THE POISON GARDEN website      Arum maculatum berries on a Cannabis leaf 


This free script provided by JavaScript Kit

Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 15th November 2012

One reason I ceased making this a daily task was that I recognised the danger of repeating myself or, worse, contradicting myself. Not having the need to write something means I don’t have to go after every ill-informed ‘Top 10’ of poisonous plants nor do I need to respond every time someone like Peter Hitchens says something stupid about cannabis.

But, just occasionally, I come across something that disappoints; that is a piece from an organisation that one would be justified in assuming would be well informed. Today, that happened when I read the transcript of a podcast from the Royal Society of Chemistry (RCS).1 It is from a series entitled ‘Chemistry in its element: compounds’ and features ricin the poisonous component of Ricinus communis, castor oil plant.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

It is in the form of an interview with Neil Withers, features editor for the RCS magazine ‘Chemistry World’. Mr Withers begins very reasonably by saying that 10 castor beans are estimated to be enough to kill an adult and immediately follows that up by pointing out how difficult it is to effect poisoning with either castor beans or ricin itself by ingestion. He notes, however, that injection of even a tiny amount can be fatal and, naturally, refers to the ‘umbrella’ murder of Georgi Markov in 1978.

I want to return to the key part of that story i.e. the umbrella, but first I want to consider what is said about ricin as a chemical weapon and as a weapon of choice for terrorists. Thankfully, Withers dismisses the notion of ricin having the role as a weapon of mass destruction so often attributed to it though he says ‘It has definitely been stockpiled for use in anger, with Iraq declaring 10 litres of ricin solution to the UN inspectors in 1995’. It might have helped to note that the Iraqis were known to have disregarded it as a mass weapon but were considering its use for assassination.

But then he says;

‘In addition, quantities of it have been found in caves frequented by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.’

Most, but not all, of the places where I’ve seen that claim preface it with ‘some reports say…’. Some wit runs a Twitter account named ‘Fake AP Stylebook’ and, on 5th October they tweeted;

‘You can pass off any old bullshit by simply prefacing it with "some claim that" or "some wonder if."’

In other places, as here, the qualifier gets dropped and what was a highly dubious suggestion becomes a ‘fact’.

Mr Withers then mentions the case of the four elderly men from Georgia USA who were entrapped by an FBI agent. Mr Withers says;

‘They are accused of plotting to murder officials using ricin, and were arrested after traces of the poison were found in their possession.’

None of the many reports I have read on this case says anything about any ricin being found. The agent provocateur is said to have provided some castor beans to one of the men as a sample and though he said he was going to ‘peel’ them there are no reports that he did any processing. The case rests on what these disgruntled men said they would like to do rather than on anything they actually did.

Then he says;

‘Over the past ten years, there have also been a number of high-profile cases of the powder being sent to government mailrooms in the US.’

It is true that there has been one case of ricin being sent through the post but all the other cases have been of ‘suspicious white powder’ that turned out to be completely harmless.

As I started by saying, I’m aware of the danger of repetition so when I came to the story about the umbrella I wanted to think about it a different way. So, rather than repeat the flaws in the story that I’ve discussed before, I started thinking about it from the other point of view. Suppose it was a modified umbrella that was used to deliver the ricin pellet.

All the depictions of the supposed umbrella gun, like this non-copyright image, show the trigger as being in the handle. Or see this image online for the full umbrella.

Alleged umbrella gun

To fire the pellet the assassin must have been holding it by the handle. Try picking up an umbrella by the handle and selecting one spot on the wall in front of you. It is possible, as long as you have a firm grip of the umbrella. But, if you’ve got a firm grip of the handle why would you drop the umbrella immediately after firing the pellet? It is not going to slip out of your hand unless you deliberately relax your grip.

This is something you can try at home. Get a friend to stand with their back to you. Stand about three feet away from them with an umbrella vertical with the point on the ground. Now, swing it up, select a spot on the back of their thigh, ‘fire it’ (say bang) and then let the umbrella fall into the sort of pendulum swing that many people do when standing bored.

The chance that they will see anything odd in the movement is remote and the chance that they will associate that movement with a sting in the back of the thigh is non-existent. Dropping the umbrella in that situation only draws attention to yourself; not something a professional assassin would do.

If the umbrella had been the weapon it would not have been dropped. Dropping an ordinary umbrella in order to approach close enough to fire a weapon concealed in the other hand, at the same time as distracting any onlookers, is, probably, the only sensible explanation of how Georgi Markov was attacked.

I was anxious to be fair to Mr Withers so I listened to the podcast to see if he were speaking off the cuff. It is very clear, however, that he is reading from a prepared script and that, I think, makes my disappointment justified. Chemistry World is about ‘advancing the chemical sciences’. I think it is a shame that the opportunity was missed to stress the need for critical appraisal of perceived wisdom.


1. Chemistry in its element: compounds - Ricin  Royal Society of Chemistry 


Full Entries


Tuesday 25th October 2016
Saturday 20th August 2016
Sunday 6th March 2016
Wednesday 3rd February 2016


Saturday 28th November 2015
Friday 27th November 2015
Monday 17th August 2015
Wednesday 15th July 2015
Friday 26th June 2015
Thursday 25th June 2015
Thursday 30th April 2015
Wednesday 29th April 2015
Wednesday 11th March 2015
Tuesday 3rd March 2015
Saturday 28th February 2015
Sunday 22nd February 2015

November 2014

Monday 24th November 2014
Saturday 8th November 2014

October 2014

September 2014

Wednesday 24th September 2014
Monday 1st September 2014

August 2014

Tuesday 26th August 2014
Saturday 16th August 2014
Tuesday 5th August 2014
Friday 1st August 2014

July 2014

Sunday 27th July 2014
Wednesday 23rd July 2014
Sunday 13th July 2014
Sunday 6th July 2014
Tuesday 1st July 2014

June 2014

Wednesday 25th June 2014
Tuesday 24th June 2014
Sunday 22nd June 2014
Monday 9th June 2014
Wednesday 4th June 2014

May 2014

Monday 26th May 2014
Sunday 18th May 2014
Wednesday 14th May 2014

April 2014

Sunday 13th April 2014
Saturday 5th April 2014
Thursday 3rd April 2014
Tuesday 1st April 2014

March 2014

Monday 31st March 2014
Tuesday 25th March 2014
Friday 21st March 2014
Monday 17th March 2014
Sunday 16th March 2014
Tuesday 11th March 2014
Tuesday 11th March 2014
Thursday 6th March 2014
Wednesday 5th March 2014
Saturday 1st March 2014

February 2014

Thursday 27th February 2014
Monday 24th February 2014
Wednesday 19th February 2014
Monday 17th February 2014
Thursday 13th February 2014
Monday 4th February 2014
Monday 3rd February 2014
Saturday 1st February 2014

January 2014

Thursday 28th January 2014
Thursday 23rd January 2014
Friday 17th January 2014
Wednesday 15th January 2014
Monday 13th January 2014
Thursday 9th January 2014
Tuesday 7th January 2014
Wednesday 1st January 2014

December 2013

Monday 23rd December 2013
Friday 20th December 2013
Tuesday 17th December 2013
Friday 14th December 2013
Thursday 12th December 2013
Sunday 8th December 2013
Wednesday 4th December 2013
Sunday 1st December 2013

November 2013

Friday 29th November 2013
Wednesday 27th November 2013
Tuesday 26th November 2013
Friday 22nd November 2013
Monday 18th November 2013
Friday 15th November 2013
Thursday 14th November 2013
Sunday 10th November 2013
Thursday 7th November 2013
Wednesday 6th November 2013
Friday 1st November 2013

October 2013

Thursday 31st October 2013
Sunday 27th October 2013
Wednesday 23rd October 2013
Monday 21st October 2013
Friday 18th October 2013
Friday 11th October 2013
Wednesday 9th October 2013
Tuesday 8th October 2013
Monday 7th October 2013
Tuesday 1st October 2013

September 2013

Monday 30th September 2013
Saturday 28th September 2013
Friday 27th September 2013
Monday 23rd September 2013
Sunday 15th September 2013
Monday 9th September 2013
Tuesday 3rd September 2013
Sunday 1st September 2013

August 2013

Sunday 8th September 2013
Tuesday 3rd September 2013
Sunday 1st September 2013

Tuesday 27th August 2013
Sunday 25th August 2013
Monday 19th August 2013
Friday 16th August 2013
Tuesday 13th August 2013
Friday 9th August 2013
Friday 2nd August 2013
Thursday 1st August 2013

July 2013

Saturday 27th July 2013
Sunday 21st July 2013
Wednesday 17th July 2013
Monday 15th July 2013
Saturday 13th July 2013
Friday 12th July 2013
Thursday 11th July 2013
Wednesday 10th July 2013
Tuesday 9th July 2013
Saturday 6th July 2013

June 2013

Friday 28th June 2013
Tuesday 25th June 2013
Friday 21st June 2013
Thursday 20th June 2013
Wednesday 19th June 2013
Saturday 15th June 2013
Sunday 9th June 2013
Saturday 8th June 2013
Saturday 1st June 2013

May 2013

April 2013

March 2013

February 2013

January 2013

December 2012

November 2012

October 2012

September 2012

August 2012

July 2012 blog

June 2012 blog

May 2012 blog

April 2012 blog

March 2012 blog

February 2012 blog

January 2012 blog

December 2011 blog

November 2011 blog

October 2011 blog

September 2011 blog

August 2011 blog

July 2011 blog

June 2011 blog


The POISON GARDEN website is not connected with Alnwick Garden Enterprises Ltd and/or The Alnwick Garden Trust.