February 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

“Deadly Deeds and Perilous Professions” | A Conversation with Sarah Albee

Listen to Sarah Albee read from Poison, courtesy of TeachingBooks.net.


For many people the word poison invokes scenes of nefarious deeds and gasping victims. But toxins have had their medicinal uses as well—consider analgesics. Through spellbinding stories laced with intriguing science, Sarah Albee explores the history of a topic that she notes both horrifies—and fascinates—us in Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicine (Crown, Sept.2017; Gr 6 Up).

Why are we so captivated by these stories?

Poisoning—intentional poisoning that is—involves secrecy, intrigue, revenge, plotting, and some knowledge of chemistry, all rolled into one cold-blooded act of treachery. It’s the ultimate premeditated crime, a crime of dispassion, and that is deeply unsettling to us, but also deeply compelling. No wonder novelists and playwrights have been preoccupied with poison as a plot device for centuries.

I’ve been obsessed with poison since I was a little kid. (All right, so maybe I was an odd little kid.) I distinctly recall the first time I saw the Disney version of Snow White—the one that’s been terrifying small children since it first came out in 1938. I think I was about six at the time. Remember that scene where the evil queen prepares the poison apple? I watched her dip that apple-on-a-string into the bubbling cauldron and pull it out covered with the goopy green stuff that first assumed the features of a skull, and then turned into a bright-red apple. I wanted to know what that goop was.

That curiosity stuck with me as I got older. Then I read Romeo and Juliet, and I wondered if the poison Friar Lawrence issued to Juliet was similar to what was in the poison apple: What sort of poison can cause a reversible paralysis, where the heart rate and breathing slow enough to induce a coma that approximates death?

Since then, I’ve done some research, and it seems a likely candidate for both the Snow White apple and also the Juliet poison would be an alkaloid called atropine, which is found in plants like Belladonna and mandrake, and which used to be called sleeping nightshade. In a book from 1597 called “The Herball or General Historie of Plantes,” John Gerarde wrote that a small quantity leads to madness, while a moderate amount causes a “dead sleepe,” and too much can kill.

Slow-acting poisons are especially unnerving to us. They’re usually harder to trace, and so poisoners who used these often got away with it. But these poisons require dosing the victim with small quantities over long periods of time—so the poisoner has to have the victim’s trust and confidence and probably watches the victim sicken and decline for quite a while. That’s a chilling thought, isn’t it?

Most accounts of the death of the Roman Emperor Augustus point a finger at his wife Livia, who, knowing how worried her husband was about dying by poison, laced a fig growing on a tree with a toxin and encouraged him to pick the fruit. And then there is Agrippa the Younger, and the Borgia family, both surrounded by similar scandalous stories. Should we believe all these tales?

Verifying these stories was one of the major challenges in researching this book. First, poisoners are by definition secretive. The skilled poisoners didn’t get caught! As the expression goes, you can either be a good poisoner or a famous poisoner, but not both. Second, I had to assess the reliability of my sources. Are we to believe Tacitus and Cassius Dio’s accounts of Livia poisoning her husband by painting poison onto figs that were still growing on the tree and waiting for him to pluck and eat one?

When consulting primary sources, we have to consider the bias inherent in some of those accounts. Most ancient historians were men, and they often took a dim view of ambitious women. So there’s a disproportionate number of women from history who are accused of being poisoners, whenever someone nearby died unexpectedly (see your examples above—Livia, Agrippina, Lucrezia Borgia—as well as Empress Wu, Catherine de Medici…the list goes on and on.) The best we can do as researchers is to look at multiple sources, consider the context and possible bias of the reporting, and then do our best to triangulate the accounts to determine what we think happened.

There is an upside to this problem, though. I realized that the uncertainty of these cases turned out to be an excellent way to show kids that history is not black-and-white. History is full of ambiguities, and there are always different points of view. I did my best to present what facts I could, and asked the reader to draw her own conclusions.

Tell us about those “schools” for poisoners. Where and when were they most popular, and who employed the graduates once they were trained?

These were shadowy operations on the fringes of society that sprang up in many places, across many time periods. Emperor Nero supposedly enlisted a well-known poisoner from one of these “schools” to help him kill various members of his family, and the bodies piled up quickly. Eventually he decided to bump off his own mother, Agrippina. She sounds like a real charmer, but again, we need to take the accounts of Suetonius and Tacitus with a grain of salis. They were pretty harsh critics of her.

So at first Nero tried to make her death look like an accident—three times his Poisoner-in-Chief tried to poison her, but she survived because she’d long been dosing herself with antidotes. Then he arranged to have her bedroom ceiling fall down (she survived), and then sent her out in a collapsible boat (she swam to shore). Finally he just got some thugs to bump her off.

While physicians take an oath to do no harm, it appears that Renaissance practitioners were proficient in just the opposite—“murky medicine.”

Yeah, that’s true. Real physicians were university-trained, expensive, and not very numerous, so the patients who received their dubious care tended to be wealthy and important. Poor people, if they were lucky, used the services of the local “wise woman,” usually an illiterate woman with knowledge of herbal cures, some of which may actually have been beneficial. Or they simply prayed to get better.

So as it turned out, the more important the patient, the more “heroic” were the measures taken to try to heal him. Things like belladonna, strychnine, arsenic, antimony, and opium were regularly dispensed as medicines. Take the case of King Charles II.  He dabbled in amateur alchemy, and possibly had made himself ill from mercury poisoning in his lab. After he keeled over one morning, 14 physicians were called in to cure him. They bled him, gave him an emetic, several purgatives, and several enemas (think “two-ended fountain”). They shaved his scalp and slathered him with a blister poultice. A powdered form of the poisonous white hellebore lily was blown up his nostrils to induce sneezing. They applied a mixture of tar and pigeon dung to his feet. They poured ammonia down his throat. After four days of this, the poor king apologized for taking so long to die, but finally did.

 There are plenty of dangerous professions today, but it seems that the list of toxic professions in centuries past was endless. 

That’s true. I have an ongoing feature in the book called “Nice Work if You Can Survive It,” listing many hazardous professions, such as silver mining, hat making (yes, Mad Hatter’s disease was A Thing), and being a Wise Woman/herbalist (because they were often accused of witchcraft).

Stone-working was another tough one. Many of the workers who sculpted Mount Rushmore eventually died of silicosis, which you can get when you breathe in finely ground stone and it lodges in your lungs. Many of the paints used by fine artists were made from poisonous compounds of white lead, arsenic, mercury…and might explain some of the depressive/psychotic behavior of famous painters. The takeaway message from this part of the book, I hope, is that readers appreciate the importance of regulation, worker safety rules, and industry oversight.

The use of cosmetics appears to have felled more than its share of victims, too. 

Absolutely. Liquid white lead, called ceruse in Renaissance times, has been used for centuries—it’s still found in many skin lightening/tooth whitening products today. Arsenic wafers were nibbled by 19th century women to achieve an attractive deathly pallor. Nowadays we can act all shocked by what people in the past did in order to look good, but then you have to consider beauty treatments we submit to today—like Botox and tanning salons. People have always, it seems, risked their health in the service of trying to look younger or more attractive.

It was fascinating to learn that during periods when people were poisoned with some regularity, some people may have been saved by their small, preemptive doses of known toxins.

Yes, antidotes were—and are—a real thing. The most famous developer of an antidote was Mithridates, King of Pontus and enemy of Ancient Rome. He developed an antidote made of up to 60 ingredients and took it daily in order to avoid succumbing to poisoning. When his enemies were at the gates, he tried to kill himself by taking poison, but years of dosing himself with his own antidote worked too well, and he didn’t die. So he ordered one of his own soldiers to kill him with his own sword. After his death, his recipe was brought to Rome, and for many centuries, “Mithridatum” became a go-to antidote for rulers who feared being poisoned.

As recently as 1997, some Mossad agents, members of Israel’s secret service, botched an attempt to assassinate a Hamas leader named Khaled Meshaal by spraying a poison—Fentanyl, it turned out—into his ear on the streets of Amman in broad daylight. The agents were captured, and the event caused a major diplomatic crisis. King Hussein demanded that the Israelis supply the antidote, which they reluctantly did, and Meshaal survived.

Today we have the FDA working on our behalf and are more aware of environmental toxins. In your opinion, what should we be more worried about? 

What we should be most worried about is the current push to dismantle the FDA and the EPA, and the looming threat of deregulation. Rolling back hard-fought regulations such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and worker safety laws should terrify all of us. Just google “Donora Death Fog” or “Great Smog of London 1952” if you need to be convinced.

On a personal level—I do mention some suspicious and relatively recent deaths in the book, and I suggest theories as to who might have been behind them. If I’m discovered face-down in my bowl of vichyssoise after the book is out, you’ll know why [hollow laugh].

And finally, here’s your chance to bust, or share, a choice poison story or two for readers. 

Oh, there are so many to choose from! In fact, I didn’t have room to include all the cool poison stories I wanted to in the book. So very soon, I will be releasing a series of short videos, on the order of one per week, mostly “whodunit” poison cases from history, and starring some great kid-actors. I’ll let you all know via Twitter and other outlets when those videos are ready. Stay tuned!



Ed. note:Sarah Albee is known for going places other authors avoid—witness her earlier works: Bugged How Insects Changed History, and Pooped Happened: The History of the World from the Bottom Up. In a 2014 interview, SLJ spoke with Albee about Bugged.

Listen to Sarah Albee read from Poison, courtesy of TeachingBooks.net.

Curriculum Connections

This article was featured in our free Curriculum Connections enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you every month.

Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.

Diversity and Cultural Competency Training: Collections & RA

Do you want to ensure that your library’s collections are diverse, equitable, inclusive, and well-read?

Do you want to become a more culturally literate librarian and a more effective advocate for your community?

We've developed a foundational online course—with live sessions on February 28 & March 14—that will explore key concepts essential to cultivating and promoting inclusive and equitable collections.
Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind