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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 13th October 2011

I’ve mentioned before 4th October that I’ve been reading Deborah Blum’s ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook’. I finished it last night so I thought I’d blog about it, today.

I’m not intending to either review it or provide a synopsis but I will need to give some details of what it is about in order to write about what to me is the most fascinating part; the title.

The book tells the story of the professional life of Charles Norris, New York City’s first ever medical examiner by following the history of poisoning in New York from 1915 to 1936. In doing so it deals, a lot, with the poisonings that resulted from the Prohibition era. In the USA, the PBS TV network has recently shown a documentary series made by Ken Burns entitled ‘Prohibition’.  Though the PBS website says you can watch whole episodes only the short clips seem to be working, at least in the UK, but they give a flavour of the complete work.

Burns’ series has provoked quite a reaction in the USA and that reaction has itself produced comment so I think the subject of prohibition of alcohol and its relevance to today’s debate about psychoactive substances will wait for another day’s blog.

Deborah Blum’s book has chapter divisions by toxin but she’s not suggesting that there are fashions in poisons so that different substances have their time and then move aside. Rather, she’s charting the timeline for how Norris and the people who worked for him, especially Alexander Gettler, discovered how to quantify the doses of the different poisons in order to convince juries that a particular substance had been administered in a lethal quantity.

None of the poisons described would be considered to be plant poisons though, of course, both cyanide and alcohol are plant-derived and, in her blog in February 2011, she noted that many people had commented about plant poisons when reacting to the book. The obvious plant-derived killer, opium, does not get a mention though, since the regulatory framework around opiates was developing during the period covered by the book, it must have been raising concerns.

Overall, though, it is an interesting read with some useful points about politics versus the public good that remain relevant today.

But, as I said, it is the title that interests me most. We all know that anything created, let’s keep that to written for our purposes, is the copyright of the author. But that only applies to ‘works’. Cleary, I couldn’t claim copyright on ‘I’d blog about it’ a phrase used in the first paragraph. But the totality of this blog post does become a copyright work. You’d need a really highly qualified copyright lawyer to tell you how many words it takes for something to become subject to copyright.

Nerium oleander

Nerium oleander

What you don’t need a lawyer to know is that titles aren’t copyright. For example, there are by my reckoning four printed works with ‘The Poison Garden’ in the title. It’s fairly easy these days to do an online search for a book title so I’d be surprised if Penguin Press, Ms Blum’s publisher, wasn’t aware of ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook’ by Matthew Hutchkinson.

Granted it is, at 87 pages, a short book from 1988 that never sold a great many copies but it does enjoy a notoriety in the world of those of us interested in poisons and poisoning. Hutchkinson’s book gives brief information about a variety of poisons and how to use them, though the tone is very much tongue in cheek. With Nerium oleander, for example, he says that there is debate about whether it is as highly toxic as it is usually portrayed and he’d be interested to hear from people about the ‘results you have obtained with oleander’.

But it is what he says about ricin, from Ricinus communis, that brought this obscure little book from the 1980s into prominence in the 21st century. There are a number of ‘how to’ paragraphs throughout the book dealing with things like the production of poisonous gases and delivery systems but ricin is the only substance where Hutchkinson actually gives his recipe a separate heading.

Before going any further, it’s worth saying that most people agree that the recipe doesn’t work. The use of caustic soda, known as ‘lye’ in the USA, to remove the castor bean hulls would destroy the ricin inside the seeds.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

On 5th January 2003, British police raided a property in east London and arrested six people. More arrests followed. It was claimed that this was a terrorist cell planning a number of attacks in the UK including using ricin. Within a couple of days, government scientists had confirmed that no ricin had been found and the plot rested on the discovery of a recipe for producing ricin, written in Arabic.

When the case came to court, the defence was able to show that the recipe was an exact copy of an Arabic translation of Hutchkinson’s recipe which was widely circulating on the Internet.

That revelation, incidentally, brought out a healthy crop of tabloid indignation especially when it was discovered that Amazon had Hutchkinson’s book available. Such indignation, of course, ignored the fact that a book that had been available for fifteen years, by 2003, had not resulted in one single real-life poisoning being laid at its door. And that’s for all the poisons referred to in the book, not just ricin.

The full story of the ricin plot that wasn’t (or, rather the 2003 ricin plot that wasn’t because there have been others including the recent ‘ricin bomb’ nonsense) is covered in a fascinating book ‘Ricin!: The Inside Story of the Terror Plot That Never Was’ by Laurence Archer and Fiona Bawdon,

So, back to Ms Blum’s book. There is no poisoner’s handbook in the story of Charles Norris. I thought we might find that Norris had recorded the most interesting examples of cases dealt with by the Medical Examiner’s Office during his tenure as its head into a single volume. But, no.

I also haven’t been able to find any explanation for the title in any of the publicity material for the book. So, I’m left to wonder, who chose the title and was it just an attempt to cash in on Hutchkinson’s limited notoriety?


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