Arsenic Poisoning - Ran Levi - Curious Minds Podcast

Poisons – A History

Written By: Ran Levi

Poisons are an integral part of human history. But when Life Insurance was invented, poisoning became a plague in Victorian Britain. For many women, Arsenic poisoning was the perfect murder weapon – as was the case with Lady Charlotte Elizabeth Ursinus. Discover why Arsenic was known as the ‘inheritance powder’, and the biological mechanism that makes it so deadly. 

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Mithridates the sixth was the king of Pontus, a mid-sized kingdom situated in what’s now northern Turkey. He’s also known as Mithridates the Great. And he was one of the few rulers in the Ancient world who were brave enough – or maybe crazy enough – to take on the mighty Roman Empire. During his reign, between 120 BC and 63 BC, Mithridates conquered vast territories in Asia minor, taking lands that had belonged to the Romans. But fearsome as the Roman Empire was, throughout most of his rule, Mithridates’s real threat came from within.

The internal political battles in Pontus were harsh, to say the least. Mithridates’s father, the former king, was assassinated: some say his own wife did it because wanted to see her sons on the throne. Mithridates himself is suspected of murdering his own brother to eliminate the competition. He carried a dagger with him at all times and slept with a blade under his bed. Legend had it that Mithridates kept a horse, a bull, and a deer in his room at night, to warn him if anyone tried to sneak up on him and kill him in his sleep.

For Mithridates, there was no greater threat than poison. Poisoning was the weapon of choice for assassins throughout history, and the political battlefield of Pontus was no exception. Like almost all the rulers of his time, young Mithridates had dedicated food tasters who served as ‘human canaries’ – but even that wasn’t enough for Mithridates. After all, he suspected his own mother of trying to poison him, since she favored his brother. So Mithridates set out on one of the most ambitious missions possible: to make himself immune to poisoning, by consuming every poison he could find.

The Poison King

Even In Mithridates time, more than 2000 years ago, poisoning was nothing new.

Poison or venom is a natural weapon that was adopted by countless animals and plants – from snakes to bees to poisonous mushrooms. There is clear evidence that prehistoric hunters knew about poisons and used them for hunting. The effectiveness of venoms and poisons is clear just from the terror they invoke in us: one of the most basic human fears, for example, is the fear of being bitten by a snake, a fear that is embodied even in our most basic mythological stories, like the expulsion from the garden of Eden. This primal fear might be explained by the fact that death by poisoning is long and painful, or maybe because it gives such harmless-looking animals as tiny bugs, for example – a surprising advantage over us humans.

As a murder weapon, poison has obvious advantages over other methods. Poisoning is a quiet and efficient method of an assassination: most poisons take a while to do their work, so by the time the victim begins to feel the effects of the poison – the murderer might already be many miles away from the scene of the crime. Poison was also the preferred weapon of the female assassin. A woman might not be able to overpower her victim with a knife or sword, but a few drops of poison in a goblet or cooking pot would easily do the job.

From the beginning, Mithridates VI regarded poisoning as his greatest threat. So he fervently researched the known poisons and their antidotes. One way he did that was by executing criminals using different poisons to study their effects on the human body. He also collaborated with other scholars and rulers. Sometimes, other kings would send him a messenger carrying a letter and a package. The letter would say that the messenger was a criminal sentenced to death, and the package contained a poison or a new antidote for Mithridates to test on the poor guy.

At some point Mithridates discovered that by ingesting small quantities of certain poisons he was able, over time, to build a natural immunity to those poisons. Evidently, Mithridates had a taste for the theatrical, and he enjoyed demonstrating this immunity to his guests. Author Adrienne Mayor, who wrote a biography of Mithridates, describes these spectacles:

“He often staged dramatic performances to demonstrate his remarkable ability to dine on poison-laced meat and wine. Such evenings not only provided entertainment but also enhanced the Poison King’s carefully created reputation of invincibility.

“The evening might feature a poisoning of someone condemned to die for a heinous crime […]. So, as the guests take their places on couches […] an archer shoots [a poisoned] arrow at the criminal , the arrow zipping over the heads of the guests. Mithridates provided learned commentary, as everyone observes the result of the poison.
“With grand gestures and banter, Mithridates awes the guests by swallowing a drop of snake venom. For the climax of the evening, the Poison King invites his guests to salt his own plate or winecup with poison. With a debonair smile, the Poison King raises his goblet in a toast.”

Legend has it that Mithridates eventually came to regret his immunity to poison. When he was defeated on the battlefield by the Roman general Pompey the Great , he tried to commit suicide to avoid the shame of captivity. He and his two daughters ingested poison: it was lethal to the girls but NOT. to Mithridates. He resorted to asking one of his officers to stab him with a sword.

According to another legend, Mithridates was able to find a cure that could counter the effect of any poison known to man. The cure was called “Mithridate,” and it was a complex blend of dozens of ingredients – garlic, cinnamon and a bunch of other stuff.

But what became of the fabled miracle cure? It is said that Pompey the Great found the formula, written in Mithridates own handwriting, and he brought it back with him to Rome. The formula was translated to Latin and was passed from one generation to the next, for over almost 2000 years — with little changes that were added over time. It’s impossible to know if the original Mithridate was effective as the legend says, but garbled versions of the mythical medicine were still used by physicians even into the 19th century.

The Demise of Rome

But, speaking of Rome, there’s interesting theory about the demise of the great Empire in the middle of the first Millennium. Now, this theory is hotly debated among historians – but, some say the fall of the Roman Empire might be blamed on Lead poisoning on a massive scale.

Here’s why: A lot of the water pipes used by the Romans were made of lead because its low melting point made it really easy to bend and shape. And the lead from the pipes might have leached into the drinking water. Now, the SYMptoms of lead poisoning are mostly cognitive: it begins with diminishing mental skills and ends in hyperactivity and loss of libido. Now, if you’ve ever heard of say, Nero, you know where this is headed. The proponents of lead poisoning theory point to the madness of some of the emperors and the decreased fertility of the roman population as evidence for this theory. But the opponents of the theory speculate that the calcium in the water might have accumulated on the inside of the lead pipes, acting as a sealant and keeping it from leaching into the water. Any unusual behavior by the emperors might be better explained by drunkenness and your standard, run of the mill power craze…

Killer Lady Ursinus

One of the most popular poisons throughout history was Arsenic. Its use was so common in the courts of kings and princes – that it became known as the “inheritance powder”, or ‘The Poison of Kings’.

So, WHY was Arsenic so popular? Well, a few reasons. First: in its compound form, ‘Arsenic Trioxide’, it’s colorless, tasteless and odorless, especially when mixed in wine or water. The second reason was its potency: a pea-sized portion is enough to kill an adult human.

And the third reason arsenic’s so popular? When used in relatively large quantities, the symptoms of arsenic poisoning look like cholera. Which, by the way, is NOT pretty: it’s swelling of the face, acute stomach pain and convulsions, vomiting, diarrhea, internal bleeding and then — a coma. Death comes within a day or two. Taken in small doses, arsenic poisoning manifests as chronic and gradual nerve damage and even Cancer. So the arsenic trifecta – invisible, tasteless, and potent – is what makes it the perfect murder weapon.

One of the more famous murder cases involving Arsenic was that of Lady Charlotte Elizabeth Ursinus. Frau Ursinus was the wife of a high-ranking Prussian counselor named Theodor Ursinus. When they were married in 1779, Charlotte was 19 and Theodor was a much older man. Rich as Theodor was, there was obviously little love in their marriage, and Charlotte took a much younger lover – a Dutch officer named Rogay.

In 1797, Charlotte’s lover fell ill and died within a few days. The physicians who treated Captain Rogay noted how devoted Charlotte was to him, staying near his bed at all times and feeding him with her own hands. The cause of death was said to be Tuberculosis.

Three years later, in 1800, Theodor Ursinus passed away unexpectedly. He certainly wasn’t a young man – but just the day before he was said to be in perfect health. The official cause of death was a stroke.

A year later, Charlotte’s Aunt – an elderly lady by the name of Christine Witte, died and left her entire fortune to Charlotte. Like Rogay and Theodor, Aunt Witte died suddenly, almost overnight – while Charlotte was visiting her at home.

Two sudden deaths might be a coincidence, but three?? The people around Charlotte began to suspect foul play. But keep in mind: Frau Ursinus was a noblewoman, respected in Prussian high society, and to launch such an accusation – without any real evidence – THAT was unthinkable.

Now, Charlotte had a servant, Benjamin Klein. They had an argument – and a few days later Klein became ill. Given his mistress’s reputation, Klein was understandably suspicious. When Charlotte offered him some boiled rice the day after, he refused to eat the dish – and he noticed that she carefully removed the plate and put it where no one else could get to it.

The next day, Klein went through Charlotte’s cabinets – and there he found a small parcel – labeled ‘Arsenic’.

The next day, Lady Ursinus came to visit the sick servant and brought him a little ‘get well’ gift: a couple of dried prunes. Klein thanked her and took the prunes – but never ate them. Instead, he took them to a pharmacist for testing. And? the prunes. were laced. with arsenic. Klein took the poison fruit to the police station, and Charlotte Ursinus was arrested.

The police exhumed the bodies of Theodor Ursinus and Aunt Witte. And sure enough, they both showed distinct signs of poisoning. Here’s the description is taken from a magazine article, written only a few years after the events took place:

“The corpses were found dried as if baked, or as if they were mummies of a thousand years old. The skin of the abdomen was so tough that it resisted the surgeon’s knife, and the soft parts of the body had assumed the appearance of hard leather. The hands, fingers and feet of the old man were drawn together as by spasms, his skin resembled parchment, and the stomachs of both bore every trace of injury and inflammation which had reduced them to an inseparable mass.”

But – and here’s the most important part – there were no traces of Arsenic found in the corpses. Chemists in the early 19th century had no way to detect the minute traces of Arsenic that would be enough to kill a person. There was ample proof that Charlotte bought large quantities of Arsenic before each suspicious death – but it still didn’t prove she was guilty. Arsenic had other, more mundane uses: it was used as a pesticide and as a skin whitener. Upper-class women would ingest very small doses of arsenic to make their skin paler – that was the beauty standard of the time. So there wasn’t anything particularly suspicious about a woman buying arsenic at the pharmacy.

There was, of course, the small matter of the poisoned prunes – but Charlotte had an explanation for that, too. She claimed that she was so lonely and depressed, having both her husband and her lover die on her so suddenly – that she contemplated suicide by Arsenic. However, she was unsure as to the proper dosage needed to kill herself – so she experimented on her servant using small, non-lethal doses to find out.

The judge was obviously reluctant to believe Charlotte’s tale, but he couldn’t convict the noble lady for murder since there was no definitive proof. So Charlotte was sentenced to 30 years under house arrest, instead of the hanging rope. Her imprisonment was, by all accounts – quite pleasant! Frau Charlotte had a large penthouse all to herself, was allowed to bring all her furniture and clothing with her – and even had guests and large parties in her oversized ‘Cell’. She was also allowed to keep all the money she received from her deceased husband and aunt…When Charlotte was finally released from her “prison”, she was accepted back into Prussian high society and lived a happy and comfortable life until her death of old age.

Arsenic and the Marsh Test

These kinds of infuriating stories of unpunished murders were relatively common, especially in the 19th century – largely because of the rising popularity of life insurance. Life insurance is a great economic motive for murder since it puts a prize on the head of almost anyone with a large policy. So, poisoning by arsenic was becoming a plague, and something had to be done about it, urgently.

First, keep in mind that as the chemical processes in living cells are so complex and delicate – that almost anything can be considered poisonous. Paracelsus, a 16th-century alchemist, and physician coined a great phrase: “All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison.” That is, in large enough doses, anything can become lethal. Even water, if drunk in large enough quantity, is a poison to the body and a considerable amount of people have died from water poisoning over the years.

So, back to arsenic. The key word here is ATP – short for Adenosine Triphosphate. ATP is a molecule which is found in cells of every organism, from animals to insects to plants – and in Humans as well, of course.

ATP can be viewed as a sort of natural ‘battery’. The body extracts energy from digested food or stored fat – but this energy has to be delivered to where it’s needed: muscle cells, nerve cells, liver cells, etc.
So evolution has created this amazing mechanism for delivering energy throughout the body, which is the ATP molecule. The energy from the food is stored in the chemical bonds of the ATP molecule. When the cell needs energy, special enzymes break down the chemical bonds – thereby releasing the stored energy in the ATP molecule.

Now, how does arsenic interrupt this process?

There’s a chemical called ‘Phosphate’ which is crucial to the process of creating ATP molecules. Arsenic – or rather a compound called ‘Arsenate’ which contains an arsenic atom – is chemically very similar to Phosphate, and so competes with Phosphate in the same chemical processes. The major difference between these two is that when Arsenate is involved in the chemical process – no ATP molecules are created. If no ATP molecules are created, this means the body’s cells start to ‘starve’ for energy. And Since ATP is used all over the body, and especially in energy-hungry organs such as the liver, nerves and gut – the damage to the body is catastrophic: It’s a systematic failure, which is why Arsenic is so dangerous.

There was a lot of pressure on scientists to come up with ways of detecting arsenic poisoning in the body, even after death. There were already several methods of detecting arsenic. One such method was developed by the chemist Valentin Rose as a part of the Charlotte Ursinus trial. Another common method was invented by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann – who was also, by the way, the guy who created homeopathy. Hahnemann discovered a way to mix the fluid sample – blood, for example – with two other chemicals. If the blood contained arsenic, the mix would turn yellow. The problem was, neither of these methods could detect SMALL quantities of arsenic.

The turning point came in 1832 when the chemist James Marsh was called to testify in a murder case. A man was accused of murdering his grandfather by mixing arsenic in his coffee. Marsh extracted some fluids from the corpse and applied Hahnemann’s method on it. The fluid turned yellow – but the arsenic residue in the dead man’s body was so small, that by the time Marsh could show it to the court in the trial itself – the mix had already degenerated and the yellow tint was almost gone. The defense attorneys managed to convince the judge that the chemical test was not sufficiently accurate, and the accused murderer went free.

Naturally, Marsh was very upset – and more so when he later learned that the criminal had actually confessed to the murder. He decided to find a new way of detecting arsenic in the human body. It took a few years of experimenting, but he finally managed to develop a test for arsenic in human tissue that was much more accurate than its predecessors. This method is known as the “Marsh Test” and it’s still used today. Marsh’s discovery led to an acute drop in arsenic poisonings, as more and more potential poisoners could be revealed.

It is interesting to note that the Marsh Test can also provide interesting explanations to some past historical enigmas. Arsenic has some more benign uses, such as in the color and pigment industry. But it’s still highly poisonous, and historians now know that where there are dementia and other unusual mental disorders – it might be a good idea to look for the presence of arsenic.

For example, there are those who speculate that the famous madness of Vincent Van-Gogh and the blindness of Claude Monet, were actually the result of exposure to arsenic in the green-emerald paint that they used. And it’s possible that the death of Napoleon Bonaparte in the prison on St. Hellene’s island was caused by the arsenic that was released into the air from the paint on the walls. When hair samples from Napoleon’s body were tested, they contained three times more arsenic than normal. But it IS possible that the arsenic was absorbed post-mortem from the soil that Napoleon was buried in.

The Marsh test put an end – or at least greatly reduced – the use of arsenic as a murder weapon. But murder by poison didn’t stop — arsenic was just replaced by more sophisticated poisons. Cyanide, in particular, gained notoriety when Hitler and Eva Braun swallowed cyanide pills in their bunker in Berlin, and Herman Goering eluded the hangman’s noose in a similar fashion.

Even today, poisoning is still a common weapon in political assassinations. A well-known example is that of Victor Yevtushenko, a Ukrainian leader who was outspoken in his opposition to Russia. He was poisoned under mysterious circumstances by a substance called Dioxin. He survived but was left disfigured. Another Russian dissident, former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko was also poisoned. He died after eating sushi in a London restaurant. His last supper contained a large quantity of Polonium-210, a lethal radioactive substance.

These examples might be just the tip of the iceberg…Knowing what we now know about the history of poisons, it might be that there were many more political assassinations than we even expected — deaths that we assumed were natural, but were in fact murder most foul. But who knows: maybe future historians, equipped with more advanced tests and new perspectives, will see today’s events in a different light.