Register Wednesday | December 12 | 2018

The Sting of Things Too Sweet

How to poison friends and influence people

Last September, Viktor Yushchenko, then a candidate for the Ukrainian presidency, was rushed to the hospital. In the hours following a dinner with senior Ukrainian officials, including the country's security chief, Yushchenko had developed a headache and stomach troubles; days later, he was in gastrointestinal agony. As the campaign went on, he endured severe back pain, facial paralysis and an inflammation of the inner ear. By late September, his suffering was constant and his physical appearance completely altered-so much so he began openly to refer to himself as a victim of "Ukraine's political cuisine that kills." After three months of uncertainty, tests revealed that he had ingested a large dose of dioxin, a highly toxic compound that can easily be administered in food or liquid. Dr. Nikolai Korpan, who supervised Yushchenko's treatment and recently confirmed that levels of dioxin one thousand times greater than normal had been found in Yushchenko's body, hinted darkly to reporters, "He received this substance from other people who had a specific aim."

An isolated incident perhaps, but then Yasser Arafat, having rapidly deteriorated from an unexplained condition, died in early November in a French military hospital. Rumours that Israeli security forces had gotten to him circulated immediately. (And why not? Israel had repeatedly threatened to "remove" him, and of the thirteen to forty assassination attempts Arafat is said to have survived, at least three are thought to have involved poison.) Tests indicated that Arafat had a low blood-platelet count. This may have been evidence of malfeasance, but it was also consistent with bone-marrow failure, cancer and-the other favourite in this case-AIDS. However, Arafat's nephew, Nasser al-Kidwa, after per-using a 558-page medical dossier that offered no definitive diagnosis, declared his uncle's death "unnatural" and cited the mysterious circumstances as persuasive enough. "That is precisely the reason why suspicions are there," he said, "because without a reason you cannot escape the other possibility."

The media have certainly welcomed the addition of poison to their diet of car bombings and extreme weather. If nothing else, there is something nostalgic in poison's resurgence as an assassination tool-something tinged with sepia and lurid glamour. Indeed, even the most banal accounts of foul play can instantly conjure up an aura of medieval sinisterness or Renaissance intrigue. Take, for instance, the largely overlooked case of Sami al-Anizi, the ghost writer of one of Saddam Hussein's novels, who dropped dead after drinking a jug of water in his own kitchen.

Coming across stories like these, in our era of choreographed "shock and awe" campaigns, is like stumbling back into a time of pre-technological innocence. While terrorism is now associated with mass-marketed home-video images of al-Qaeda hijackers, poisoning mostly invokes an asp-embracing Cleopatra or a barely glimpsed aboriginal hunter firing a curare-dipped dart. If suicide bombers remind us of the pathetically sinister, "foreign"-named criminals in Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, poisoners evoke the familiar, genteel townsfolk of Agatha Christie's Arsenic and Old Lace.

Yet poisoning used to be as malice-driven and ingenious a business as the deployment of smart bombs. Once a practice favoured by jilted lovers, trapped husbands and papal sociopaths, its roots lie deep in the now-arcane, yet highly systematic, disciplines of magic, alchemy and ethnobotany. It can be hard to perceive this venerable lineage nowadays, considering the farcical depths to which the craft has sunk. That low-budget attempt on Yushchenko's life practically parodied the Cold War trick of doing in defectors with toxin-laced pellets fired from an umbrella tip. If it weren't so grotesquely true, it would be almost comic. ("Waiter! There's a dose of dioxin in my soup.")

The other obstacle to remembering poisoning as a nasty, cold-blooded art lies in the fact that most poisonings today are household accidents. Ignoring or misreading labels and instructions, a habit most of us share, is the typical cause of toxic trouble or death. The horrific 1984 mass poisoning (due to a leak of methyl isocyanate) at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, may have been caused by similar negligence on a much larger scale.

Such accidents probably happened more often in the industrializing nineteenth century, when poisons were unregulated and widely used. A 1862 issue of the British Medical Journal, for instance, contains several learned letters that document the dangerous ubiquity of arsenic-"the king of poisons"-in wallpaper, fly-paper, paints, tints, dyes and even ball gowns. One unlucky young lady was, alas, inadvertently finished off by her dyed frock. Made of twenty yards of cheap green tarlatan, the dress (with matching headdress, fan and shoes) was a walking death wrap: to simulate the shimmer of silk, the muslin fabric had been treated with a paste of starch and Schweinfurt Green (copper acetoarsenite). As she danced the night away, this young lady was unwittingly filling the air around her with an invisible cloud of arsenic and steadily breathing it in, assisted by her arsenic-impregnated fan. The outcome was uglier than Yushchenko's pockmarked face: frequent urination, vomiting, diarrhea, shortness of breath, a burning throat, ice-cold feet and hands, and liver failure-the cause of her demise shortly thereafter.

The case of the unfortunate belle dame who met her death sans merci brings to mind the words attributed to the sixteenth-century alchemist Paracelsus: "All substances are poi-sons; there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison and a remedy." According to The Poison Principle, a 2001 memoir by Australian pharmacist Gail Bell, fewer than three thousand of the more than thirteen million known chemicals-natural and synthetic-can be classified as bona fide toxic terrors. Presumably not all of the three thousand are also remedies, unless we are prepared to accept a perverse definition of the term. If so, the dioxin given to Yushchenko was such a rem-edy, as would be, perhaps, any noxious substance in a poisoner's eyes. (This could lead to an uncharitable reading of God as the ur-poisoner, given the trick he played with the apple "whose mortal taste," as John Milton wrote, "brought death into the world.")

There are toxicologists who believe, not uncontroversially, that exposure to tiny amounts of poison can be bene-ficial. Edward Calabrese, for instance, argues that, when administered in min-ute doses, a substance like arsenic can spur the body's repair mechanisms to fix not merely the immediate injury caused by the toxin but any lurking back-ground damage, like cancer (though it seems that, in true Paracelsian form, toxins have also been shown to stimulate cancer-cell growth).

Whatever the case, the annals of poisoning record a standard pharma-copoeia of vicious substances that also served a kinder purpose: belladonna (to redden cheeks and lips and to dilate pupils), lead (to whiten skin), mercury (to eliminate warts, blanch freckles and treat syphilis), digitalis (to strengthen heart contractions), hemlock (to combat tumours, swelling and joint pain, not to mention pesky, youth-corrupting Greek philosophers) and wormwood (to fight poisoning by hemlock).

The same annals also record a remarkably diverse crew of miscreants, including a disproportionately high number of women-no doubt due to their hands-on involvement in food preparation and service, the most common means of administering the evil goods. The image of a villainous Lucrezia Borgia eliminating her Vatican foes with an arsenic-seasoned dinner still lingers. Women's traditional association with folk medicine and witchcraft hasn't helped their image either. As Reginald Scot put it in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), "Women were the first inventors, and were the greatest practisers of poisoning, and more naturally addicted and given thereunto than men."

One can, however, cite a long line of male physician-poisoners. It would have to include Dr. Lazovert, who, one evening in 1916, lovingly laced pastries with potassium cyanide and served them to "Mad Monk" Rasputin, a politically inconvenient friend of the Russian royal family. (Meant to have an immediate effect, the pastries failed to work; a still-alert Rasputin had to be shot three times later that evening.)

Whatever their sex, poisoners have found wilier ways of doing damage than tossing a fistful of dioxin into the borscht or sprinkling cyanide on the icing. One legendary method is stunning in its simplicity: using a knife with one side of its blade clean, the other side poison-smeared, the ill-doer shares an apple, say, with the intended victim, kindly slicing it and keeping the untainted piece for himself (herself?). Another method involves a knife with tainted spikes hidden in its bejewelled handle, cunningly designed so that the spikes jut into the palm only when the cutter uses it. When dropped-it's hard to imagine anyone thus pricked not dropping the knife in pained surprise-the knife lies innocently in its landing place, the spikes having returned unnoticed to their hiding place. A contemporary equivalent of such dark duplicity is perhaps GHB, a drug used for date rape. (No deaths have been recorded, but its intended use is yet more evidence against the claim that women have a special penchant for poison.)

Cruder, though no less nasty, was the plan of seventeenth-century French-man François Belot to fashion a cup that could release poison into its contents no matter how many times the cup was washed. Reminiscent of "the poison'd cup" Queen Gertrude drinks from in Hamlet, it was certainly fatal to toads, since its inventor's method involved cramming a toad with arsenic, then crushing the poor thing in the cup while reciting special charms. Before being sentenced to the breaking wheel for his crimes, Belot is thought to have made a rather good living by fashioning these vessels (which surely proved a useful method of political problem-solving). There's no question he can stand proudly in the pantheon of inventors who have designed "improved" killing devices-from English longbows, six-shooters and tanks to hijacked jets and bunker busters. Perhaps the CIA, which once plotted to poison Fidel Castro's cigars, could arrange to deliver this sort of loving cup to Osama bin Laden. It would be cheaper than bombing the hell out of the mountains of northern Afghanistan, and possibly more effective.

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