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.
“The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is an intelligence-driven and threat-focused national security organization with both intelligence and law enforcement responsibilities.”* It is the chief fact-finding branch of the Department of Justice and helps other agencies by sharing that information and providing training.
Its mission is:
“To protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States.”*
In 1908, the United States had about 100 cities with 50,000 people. The rest of the population (about 83 million) was spread throughout the rural areas of the country. Law enforcement personnel at the local level were often poorly paid (and were sometimes volunteer) members of the community. Murders were handled by local investigators and still are to this day. For the majority of the cases, murder is not a federal crime, unless carried out across State lines.
Prosecution of border security issues or organized crime was limited in 1908 since there was no adequate way to enforce the law at a national level. In fact, few criminal laws even existed at a federal level. For the most part, individual States and local jurisdictions handled their own criminal investigations, and sometimes that led to political corruption, corporate criminal behavior, and even slave labor in factories. Federal agencies were stretched thin or were nonexistent in some parts of the country.
President Teddy Roosevelt supported the idea of modernizing law enforcement, so when his Attorney General hired 34 of his own investigators (including nine seasoned Secret Service agents) to assist the Department of Justice, Roosevelt wholeheartedly endorsed the action. A few months later, the Bureau of Investigation was officially created. Hardly a large force, but it was a start.
At the beginning, incidents involving car theft across State lines, civil rights, and various kinds of fraud were the typical cases. The FBI also took on treason and domestic terrorism, and Congress (previously reluctant to loosen the purse strings) began to see the value of a national law enforcement agency.
It’s interesting to note that the Mann Act or “White Slave Traffic Act,” was passed in 1910 to help stop interstate prostitution and human trafficking, and the FBI had a role in the early investigations. One hundred years later, it has become an international problem and requires cooperation from many different agencies to obtain successful prosecutions.
World War 1 brought us the problems of sabotage by foreign agents against our military ships and munitions plants, as well as international smuggling. The FBI had entered the so-called spy business and worked hard to eliminate those threats.
In 1924, it was recognized that fingerprinting was a reliable way of connecting (or eliminating) individuals to a particular scene, and to collect that information in a central location would be helpful to other law enforcement agencies in the United States. Now, the FBI gathers and classifies fingerprints from convicted felons and other criminals, military personnel, federal applicants and employees, and shares that information with appropriate agencies. Additionally, fingerprints of military detainees and other persons of national security interest are being collected for national security purposes.
Formerly called Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), the program processes over 63,000 prints a day, is now integrated with other forms of identification and called IAFIS, and can deliver digital information in as little as two hours. It is used in connection with biometric databases (facial and voice recognition) for more accurate identifications. Next Generation Identification (NGI) combines biometrics, fingerprints, and palm prints to expand identification possibilities.
One of the programs developed by the FBI is the ‘Ten Most Wanted’ list. It began in 1950 as a way to call attention to fugitives who might otherwise remain at large. Each new list is posted in United States Post Offices and on the FBI website.
Since 1950, 518 fugitives have been on the list, and 484 have been apprehended or located. The stats below are from the FBI site:
With the advent of increased world-wide terrorism, the computer and cyber-security age, more complex corporate crimes, and a global awareness of human trafficking, the focus of the FBI has shifted.
At the end of 2017, there were over 35,000 employees, made up of intelligence analysts, field agents, language specialists, scientists, and information technology specialists. They are tasked with investigating:
Stay tuned for posts about Quantico and training for the FBI, and interviews with former FBI agents.
*Photo and quotes credit: (from FBI website)
1969 Latent Print Match
A latent print removed from a 1969 murder victim’s car was later determined to be a match to the suspect’s fingerprint (inset) contained in the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS). The Houston police detective and Texas Department of Public Safety latent print technician instrumental in solving the cold case were honored by the FBI with the 2011 “Latent Hit of the Year” Award.