Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Forensic Toxicology

The Poisoners

In Criminal Poisoning, John Harris Trestrail III provides a brief historical summary of poisoning, starting with the Sumerians around 2500 B.C., who worshipped a goddess of poisons.  The Egyptians understood the uses of venom and the Hebrews had poisoned arrows for warfare.  In India, around 500 years before Christ, physicians had written directions for the detection via personality traits of poisoners, while the physician, Nicander of Colophon, compiled the earliest known list of poison remedies.

The idea of poison came from the Greek word, "toxicon," which referred to poison arrows, and it is the root of "intoxicated," which to the Greeks meant being sickened by poisoned arrows.   The Greeks also developed a form of capital punishment via poison with Hemlock, which was given to Socrates for corrupting the Athenian youth.

In the eighth century, an Arab chemist turned arsenic into an odorless, tasteless powder that was impossible to trace in the body until centuries later, enhancing its use as an undetectable murder weapon, especially among those standing to inherit from aging relatives.

During the Renaissance, poisoning became an art form, inspiring subtle ways to dispense with people via such items as poison rings, swords, knives, letters, and even lipstick.   Poisoning societies developed, as did family businesses that relied on poison-for-hire as their trade.  Notorious poisoners came out of Italy and France at this time.

While poison is the weapon of choice for women, and throughout history more women than men have been mass or serial poisoners, a sampling of prominent serial killers via poison contains representatives from both genders.

  • Locusta, in Ancient Rome, was Nero's personal poisoner and the first documented serial killer.   She helped Nero to murder his brother with cyanide, and she also murdered several of his wives.
  • The Council of Ten in Venice in 1419 poisoned people for a fee, using a mercury-based compound and various forms of arsenic.  In Venice and Rome, there were even schools for people to learn how to do this.
  • In the 17th century, Italy's Madam Toffana was apparently successful in her poisonings around 600 times, either directly by her or indirectly by those to whom she sold her arsenic concoction.   She was allegedly involved with poisoning two popes.

Mary Ann Cotton
Mary Ann Cotton

In England, Mary Ann Cotton killed her mother, all of her children, several stepchildren, an acquaintance, and four husbands with arsenic.   They all died of "gastric fever," a diagnosis common in the 19th century. 

Belle Gunness
Belle Gunness

Belle Sorrenson Gunness killed her first husband and two of her children to collect insurance money for purchasing a pig farm in Indiana.   Belle soon put "lonely hearts" ads in the paper and those men who answered disappeared.  When a fire leveled the place in 1908, investigators turned up one corpse after another that had been interred in the farm's foundation or buried in the yard. All of the victims had been poisoned.  A handyman estimated the total of her murders at 49.

  • The "giggling grandma," Nannie Doss, dispatched four husbands during the 1940s and 50s, but she claimed that she'd done it for love, not money.   She wanted the perfect mate and the men she had married had failed to measure up.  It was easy enough to slip each of them rat poison and move on to the next prospect—but also collect the insurance money.  She also poisoned her mother, two sisters, two children, a grandson and a nephew, because she enjoyed killing.

Dr. Thomas Neill Cream
Dr. Thomas Neill Cream

Doctor Thomas Neill Cream dispensed strychnine to at least four prostitutes, telling them that it was medication for their complexions.   They experienced agonizing symptoms before they died.  He was nicknamed the "Lambeth Poisoner," and he tripped himself up by offering information to police for money.  He was hanged in 1892, the same year that Lizzie Borden was denied prussic acid on the day before her father and stepmother were murdered with multiple blows from an ax.

  • John Otto Hoch roamed around the U.S., and is thought to have murdered 12 of his 24 wives by poisoning.   His preferred substance was arsenic.  He even carried a dose for himself inside a fountain pen, to use if he got caught or felt suicidal.  Illinois saved him the effort by executing him.
  • The "Toxicomaniac," Graham Frederick Young was an Englishman who loved poisons and poisoners.   From the age of 11, he was obsessed with chemistry and the use of substances to gain power over others.  He killed his stepmother with antimony when he was 14, which no one realized until he admitted it years later, and his obsession was such that he was finally sent to an asylum for nine years.  He came out "cured" and found employment in a job that used thallium, with which he then experimented on people.  When two died, he bragged so much about what he knew of their conditions that he was arrested and convicted of their murders, as well as several attempted murders.  It was clear from a list he had made that he had targeted many more for his deadly experiments.

Donald Harvey
Donald Harvey

Donald Harvey worked in the health care system from 1983-1987 as a nurse's aide.  During that time, he engaged in a cold-blooded killing streak that involved smothering, metal-based poisons, and tranquilizer drugs.  He pleaded guilty to 37 murders and was referred to as the "Angel of Death."

Many of these people were caught and confronted with their crimes, but some murderers-by-poison escaped, thanks to the long period of time between administration and detection.


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