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Throughout the ages poisons have been used to destroy competition, kill millions, and to wage war. They have been used as gruesome plot twists in stories. Poisons were used all over Europe and are made from all sorts of poisonous plants, toxic minerals, and venomous plants. Poisons are important to literature because they show how people acted.
Poisons were used in politics when one person did not agree with another. In the stories we read, they are used to take out someone that is in the way of someone else’s goals. Chaucer used poison in “The Pardoner’s Tale” when the three rioters die. “And the Fiend, our common enemy,/ was given power to put it in his thought/ that there was always posed to be bought,/ And that with poison he could kill his friends.”
The rioters die when the youngest rioter poisons the wine of the older two and all of the wine gets contaminated, killing all three. The poisoning in “The Pardoner’s Tale” shows how greed affects people and teaches us how greed can ruin or end our lives. In Hamlet, King Hamlet is killed by his brother Claudius when Claudius drips poison in Hamlet’s ear when he is sleeping in the garden. “ My custom always of the afternoon,/ (Chaucer 149).Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,/ With juice of cursed hebona in a vial,/ And in the porches of my ears did pour”(Shakespeare 59). Because Claudius does this, he inherits the kingdom instead of Prince Hamlet. Claudius shows us that some people will do anything for their “five minutes of fame” and that no matter how well we think we know someone we don’t always do. Claudius also spikes Hamlets victory wine with poison to kill him if Laertes fails to do so, which in turn kills the Queen, Gertured, instead. King: Gertrud, do not drink./ Queen: I will, my lord; I pray you pardon me. [she drinks]/ King:[aside] It is the poisoned cup. It is too late.”(Shakespeare 277). This shows that Claudius will do anything to stay king, even kill his own nephew or his new wife. In A Tale of Two Cities, Carton buys a poison to knock out Darnay so Carton can switch places with him. This shows that not all poisons are deadly or used for a malicious purpose. While we associate poisons with their deadly qualities they can be made into many forms of medicine. Antivenoms are often made from the venom of the same animal.
Though we are not usually given what type of poison is used in the stories we read, most likely the poisons were made out of toxic plants or minerals. One of the most common poisonous plants is hemlock. Minerals like arsenic were used quite a lot and were quite effective. It is even said that arsenic made the wine taste better (Smith). There are lots of animals like snakes or toads that are venomous. These poisons were either ingested or put on weapons to kill animals or people quicker. Though poisoning could have been deliberate it also could have been accidental from lack of hygiene (“Poisonous Politics”).
Poisons were a preferred choice to anyone who wanted to get away with the murder. Most poisons are slow acting so someone can get away before the victim even knows they have been poisoned. The efficiency of poisons make them ideal because by the time the victim realizes they’ve been poisoned, it was too late to do anything about it. Poisons were used to get revenge, get rid of people that others didn’t like, and kill mass amounts of people efficiently. Poisons are the preferred method of assassination of women because they may not be able to overpower their victim (Levi).
Poison was used in wars for a long time. Many cultures coated their swords and knives in poisonous concoctions to ensure that their opponents die even if they only get a little cut. In Hamlet Claudius has Laertes’s swords dipped in poison to make sure that Hamlet dies. South American natives used to use poison from frogs to make poison projectiles or even just the frogs themselves.
Arsenic was one of the most popular poisons during the middle ages. It has been used since around the 4 century B.C. but wasn’t found as an actual element until 1250 A.D. There was not a metallic form of the element until Paracelsus made one in the late Middle Ages. Because arsenic is odorless, tasteless, and colorless it can be mixed into food and drink without detection. Arsenic could be given in small doses over a given amount of time witch would slowly kill the victim. While arsenic was developed later, but is much more potent and can kill a man with an amount about the size of a pea (Smith). Arsenic, when ingested, goes into our cells. Since arsenic is close to a phosphate chemically, arsenic takes phosphate’s place in our cells natural processes. Phosphate is used in our body to make ATP, or energy. When our cells use arsenic instead of phosphate, ATP is not produced and the body is starved of energy, which in turn kills the person who ingested the arsenic (Levi). “It was used throughout history as a potent poison to kill off kings and emperors and facilitate rich inheritances. It also has a place in medical history, particularly in the treatment of two great scourges of disease in our time, trypanosomiasis or “sleeping sickness”, and syphilis or the “great pox”.”(Frith). White arsenic is made by heating arsenic ore until a white crystalline powder forms (Frith).
Arsenic in the victorian age could be found in anything from fly paper to cosmetics. The Arsenic Act of 1851 forced tighter restrictions on the sale of arsenic and that it be colored indigo so it would be harder to disguise. With the tighter regulations and advancements in toxicology and pathology, arsenic poisonings went down considerably. This forced murderers to find new poisons that were not as easily traced (Armfield). Arsenic was later used in pesticides and mouse poisons (Levi). Arsenic was so plentiful because of industrial revolution. It was common in coal and ores that were dug up and burned or smelted. The arsenic combined with oxygen in the air and formed large amounts of white arsenic, or arsenic trioxide. White arsenic was sold cheaply and it found its way into candles. Doctors also used it to preserve bodies. Copper arsenate found its way into clothing, candy, and paints. While white arsenic was used mostly for poisoning, the green colors from arsenic, or the arsenic from candles made arsenic airborne (Meyer).
Another common poison is hemlock. The Greeks and Romans revered it as one of the worst poisons. Hemlock kills the victim when they ingest it. The alkaloids that hemlock holds interferes with nerve cell transmissions to your muscles which can lead to respiratory failure. Even touching the plant can give a rash like poison ivy. The roots look like those of parsnips and the leaves look like parsley. This is attributed to most poisonings today (Anthony). “Smooth-stemmed biennial; purple-streaked or spotted; 4-8 ft. Leaves carrotlike, divided into 3–4 segments; up to 4 ft.; leaflets finely divided, tiny. Foul-scented when crushed. Flowers white, in umbels; May-Aug.” (Foster)
While modern medicine has rooted out ways to detect most poisons and came up with an antidote for several, there are still some who die of poisoning. While it isn’t of sinister methods much anymore, it’s mostly accidental ingestion or contact (Holloway). For some poisons, like hemlock, we still do not have a cure for. Treatment for hemlock poisoning depends on the severity.
While hemlock and arsenic are deadly, some people were poisoned with lead. Lead was used to glaze the eating ware of the wealthy. Because lead-glazed dining ware was expensive, the poor did not suffer the effects from lead poisoning. The reason that dining ware was glazed in lead oxide was to keep the dishes from absorbing food, but the lead in the glaze was absorbed by salty or acidic foods. While lead poisoning usually doesn’t kill a person it does lead to learning disabilities and other physical and mental health disorders (Christiansen).
Today there are poisons that are made that are more potent than their medieval counterparts. Atropine is concentrated belladonna which comes from the berries of the nightshade bush. In Ancient Greece, nightshade was used as a mild hallucinogen when it was taken in extremely small doses. Cyanide is one of the fastest acting poisons. It has been used in wars, terrorists attacks, and mining (Emsley). Cyanide kills by binding with iron in the blood prohibiting the transfer of oxygen to the body. (Devlin). Thallium is a tasteless poison that takes days for symptoms to occur. All these poisons can be tracked nowadays but it is hard and most leads will not pan out to a murderer (Emsley).
Unlike most poisons, hydrofluoric acid is painless when it comes in topical contact. Hydrofluoric acid is deadly. It attacks bones and calcium in the body. When hydrofluoric acid is in a gaseous state it can cause harm to one’s lungs and eyes. In the worst case from topical contact it can destroy the underlying bone (Devlin).
Toxins like batrachotoxin are extremely toxic. The poison dart frog is small enough to fit on the tip of you finger but has enough toxins to kill a grown elephant. While these frogs are not toxic by themselves but get their toxins from what they eat. The toxin works by opening the sodium channels in nerve cells rendering the victim paralyzed (Devlin).
Agent Orange was a herbicide that was used in the Vietnam War to kill trees and crops. The U.S. Army used Agent Orange to flush out the Vietnamese troops from the forest. Besides being a herbicide it is also known to have a carcinogen called TCDD. While it takes a good amount of direct contact from Agent Orange to cause death, it leads to many birth defects and stillborn deaths (Devlin).
Strychnine is a neurotoxin that causes the body to spasm and contort. This poison is readily available as a gopher poison. This poison is made from the seeds of the Strychnos nux-vomica tree in India. Like strychnine, brodifacoum is a rodenticide. Brodifacoum works by limiting the amount of vitamin K in the blood. Vitamin K is a major factor in clotting so the rodents suffer internal hemorrhaging. When handling brodifacoum it is important to not come in contact with it because it can enter the body topically and stay in the system for months at a time (Devlin).
Poisons have been used for a long time to kill people, wage war, and settle petty disputes. They have been in stories for chilling additives and cold injustices. The poisons are important to literature as they pertain to the time and how people acted. Positions have been used a lot in Europe and all over the world.