Once people figured out they could kill each other with special substances instead of sharp sticks, the proverbial poison cookie was born. However, there are only so many times you can use the same trick. As people caught on to how poisons worked, and moved them to the forefront of investigations, certain poisons fell out of fashion. We’ll take a look at the glory days of them all. Sometimes when we look around our lives we can’t help but think - this situation would be greatly improved with the use of a little poison. After all, can every last one of the Borgias be wrong? Modern day people are not the first to come around to this way of thinking.
Greeks and Romans: Hemlock and Aconite
It’s best to start with the classics. When people didn’t know where else to turn, they turned to hemlock. It’s most famous for being the poison that Socrates drank in the spirit of good citizenship. It would not have been a particularly pleasant death. Accounts of his death say it was peaceful, with feeling going out of his legs first, and the eventual numbness killing him. Actually, hemlock acts as a paralytic that keeps the mind awake. It takes out the muscles and then shuts down the respiratory system, so death comes from waking asphyxiation.
Aconite comes from the plant monkshood. It, reportedly, also has a famous casualty. The emperor Claudius was said to have been poisoned by his wife by aconite in a plate of mushrooms. The wife part of that scenario seems to be an anomaly since aconite was known as “The Mother-In-Law’s Poison.” It first caused vomiting and diarrhea, and then caused arrhythmic heart function until the person died.
Hemlock and aconite were a great favorite of the Greeks and the Romans. They didn’t just poison each other with the direct version of hemlock, but tried to do each other in with the meat of larks, which were said to eat so much hemlock that their flesh was poisonous. Why did they favor these plants so much? Well, it was also given by doctors to ease swelling and calm seizures or muscle spasms. Aconite was a treatment for head colds by doctors - right up until the 20th century. As meticulous as poisoners seem, they often use whatever comes to hand when they need to kill someone. Since they could get hold of both of these poisons and have a seemingly innocent reason for using them, they were ideal. They fell out of favor often because they weren’t nearby. Over time, the effects of the poison became known. Occasional throw-back poisoners tried to use them, but as one unlucky Victorian poisoner who had gotten his entire education from a classics textbook found out, medical science moves forward. His “undetectable aconite,” was well-known as a poison. Being a poisoner is very much about staying ahead of the curve.