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History of poison
The history of poisons stretches over a period from before 4500 BC to the present day. Poisons have been used for many purposes across the span of human existence as weapons, anti-venoms and medicines. Indeed, poison has allowed much progress in the branches of medicine, toxicology, and technology, among others.
The use of poison varies greatly. Historically, its employment in assassination and homicide incited fear in the public. Other times, it has been used for political implosion and elements of espionage.
In the present day, poison is still used for a variety of mostly mundane purposes involving agriculture and food preservation, but is also still used for the starker purposes of murder. Due to more modern-day technology, however, poisons can be more easily detected.
Ancient times and Dark Ages
Archaeological findings provide proof that, while primitive mankind used conventional weapons such as axes and clubs, and later swords, they probably sought more subtle, destructive means of causing death—something that could be achieved through poison. Grooves for storing or holding poisons such as tubocurarine have been found in their hunting weapons and tools, showing that early humans had discovered poisons of varying potency and been applying them to their weapons. Some speculate that this use and existence of these strange and noxious substances would have been kept within the more important and higher-ranked members of a tribe or clan, and were seen as emblems of a greater power. This may have also given birth to the stereotypical 'medicine man' or 'witch doctor'.
The discovery of poisons had both advantages and disadvantages in probably every civilisation in which it was discovered. The use of poisons for homicide and assassination also caused the need for antidotes for these poisons, and soon after the potential of the poison was realised, the search for ways to detract from or reverse its power began.
Once the use and danger of poison was realized, it became apparent that something had to be done. Mithridates, King of Pontos (ancient Greece, now modern Turkey) from around 114-63 BC, lived in constant fear of being assassinated by the use of poison, and so became a hard-working pioneer in the search for a cure for poisons. In his position of power, he was able to test poisons on criminals facing execution, and then to test if there was a possible antidote. So paranoid was he that he administered daily amounts of poisons in an attempt to make himself immune to as many poisons as he could.
Eventually, he discovered a formula that combined small portions of dozens of the best-known herbal remedies of the time, which he named 'Mithridatium'. This was kept totally secret until the invasion of Pompey, who was able to take it back to Rome. Pliny the Younger describes over 7000 different poisons. One he describes as:
After being defeated by Pompey, Mithridates' antidote prescriptions and notes of medicinal plants were taken by the Romans and translated into Latin.
Indian surgeon Sushruta defined the stages of slow poisoning and the remedies of slow poisoning. He also mentions antidotes and the use of traditional substances to counter the effects of poisoning.
In ancient mythology
References to poison or poison-like substances are present in the mythological canon of many ancient civilizations and up to the almost-universal 'death' of mythological beliefs.
Some of the first mythological depictions of the use of poisons come from translations of ancient, Mesopotamian Sumerian texts, in which a being named 'Gula' is mentioned as 'the mistress of spells and witchcraft'. These texts have been dated to c. 4500 BC; a translated piece of text follows:
In the Puranic legend mention of poison is made during the mythological process of churning the cosmic ocean, before the drink of immortality is won, and thus it symbolizes the unavoidable phenomenon of death within the samsara realm of Maya.
In Hindu mythology, only Shiva is capable of drinking poison without harm and he is the popular Hindu symbol of spiritual progress through Yoga.
In Greek mythology, Medea attempted to poison Theseus with a cup of wine poisoned with wolfsbane. However, his father Aegeus interceded when he discerned his identity, knocking the cup out of his hand and sending Medea away.
Some economic concepts and ideas find mention in the Buddhist literature during the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Among these the economic enterprise and price and taxation are the main issues discussed in this literature. Some specific economic activities such as the sale of meat, living creatures, poison, arms and armaments were forbidden.
Poisoned weapons were used in ancient India. Tactics related to war in ancient India have references to poison. A verse in Sanskrit is given below:
Chānakya (c. 350-283 BC), also known as Kautilya, was adviser and prime minister to the first Maurya Emperor Chandragupta (c. 340-293 BC). Kautilya suggests employing means such as seduction, secret use of weapons, poison, etc. Kautilya urged detailed precautions against assassination - tasters for food, elaborate ways to detect poison. Death penalty for violations of royal decrees was frequently administered through the use of poison.
Unlike many civilizations, records of Egyptian knowledge and use of poisons can only be dated back to approx. 300 BCE. However, it is believed that the earliest known Egyptian pharaoh, Menes, studied the properties of poisonous plants and venoms, according to early records.
Before this, however, evidence of poison-related knowledge in Egypt can be traced to the writings of an ancient Egyptian alchemist, Agathodiamon (100BC approx.), who spoke of an (unidentified) mineral that when mixed with natron produced a 'fiery poison'. He described this poison as 'disappearing in water', giving a clear solution. This 'fiery poison' may exist as the roots for some of the later poisons that were invisible when mixed with water, and indicates that such an elusive poison may have been available to some civilisations such as Egypt as early as 100 BC. As to the 'fiery poison' which this alchemist had concocted, it appears that he must surely have created arsenic trioxide, the unidentified mineral having to have been either realgar or orpiment, due to the relation between the unidentified mineral and his other writings. 
The Egyptians are also thought to have come into knowledge about elements such as antimony, copper, crude arsenic, lead, opium, and mandrake (among others). Other such secrets were revealed in papyri. Egyptians are now thought to be the first to properly master distillation, and to manipulate the poison that can be retrieved from peach kernels.
Finally, Cleopatra is said to have poisoned herself with an asp after hearing of Marc Antony's demise. Prior to her death, she was said to have sent many of her maidservants to act as guinea pigs to test different poisons, including belladonna, henbane, and the strychnine tree's seed.
In Roman times, poisoning carried out at the dinner table or common eating or drinking area was not unheard of, or probably even uncommon, and was happening as early as 331 BC. These poisonings would have been used for self-advantageous reasons in every class of the social order. The writer Livy describes the poisoning of members of the upper class and nobles of Rome, and Roman emperor Nero is known to have favored the use of poisons on his relatives, even hiring a personal poisoner. His preferred poison was, according to Livy, cyanide.
His predecessor Claudius was allegedly poisoned with mushrooms or alternatively poison herbs. However, accounts of the way Claudius died vary greatly. Halotus, his taster, Xenophon, his doctor, and the infamous poisoner Locusta have all been accused of possibly being the administrator of the fatal substance, but Agrippina, his final wife, is considered to be the most likely to have arranged his murder and may have even administered the poison herself. Some report that he died after prolonged suffering following a single dose at his evening meal, while some say that he recovered somewhat, only to be poisoned once more by a feather dipped in poison which was pushed down his throat under the pretence of helping him to vomit, or by poisoned gruel or an enema. Agrippina is considered to be the most likely have had Claudius murdered, because she was ambitious for her son, Nero, and Claudius had become suspicious of her intrigues.
Later, in Europe during the Middle Ages, when the nature of poisons were known better than simply magic and witchcraft, there were sellers and suppliers of potions and poisons, known as apothecaries. Despite the fact that the medicinal uses of poisons were now known, it was no secret that people bought poisons for less useful and lawful reasons. The alchemists who worked in these apothecaries suffered a considerable risk to their health, working so invariably close to poisonous substances. 
At the same time, in other areas of the world, the technological advancement of poisons was expanding, and, in the Arab nations, some had succeeded in making arsenic transparent, odourless and tasteless when applied to a drink, a method which would allow poison murderers to remain undetected for at least one millennia.
An excerpt from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, a text that existed sometime in the 14th century to the 15th century describes a killer buying poison from an apothecary to rid a rat infestation:
This is one example of a large literature related to poison, and poisons and potions were a very popular subject in fiction. There were also academic texts discussing the subject, and both non-fiction and fiction were written for the most part by monks, whose knowledge and wisdom were respected, and as such authored a large portion of published works.
One example of a non-fiction work is The Book of Venoms, a book describing the known poisons of the time, their effects and uses, written by Magister Santes de Ardoynis in 1424. It also recommended the best known treatments for a given poison. Despite this, it is considered probable that these factual works were not released to the public, but kept within appropriate learned circles for study and research.
The troubled 14th and 15th centuries in Rajasthan, India saw invasions in the Rajput heartlands. Rajput women practiced a custom of jauhar ( literally the taking of life) when their sons, brothers, or husbands faced certain death in battle. Jauhar was practiced within the Kshatriya warrior class to avoid the fate of subservience, slavery, rape, or slaughter at the hands of the invading forces.
If the truth was indeed kept from the public, it did not prevent the spawning of folklore and rumors about poisons, and use of them for purposes that were distasteful to the public. This caused a level of paranoia within some areas of the societies of England and Europe. This wave of concern was furthered by the availability of 'medicine' potent enough to be lethal when secretly administered in sufficient quantity - it provided an easy way to kill, and one which was subtle, quiet, and generally allowed the criminal to remain undetected. Perhaps it was this wave of paranoia that swept the streets, or the public need for answers about these toxins, but books about ways of counteracting poisons became sought for, and fed off the mounting anxiety, even though generally being wholly inaccurate.
Naturally, crafty book salesmen would have sought to inflame the issue as a marketing ploy, and exaggerate the risk so that people would buy their books in search of a non-existent security. Other salesmen such as jewelry traders offering a supposedly poison-weakening amulet, or a doctor selling a magical cure would have profited greatly in such times of doubt. The information the public craved was kept from them, a treasure only for scholars and scientists, and so the public was left to make their own assumptions.
Despite the negative effects of poison, which were so evident in these times, cures were being found in poison, even at such a time where it was hated by the most of the general public. An example can be found in the works of Iranian born Persian physician, philosopher, and scholar Rhazes, writer of Secret of Secrets, which was a long list of chemical compounds, minerals and appratus, the first man to distil alcohol and use it as an anti-septic, and the person who suggested mercury be used as a laxative. He made discoveries relating to a mercury chloride called corrosive sublimate. An ointment derived from this sublimate was used to cure what Rhazes described as 'the itch', which is now referred to as scabies. This proved an effective treatment because of mercury's poisonous nature and ability to penetrate the skin, allowing it to eliminate the disease and the itch. 
By the Renaissance, the use of poisons for unlawful and reprehensible intentions had peaked; it was arguably becoming any assassin or murderer's essential tool. This peaking of poison's popularity within crime syndicates and circles would probably have been due at least in part to the new discoveries that were then being made about poison. Italian alchemists for one were, in the 14th and 15th century, realizing the potential of the combining of poisonous substances to create even more potent brews than the ones that had been put together, and other new properties of poison were becoming clearer. A science of the study was forming, something today known as toxicology. So prominently used for homicide in society was poison that one would be fearful even to attend a dinner party for fear of having the food or drink poisoned by either the host or perhaps one of the guests.
Cesare Borgia was the son of Pope Alexander VI, perhaps one of the most disputed popes in regards to legitimacy, having used his power to promote his five sons to high titles. He was thought to be a hostile and ruthless man, and was avoided and feared. Borgia was notorious not only for being the son of a very controversial man, but also because he was thought to be a poison-wielding murderer. In the following quote, Apollinaire describes what he believes is a kind of 'Borgia Recipe' used for the disposing of victims:
After the death of Cesare Borgia's father, many rumors circulated proposing several theories about the cause, although most ended with the Pope having died in some horrible way involving murder, usually by poisoning.
Apollinaire's idea was that the pope was poisoned by wine which was in fact intended for another at the dinner table, Cardinal de Corneto. Sanuto held a similar theory, except that it involved a box of sweetmeats, instead of wine. The death of the pope elicited little mourning, which was expected after the debased standards of his tenure. Historical evidence suggests that the pope was indeed poisoned in some way; when his body was exhibited, it was in a shocking state of decomposition. To reduce suspicion, it was only on display at night by candlelight.
Cesare Borgia's passing did not cause much sadness either, a result of the reputation that he had forged for himself. However, his sister Lucrezia did mourn for this man who had been accused of so many crimes. Lucrezia was also considered a wrongdoer, but may in fact have been held responsible for some of Cesare's misdeeds.
The Council of Ten
By the 1600s, the use of poison had become an art of sorts, and, in several cities of Italy including Venice and Rome, there were actual schools teaching the ways of poison and the 'art' which had been born. Earlier, in the fifteenth century, a guild of alchemists and poisoners known as the Council of Ten was formed. This cult of poison-wielding assassins carried out contracts for people who paid them enough money, and usually anyone contracted for death ended up slain, killed by an undetected dose of lethal substances of varying description.
Neopoliani Magioe Naturalis
Neopoliani Magioe Naturalis was a publication first printed just before 1590 that detailed the art of poisoning, and effective methods of using poison to commit homicide. The most effective way of killing someone with poison, according to the work, was by drugging someone's wine, a method that was very popular at the time. One 'very strong mixture' used in the book is the Veninum Lupinum, which consists of a mix of aconite, taxus baccata, caustic lime, arsenic, bitter almonds and powdered glass mixed with honey. The overall product is a pill approximately the size of a walnut.
By the end of the 16th century, the art and popularity of poison had moved from Italy to France, where criminal poisoning was becoming more and more frequent. It is estimated that in the 1570s that there would have been about thirty thousand people in Paris alone using poison or having some connection to poison in an illegal or immoral way. It was becoming something of which was described as a 'plague' or 'epidemic'. And this epidemic, while obviously contributing greatly to the death toll, was also greatly affecting citizens who had no connection to poison. Many people, nobles especially, were becoming extremely afraid of poisoning. They would attend dinner parties of only the most trusted, and hired only hand-picked servants. Several instances very famous or high-born people who were very afraid of poisoning are both Henrietta Anne of England and Henry IV. The princess Henrietta Anne of England was so fearful and aware of poisoning that she instantly made the assumption that she had been poisoned when she was afflicted with a peritonitis due to a duodenal ulcer, while Henry IV, while making a visit to the Louvre, was recorded to have eaten only eggs that he had cooked himself, and drank only water that he had poured for himself. Later, in 1662, Louis XIV limited the sale of poisons within apothecaries, and certain poisons were not to be sold, except to people whom the shopkeeper knew well to be trustworthy.
Trustworthy alchemists did, however, become hard to find during this period; many of them were con men, fooling both their patrons and the public at large into believing that Mercury, thought then to be something of a 'core' element - one of which all others were invariably composed - was convertible into gold and other fine metals. While many took advantage of this belief, others genuinely, in the name of science, attempted to make gold out of less valuable and duller elements. Such of these alchemists were driven towards the same goal of attaining three objects of high desire within alchemical circles: the Philiosopher's Stone, able to change base metals into pure gold; the Elixir of Life, which lengthened one's life expansively, and finally, the Alkahest, a substance which was capable of dissolving anything. The pursuit of these goals, as fantastical, but scientifically supported as it was, retarded greatly the progress of alchemical science, as these goals were ultimately impossible to realise. 
At a similar time to the ban of poisons, priests in Notre Dame became so astounded with the number of poison-related confessions that they had listened to that they decided to inform the king about how bad the 'epidemic' of poison actually was. In response to this, the king organized an order dedicated to the investigation of poisonings called the Chambre Ardente, and the investigation itself became known as the affaire des poisons.
Despite the fact that the inquisitors had been sponsored by the sovereign himself, they failed to catch many of the worst and most murderous poisoners, in whom probably had many connections in which were employed to evade punishment. However, in the life of the order, approximately 442 persons were caught and received punishment. The work of this order did cause a backfiring, or side effect that was a magnifying in the interest of poison and how to use them, and, inexplicably, many people actually became actively involved in poison after the birth of an order made to reduce poisonings.
While criminals based in Italy and England were the first to introduce poison as a means of murder or harm, during this period the use of poison truly was spreading all over Europe. Spain was notable for the fact that it had, by some means or another, committed several failed attempts at the disposal of Queen Elizabeth of England. One person named Dr. Rodrigo Lopez, a Jewish physician, was called on by Spain to kill the queen, but he was caught and then later hanged, drawn and quartered for the act, though Elizabeth herself and Robert Cecil doubted his guilt. It is thought that some aspects, specifically a character, of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice may refer to or have been inspired by this Dr. Lopez. After this particular incident, the queen's food had to be tasted for poisoning, and greater security was put into effect. She was even known to have taken antidotes on a weekly basis for protection.
Conversely, royal assassination attempts by poison were also domestic in Spain, with several people and groups wanting to kill the monarchs. One successful attempt at this (probable one of few in Europe) was the poisoning of Marie Louise, the wife of Carlos II, who died suddenly in September 1689.
The same trend continued through the Victorian era, and was still labelled as an epidemic of sorts, and with poison still being considered one of the easiest and simplest ways to commit murder. However, several changes occurred in the Victorian era, such as the rise of the life insurance industry, made poisoning the 'fashionable' crime considering the guaranteed and lucrative profit in the killing of a life-ensured relative with a large price on their head. But as the move into the 1900s occurred, the technology of preventing poisoning became better and more efficient, and criminal poisoning become much harder than in previous centuries. Criminal poisoning had to be made cleaner and better planned to match the ever-advancing technologies employed against would-be poisoners. However, because of a wider range of educated people, more people were able to understand how to use poison and were intelligent or skilled enough to plan out a logical poison-induced murder, whereas in past times, usually only a select few knowledgeable people knew enough to conduct a successful homicide.
Poison used in the past were also present in 20th-century murders. In the early 20th century, arsenic was often used, but during the mid-century, cyanide became quite popular. It was used during World War II by captured agents of the Resistance as a means of suicide to escape the heinous torture of their enemies. Nazi war leader Herman Goering even used it to kill himself the night before he was supposed to be hanged during the Nuremberg Trials. Adolf Hitler had also taken a pill of cyanide shortly before the fall of Berlin along with his wife, Eva Braun.
However, new poisons later became more used, so as to outmatch the knowledge of the current toxicology field of science. In this way, wielding a new and unknown poison, a poisoner could kill someone, and the death might be mistaken as an unfortunate case of a rare illness. This put a new strain on toxicology and other branches dealing with poison, and they were forced to work hard to keep up with the criminals who were using poisons that they had never previously encountered.
In the late 20th century, an increasing number of products used for everyday life proved to be poisonous. The risk of being poisoned nowadays lies more in the accidental factor, where poison be induced or taken by accident. These problems occur more frequently in children, and poisoning is the 4th most common cause of death within young people. Accidental ingestions are most common in children less than 5 years old.
However, hospital and emergency facilities are much enhanced compared to the first half of the 20th century and before, and antidotes are more available. Antidotes have been found for many poisons, and the antidotes for some of the most commonly known poisons are shown in the table below:
However, poison still exists as a murderous entity today, but, for a variety of reasons, it is not as popular form of conducting murder as it used to be in past times, probably because of the wider range of ways to kill people and other factors that must be taken into consideration.
Uses in the modern day
Today, poison is used for a wider variety of purposes than it used to be. Quite often, poison can be used to rid an unwanted infestation by pests or to kill weeds and such, and provides perhaps the most effective way of destroying an infestation.
These chemicals, known as pesticides, have been known to have been used in some form since about 2500 BC, but the use of pesticides has increased staggeringly from 1950, and presently approximately 2.5 million tons of industrial pesticides are used each year. 
Certain poisons can also be used to preserve foods and building material. For safety and health reasons, the poisons that are used for these purposes are usually found to be somewhat less poisonous than poisons used for weed killing and infestation ridding.
Poison in other cultures today
Today, in many developing peoples of countries and nations such as Africa, South America and certain parts of Asia, the use of poison as an actual weapon of hunting and attack still endures. In Africa, certain arrow poisons are made using floral ingredients, such as of that taken from the plant Acokanthera. This plant contains ouabain, which is a cardiac glycoside, oleander, and milkweeds. Poisoned arrows are also still used in the jungle areas of Assam, Burma and Malaysia. The ingredients for the creation of these poisons are mainly extracted from plants of the Antiaris, Strychnos and Strophanthus genera, and Antiaris toxicaria (a tree of the mulberry and breadfruit family), for example, is used in the Java island of Indonesia, as well as several of its surrounding islands. The juice or liquid extracts are smeared on the head of the arrow, and inflicts the target paralysis, convulsions and/or cardiac arrest, virtually on strike due to the speed in which the extracts can effect a victim.
As well as plant based poisons, there are others that are made that are based on animals. For example, the larva or pupae of a beetle genus of the Northern Kalahari Desert is used to create a slow-acting poison that can be quite useful when hunting. The beetle itself is applied to the arrow head, by squeezing the contents of the beetle right onto the head. Plant sap is then mixed and serves as an adhesive. However, instead of the plant sap, a powder made from the dead, eviscerated larva can be used.
|This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "History_of_poison". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.|