Our local TV station provider has one channel dedicated to movies from the late 1940s, 50s and 60s – mostly westerns and mysteries. Last week, a screening of “Arsenic and Old Lace” was in the listing, so we grabbed some snacks and settled in for an evening of murder most nefarious, with a side of laughter.
After discovering a body in his aunts’ house, the sweet little old ladies reveal to their nephew (played by the horrified Cary Grant) that they had spiked their dead guest’s elderberry wine with arsenic, strychnine, and a “just a pinch of cyanide.” And there are more bodies in the cellar.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” was a hit on Broadway in the early 1940s before making it to the big screen, where it became a success as well.
There are several other popular movies that have featured poison as a method of dispatching the victims, but instead of the tried and true ASC (arsenic, strychnine, and cyanide) combo, employ poisonous mushrooms. The victims eat their way to nausea, gastric distress, and death, instead of drinking a ‘lovely’ cup of ‘tea.’
1971’s “The Beguiled” (remake 2017): Confederate soldier takes refuge at a girl’s school, but when he betrays two of the women, he is fed toxic mushrooms.
2017’s “Phantom Thread”: dress designer falls in love with the wrong woman. She makes him toxic mushroom tea, nurses him back to health, and when he doesn’t do what she expects, cooks him a mushroom infused meal. He remains sick enough for her to control him.
Important dating rule to remember: if your girlfriend cooks for you, always treat her well.
Mushroom poisoning symptoms range from the less severe upset stomach to renal failure and death, which may take days. It all depends on which mushroom is chosen for the deed. Agatha Christie had her favorite chemical poisons in her books and selected them according to whether or not the poison was readily available to the criminal and how much time was needed for the bad guy to get away. Read “What poisons were in Agatha Christie’s books?” here.
All poisonous mushrooms cause vomiting and abdominal pain. Testing and experience has shown that mushrooms causing symptoms within two hours are less dangerous than those that cause symptoms after six hours.
Other movies with poisons in the forefront:
In 1949’s “D.O.A.” (remake 1988): a man, lethally poisoned, rushes around trying to find out who poisoned him and why.
“The Young Poisoner’s Handbook” (1995) was based on a real case. The “Teacup Murderer” kills two of his co-workers by poisoning their tea with thallium, a highly toxic ingredient used at the camera factory where he works. He continues to select and at least sicken targeted people until new cups are put in place, confusing his plan.
I mentioned “White Oleander,” a movie from 2002, in Kerrian’s Notebook, Volume 2: Fun, Facts and a Few Dead Bodies. Oleanders grow all over the southern United States, so it’s a really good idea to stay on great terms with that neighbor with the oleander hedges. Don’t bug her about returning the weed whacker. Seriously.
Photo credits: taken by Patti Phillips at The Ferguson House, Antiques and Collectibles in Cameron, NC.
Part 2 of “Underwater Evidence and Recovery” covers some of the search methods available to rescue and recovery dive teams.
Read Part 1: “Underwater Evidence and Body Recovery: Lakes and Bodies” here.
The divers each have different roles. In a three member team, one does the bagging and tagging and the other has primary responsibility to bring the evidence or a body back. The divers try to stay with the bag on the way up, so it doesn’t get snagged on rebar, fish hooks, or other debris known to be present in ponds and swamps. The large pond near my house has castoff evergreen trees around the edges – great hiding places for fish, but tough to work around when moving retrieval equipment near them.
One search method for remains thought to be in shallow, but cloudy, ponds is to form a ‘skirmish line.’ The team members lock arms and walk the area, to see if they can bump into the body. In deeper water, grappling hooks might be used if there is a suspicion that a body is snagged on a log or other large object. Sometimes, people drown in their cars after going off a road, and must be extricated before the car is towed out.
As upsetting as it might be to the families of missing loved ones, searches cost money. The men and women in charge of the searches must weigh their past experience in finding people under different circumstances and decide when to call it off officially.
Highly experienced divers have found bodies and evidence at a depth of fifteen feet, where it is extremely cold and almost pitch black. It’s not always possible to recover anything at that depth, with currents, storms, or toxic waste in the mix.
Searches are conducted with ropes because of the zero visibility. The bottoms of lakes are silky and murky and the divers see shades of dark. Lights don’t help because they bounce off particles in the water. The divers have to work by feel.
During training, already certified divers practice evidence recovery in clear water, then duplicate the exercise in black water. Some practice dives are done while wearing blackout masks. Trainees have been known to close their eyes and hum when getting used to the darkness. As one diver said, “It’s scary down there the first few times.” The job is definitely not for everyone. I certainly couldn’t do it!
The procedure after finding evidence or a body is to bag it while still in the water. The body bag has fine mesh on side to let the water out, but not the evidence. A design improvement created 6 points of attachment to lift the body bag, allowing more stability during the lift.
For a drowning, the divers buoy the body. For a homicide, the divers wait with a body bag and buoy it. Attaching a buoy allows for easier lifting.
Once out of the water, a record of the chain of custody is kept on the outside of the bag by the Medical Examiner.
Experts say that drowning deaths can be avoided by following some simple rules:
“Ninety percent of our fatalities could be prevented if they were wearing a life jacket (while boating),” North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Officer Hannah Shively explained.
If you see someone in distress, try and throw an object towards them, whether it’s a stick, fishing pole, cooler, or life jacket, to pull them to safety. Don’t let yourself or anyone else become a statistic.
*Photos taken by Patti Phillips at two Writers’ Police Academy events in North Carolina. Many thanks to the members of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department for their informative presentations and to Lee Lofland for organizing the annual events.
Crime scene tape has been posted around your favorite big pond or lake and nobody can get on/in the water until it has been searched. What has happened? Perhaps a body has been sighted underwater by a swimmer, or a fisherman has snagged something suspicious on his hook. A violent crime may have been committed in the area and the police are looking for discarded weapon(s). Or a report has come in to the police station about a missing person, and that missing person may have been seen in the vicinity of the water. Law enforcement is already on the case and if the crime scene tape is up, along with officers conducting an investigation, then a dive team is most likely working your formerly peaceful spot.
The USA has a great many lakes and assorted other bodies of water, both natural and man-made. Just a few examples:
Alaska: over 3,000,000 lakes (yes, 3 million)
Minnesota: 10,000 lakes (it’s even written on the license plates)
New Jersey: 366 named ponds, lakes, and lagoons
North Carolina: 78 named lakes as well as several bays, sounds, and hundreds of ponds.
Texas: over 200 large lakes and reservoirs.
When that many bodies of water are part of the landscape, it makes sense that the Sheriff’s Department (County law enforcement) and First Responders have teams that specialize in underwater evidence and body recovery. Why the Sheriff’s Department? It’s not about deep pockets financing the operations, it’s all about jurisdiction and best use of available resources. Many large lakes cross town lines, and the Sheriff’s Department has jurisdiction in all the towns in its County. No need to duplicate personnel, when prevailing thought is that one or two teams per County will be able to handle the job of underwater evidence and body recovery.
Note: the local Fire Department usually has a First Responder team on the site of any accident – they are trained for rescue. At some point, it will be determined whether it is a recovery or a rescue and/or if there is a need to preserve evidence. It’s usually a recovery rather than a rescue at a lake, because after a person spends ten minutes under the water without air, it becomes a recovery operation.
Are there enough on-the-water deaths to make certified-for-recovery dive teams necessary? Sadly, yes. The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project tracks those stats for the five biggest USA lakes. There were 99 deaths reported in 2016, 88 in 2017, and as of this writing, 47 so far in 2018 in the Great Lakes alone. North Carolina has reported 10 lake deaths so far in 2018.
Most of the time, the lake deaths are accidental, but on occasion, bodies are found because of a homicide.
A body will float after 72 hours, and continue to float for a couple of days. After that, the naturally occurring body gas is expelled and it will sink again. Bodies are often found fairly quickly, but a body gets like jelly if it’s been in the water for a while, complicating the collection process.
Cold water will preserve a body, and warm water will cause more rapid decay, so divers must work carefully in the warmer locales. Cadaver dogs can pinpoint the location of a body to speed up the work. It’s been discovered that the longer the body is in the water, the wider the smell arc for the dogs. It’s a little like a dead fish smell, more concentrated closer to the body.
If no cadaver dogs are available, the divers swim in ever bigger arcs from the chosen starting point onshore and they work in grid patterns. If the search area is large enough, one of the onshore/on boat team members keeps a map/record of the searched areas.
In general, when working in shallow water, the investigation and recovery can be accomplished by dive teams alone. In deeper water, it will be a combination of boats and dive teams that do the search and recovery.
Most dive teams have the same equipment. They dive with aluminum scuba tanks and 3200 pounds of air will last about an hour. The basic dive suit is worn for warmth and protection – below 10 feet, it’s cold, no matter what the weather is up top. They also have hazmat suits to dive with in toxic environments.
Buoys are color-coded and are released to show when the diver(s) need help or when marking the spot.
With the smallest team of 3 people, there are:
With a team of 11 people, at any given time, there are five people in the water.
It is protocol to always keep one diver on the surface, ready to assist under water or switch places with the diver already in the water. The “tender” stays on the surface (whether in a boat or on the shore) and directs the search using a rope. The tender signals by tugs; he/she lets the rope play out, and then gives more when needed.
The “tender” not only controls the line and the search pattern, but keeps track of the air time and the clock time on a log, which becomes the official record of the diver/search activity. If there is a new diver on the team, the tender tracks to see the average air use, an important stat to have when making sure a sufficient supply of air tanks is on hand for each team member. The tender can estimate the time/air left in the tanks in use after observing the previous pattern of intake by the newbie.
After spending time in the water, the divers will be dehydrated, another thing the tender keeps track of.
Stay tuned for Part 2: “Searches.”
*Photos taken by Patti Phillips at two Writers’ Police Academy events in North Carolina. Many thanks to Lee Lofland for organizing the annual events, and to the members of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department for their informative presentations.