Tuesday, 16 November 2010


Poisons have been following me around this week - luckily just in the historical, literary and anecdotal sense. I therefore proudly present, in sequence of coming to my attention:

The Cabinet of Poison

1. Waiter, there's something in my coffee

With a big thank-you to Carin Berkowitz, I giggle to share a photo of Cafe Arsenik in Montreal. Cake, anyone?

2. Literature with a bitter twist
Roald Dahl's "The Landlady" may well be one of the nicest-yet-creepiest short stories I read as an impressionable young adult. It features a B&B, a guest of the same, the landlady, a dog (of sorts), and a cup of coffee with a hint of bitter almond about it... Intrigued? Your fireside reading has just been sorted. You're welcome.

3. History of Arsenic
Just a couple of years ago, I was happily munching my lunch while listening to a talk about the history of arsenic. It sure made for a good story: arsenic, if I remember correctly, was the first poison that could not be detected even in thorough investigation of a murder victim (with the methods of the time). We're talking early nineteenth century here, and the world was becoming more and more afraid of chemicals. Was I happy I had made that sandwich myself, though!

As David Caudill, lawyer at Villanova and an intriguing storyteller, outlined, new occupations popped up in the court room of the nineteenth century as a result of a few high profile cases of arsenic poisoning. Meet the physician as an expert in court - I might as well say a fish out of water. Indeed, physicians had not been involved in murder trials to that extent before, and they had to figure out what to say and how to say it very quickly to avoid confusions that could end up very nasty for the accused.

What surprised me the most at first, and then not at all in hindsight, is that an increasing number of wives were accused of trying to poison their husbands soon after the first cases were tried - an explanation that tells us more about the nature of Victorian husbands and their trust in their sweet wives than an actual poisonous sophistication on behalf of the latter. I wish I could remember more details - but luckily, David wrote an article about the prehistory of the Arsenic Wars in connection with abovementioned Brown Bag Lunch lecture. Enjoy the read!

4. Astrology, alchemy and a body
The most curious news of the day: Tycho Brahe, the 16th-century Danish astronomer of widespread fame, even wider spread infamy and metal nose, has been exhumed again. Yes, you read correctly: given a generous trace of mercury in his locks, the mystery of his death is picked up again.
Tycho Brahe
Image from the Galileo Project

Theories abound: "Brahe was also an alchemist and some have suggested that he would have handled mercury and may have administered it to himself as medicine. Others have suggested he was poisoned."
Read all about it on the BBC website (whence this quote originates). I, for one, can't wait to hear more! 

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