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.
It’s been a very wet year. We have lived through a hurricane, flooding, high water levels, squishy lawns, damp/wet cellars, and fewer sunny days during the summer than I can ever remember from the past. That leads to outdoor creatures being flooded out of their nooks and crannies below the ground and in the woods. Mice and most snakes and insects don’t like wet feet any more than humans do, so they tend to go to places like houses and barns to dry out.
Not long ago, Sheila had a late evening craving for a cup of tea, went to the kitchen and turned on the overhead light.
And saw a mouse racing toward the stove along the top of the half-inch wide backsplash.
Then screamed that horrible, deep-throated scream that always makes me think that Freddy Krueger is headed our way with a meat cleaver.
After the screaming and barking stopped – I’m not admitting to more than one person screaming – we did the snap mousetrap bit, but he was smarter than we were. He knew what we were up to – or else he just didn’t like our goodies. Almond butter? Bird seed? Bits of fruit? Cheese? Nope, not a nibble. Placing poison inside the house was not an option because of Hammett, our wonderful Irish Setter.
We finally called the Killer Elite Squad – the exterminators. They came, they saw, and did things under the house. We wanted the furry creature gone or at least chased back to his old home in the woods. The plumber came and plugged up holes under the house. The electrician came and closed up gaps near a socket in the garage. Mission hopefully accomplished.
We haven’t seen the invader since and Sheila has finally returned to the kitchen after a week of carefully avoiding that scary room. Hammett has snuffled at the doorway. Big sigh of relief here. I can cook, but only to survive, and take-out dinner from a limited selection of restaurants every night is not as exciting as you might first imagine.
Part of the solution under the house involved poison and it made me think about the consequences of it getting into conniving, possibly murderous hands. Mice and humans are both mammals, after all, and what is lethal for one might also be deadly for the other in the right quantities. Rodent poison is readily available to anyone, sitting on grocery, hardware, and big box store shelves alike. Bonus? There is a perfectly good reason to buy it. Who would suspect anything devious behind the simple purchase of a couple of boxes of the stuff, especially this time of year?
Why does it work? The main ingredient, brodifacoum, causes blood to stop coagulating. Brodifacoum causes death in mice by thinning their blood so much that they hemorrhage. Death is not immediate, so they crawl away or return to eat more of the stuff, oblivious to its harmful effect.
In theory, mouse poison could kill a person if administered in enough quantity over a period of time, also causing them to hemorrhage. But, in all honesty, the flu-like symptoms of nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, etc. would send you to the doctor long before death could occur, especially if the symptoms worsen. Who would want to deal with that any longer than necessary? Plus, the amount needed to do in a grownup is considerable. And there is an easy antidote – vitamin K – which acts as speedy coagulant.
Poisons are used in books and other media to get rid of victims all the time, but is feeding rat poison to the potential victim a method that is used outside the entertainment industry?
It turns out that about ten years ago in real-life, a disturbed teenager from the Midwest decided to make his family sick, a little at a time. He mixed the poison in with their food over several weeks until they finally realized that they were getting lots worse, with numerous bouts of painful symptoms. A doctor visit revealed the truth.
At this point I usually say that no bodies were found while researching and/or writing this post. Maybe not this time, but if you hear screaming in the future, I promise you: There will be. Of the furry kind.
*Photo credit? the internet. Sheila was too busy screaming to take a photo. 😉
The Kerrians are fictional characters, but the mouse debacle really happened.
Have you ever been bitten by an insect? How about a snake? Or a frog? Or a snail? I’ll take a fire ant bite over the bites of some of the animals in this article any day.
I would bet that most of you have endured the after effects of a mosquito bite – the itchiness, the redness, the swelling, but rarely does anyone die from it. There are nasty diseases that a mosquito can carry – i.e., Malaria and the Zika virus – but the everyday, backyard variety generally just delivers an annoying couple of days of discomfort. We can’t tell the difference by just looking at them as they dive at us, so we use insect repellent to ward them off. There are couple of great products that golfers use to keep pesky gnats, horse flies, and skeeters away, but, there is no magic spray that works to chase away the deadliest animals that co-exist with us on the planet. We have to rely on treatment after the fact, or the best idea of all: avoidance.
Here are ten of the worst:
Some animals have developed neurotoxins to dispatch their victims. The worst spider in the world is found in Australia – just in Sydney, to be exact. The Sydney Funnel Web Spider can kill a human or a monkey within 15 minutes. Apparently, no other animal is susceptible to the poison. There is an anti-venom, but you’d have to be really close to the hospital to get treated in time.
The South African Spitting Scorpion uses three neurotoxins to protect itself – one to stun, one to paralyze and one to kill. It spits the lightest dose when chasing the victim away, but it only needs a billionth of a gram of the deadly dose to kill a small animal. Death is not pleasant, with tremors and convulsions that go on even after death.
The Lonomia Caterpillar is responsible for over 500 deaths in the past twenty years and kills by causing hemorrhaging near the site of the bite. The victim’s blood no longer clots and this condition spreads as the body tries to cope. Scientists don’t yet know the composition of all the toxins involved.
Unlike other poisonous animals, the Poison Dart Frog creates its toxin from its diet. Scientists have discovered that in captivity, the frog is rendered harmless by changing its diet. That means that even if the frogs in my photo above had escaped, they would have hopped around, doing no damage to me at all if they had touched me. Good thing, because one little wild frog from Central or South America has enough toxin to kill about ten fully adult humans. Hop, hop, hopping about, enticing us to touch its pretty skin, doing its worst by causing heart attacks.
The famed Puffer Fish carries a neurotoxin that is 100 times deadlier than potassium cyanide. What may not as widely known is that same toxin can zap you if you touch certain varieties of sea snails as well as the blue ringed octopus, a small but nasty bit of sea life. Contact with one of these unfriendly sorts can cause blindness, paralysis, and/or death. And while the Marbled Cone Snail may be gorgeous to look at, there is no known antidote for a strong enough dose of its venom. I’ve never been a strong ocean swimmer, but when I stick my toe in a wave at the shore, I expect to be alive afterward, pretty sea snails or not. Maybe I’ll forgo the next snorkeling trip. 😉
The Inland Taipan is among the deadliest snakes on Earth. Anybody that gets bitten by one of these can die within 45 minutes. It’s an Australian snake and there is anti-venom for the bite, but I wouldn’t want to count on getting back to civilization in time to get the treatment. If I was a snake handler Down Under or if I lived in the Outback, I’d think seriously about keeping a vial of the remedy on hand.
The King Cobra can strike fear into the heart of anyone that gets within spitting distance. Just a 1/4 ounce of its venom (about 7 ml) can kill a full grown elephant within minutes. To put that into perspective – about twenty grown men could die from that same 1/4 ounce dose. The good news is that unless you’re traveling to India or China, or the local zoo lets one escape, you’re safe.
Several varieties of Jellyfish can deliver stings that cause a great deal of pain and sometimes death. They are physically brainless, but their make-up is all about survival. Tentacles can be anywhere from less than an inch (the translucent Irukandji) up to ten feet long (the Portuguese Man O War). They are found in oceans all over the world, can be almost invisible or quite colorful (the Sea Nettle found near the Chesapeake Bay in the USA). My advice? If you see one, swim away as fast as you can.
If you’re using the information in a book you’re writing, choose your poison source carefully. Somebody has to gather that poison before it can be injected or mixed with food. Will it be the villain or someone she/he hires? There are medical uses for some of the neurotoxins – those can be purchased legally with the proper credentials. On the other hand, snake venom is not easy to collect, and somebody might actually have to catch the snake first. Snake bags anyone?
Do you have a favorite villain in literature that has used a rare animal-based poison to do his/her evil work? Please share in the comments below. 🙂
Poison Dart Frog & Jellyfish – Patti Phillips
Puffer Fish – ListVerse