In general, an investigation into a suspicious death must show that the suspect had motive, means, and opportunity in order for a D.A. to pursue and prosecute a case.
A traditional mystery (not much blood and gore, with an emphasis on the howdunit, whodunit, and why) might focus on the little old lady who seems that she would never harm a soul. In fact, she may be the dastardly evildoer in a cleverly plotted story.
A detective must discover why the victim needed killing – the motive. Was the crime committed to cover up another crime? Was the mild-mannered little old lady, barely making ends meet through a glitch in her pension system, cashing social security checks that belonged to a long dead spouse now buried in the garden? Did the victim uncover the truth and need to be silenced before spilling the beans? Readers and jury members alike might relate to her desperate plight as a motive that pushes people over the edge.
The detective must show that the suspect had the means to pull it off.
What would a little old lady do? The victim had no outward signs of blunt force trauma from being struck by a baseball bat or golf club. The answer lies in the multi-colored display of foxglove, readily available in our senior citizen’s garden. Every part of the foxglove plant can cause allergic reactions and a few fresh leaves are enough to kill a person. Collecting the foliage can irritate the skin and eyes, so wearing gardening gloves, eyeglasses, and a mask (commonly worn in pollen season) would have protected her when working with her weapon of death.
A detective must figure out if the suspect had an opportunity to deliver the poison to the victim. The foxglove leaves look very much like large baby romaine, if a bit fuzzier. But lathered in salad dressing at a neighborly gathering, nobody would be able to tell the difference.
Or, the senior citizen could bake up a special plate of brownies and share them.
From J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter to Agatha Christie, foxglove has been a popular way to ‘off’ annoying people in fiction. Snape uses foxglove to make a potion in Potions 101 and Christie mixed it with other, edible greens in the garden in “The Herb of Death.”
My wife, Sheila, picked up six plants in three different colors at the garden center. I warned her about washing her gloves after handling the plants. All protocols were followed and no brownies have been made recently at our house.
So, why do we allow foxglove to be grown if it can be deadly?
The botanical name for foxglove is Digitalis purpurea. “Digitalis” is heart medicine made from foxglove. With a controlled dosage, digitalis is valuable in treating heart failure, but the wrong amount of foxglove can cause irregular heart function and death. Long-term use of foxglove can lead to symptoms of toxicity, including visual halos, yellow-green vision, and stomach upset.
The good news is that measuring digoxin (a form of digitalis) concentrations in the blood can help detect foxglove poisoning. If the detective and the other investigators are savvy about plants and gardens and the neighborhood dynamic, asking the right questions will uncover the reason and method of the deed. Case closed.
*Please note: This post is for entertainment purposes only.
I was thumbing through the Kerrian’s Notebook file cabinet, checking for the articles written about bodies – where and how to hide them and various problems with methods used on TV and in the movies. I was a Homicide Detective for a good many years and saw my share of cases that made my jaw drop. I can’t go into detail about my own cases, but the links to real world cases within the Kerrian’s Notebook articles are authentic. Stranger than fiction? Perhaps. But then, criminals often defy logic.
Take a look at ten of the most frequently read posts about how people wind up dead, and where some criminals attempt to hide the bodies. (Click on the titles)
Keep checking back at Kerrian’s Notebook for more places to hide the bodies – you know there will be more. 😉
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.