FORENSIC TRIVIA: From Poison Pen Letters to Borgia Rings, and Beyond: Crime and Toxicology

Poisons have been used for a very long time to commit murder. History is full of stories about rulers having tasters for their food, lest someone supporting an opposing faction put something nasty in their evening libation.


How does one go about proving that poison has been used to knock somebody off? Or perhaps more practically, how can we determine the cause of accidental death or suicide?

First, we look at the mortal remains. Certain poisons leave telltale physical effects on the body. Carbon monoxide poisoning will leave the body rosy, with a healthy glow. That is because carbon monoxide binds with hemoglobin in the blood to produce the same rosy color as oxygen. Carbon dioxide does not bond with hemoglobin, and thus the corpse is pale or bluish.

A person exposed to long term effects of arsenic has a greenish color, hair falling out, and loose teeth.

Cyanide produces a bloody foam around the mouth, and the smell of burnt almonds initially.

Other poisons can only be detected by testing stomach content, body fluids, tissues and hair for telltale signs.

Poisons are known as toxins in forensic science, their study is called toxicology.

Toxins (a word of Greek origin) can have their origins in plant material, venom from the animal world, some elements, and some man-made substances. Opium is a plant derivative which has been chemically manipulated many times to produce heroin, morphine, methadone, and other pain killers. Arsenic is an element found in the earth which has been chemically altered to make it ingestible by animals such as ourselves. Another element that is fatally toxic is radium which emits gamma radiation, which over time kills cells.

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What happens next? It’s worth a visit to the forensics laboratory. Tune in next time for the Case of Napoleon’s Wallpaper.

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