked on 7th September and died on the 11th. Because he felt the sting of the attack and noticed a red lump on his thigh, foul play was suspected even before he died. Coming during the Cold War, his death provoked a great deal of interest and a great deal of speculation and that, perhaps, explains why people still remember it. The press speculation actually brings about one of the more amusing aspects of the case but that comes much later in the history of the public fascination with his death.

It is impossible to know if the public memory springs directly from the murder or whether it has needed frequent re-enforcement to make it stick. Certainly, it has received that re-enforcement over the decades but especially since the launch of the ‘war on terror’. In the 20th century it seems to have been brought up every time some politically motivated murder occurred. I’m pretty certain that it was widely cited after the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground railway in 1995 because a great many people confuse the two substances.

And, of course, since the September 11th 2001 attacks in the USA, ricin, the poison used to kill Markov, has been the media’s favourite alleged intended terrorist weapon.

As with the Chevis case, there are different versions of the Markov killing and many of the things written about it are contradictory or just plain false. Much of that relates to the misrepresentation of the practicality of using ricin to kill and you'll find more about that on the Ricinus communis, castor oil plant, page.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

It is, generally, known as the Umbrella Murder and many reports state that Markov was killed by a pellet of ricin fired from a specially converted umbrella. The online story from the Sofia News Agency that reminded me of the anniversary does, however, have the story straight. It’s probably worth giving it in summary, here.

Markov was waiting for a bus to take him the short journey to where he parked his car. The man behind him in the bus queue dropped his umbrella and, apologising to Markov, moved in close to him as he bent down to pick it up. As the man did so, Markov felt a small sting in the back of his leg. Dropping the umbrella served two purposes; it created a diversion so that anyone watching the man would have looked at the hand picking up the umbrella rather than the hand with whatever device was used to fire the pellet and it enabled the killer to move close to Markov without arousing suspicion. 

No-one really knows what the murder weapon looked like and the idea of foreign secret agents working to produce a weapon from an umbrella has a great deal more romance to it that some much simpler device. The idea of the umbrella as weapon persists to this day in much of the media and is, in part, kept alive by the amusing aspect I referred to earlier.

After the fall of the ‘Iron Curtain’ and the breakup of the USSR, a number of former KGB officers came to the west and were anxious to sell their stories. One of them produced a drawing showing the design of the umbrella that had been adapted to fire a pellet of ricin and said that it came from the KGB’s files. That incident helps to keep the umbrella myth alive but, when examined closely, it was realised that the ‘KGB’ drawing was, in fact, a copy of a drawing that appeared in one of the UK papers in 1978 with a caption along the lines of ‘how the umbrella might have worked’.