Virtually imperceptible in the past when used as a poison, arsenic became known as “The King of Poisons” because of its lethal potency and because it was undetectable. Then the Marsh test came into use in 1836!
From that point forward, arsenic trace evidence could be identified in liquids and in food. That’s when the chemical became famous as a dramatic murder weapon and was known as the perfect poison to be used in a murder mystery.
In convincing reports, several famous people have been murdered with arsenic: Napoleon Bonaparte, Simon Bolivar and King George the 3rd of England.
The progression to death is dependent on the dose, but the initial symptoms of arsenic poisoning exhibit as headaches, confusion, diarrhea and drowsiness. Often white spots or lines appear on the person’s nails. This malady is called leukonychia, a harmless condition but a definite sign of arsenic poisoning.
As the poison concentrates in the body, the symptoms progress to acute vomiting, blood in the urine, hair loss, muscle cramps and a metallic taste in the mouth. The person will have difficulty swallowing, will begin to salivate excessively and have a pale/pasty white complexion.
But people have been poisoned with arsenic without malfeasance. Arsenic is naturally present in the world and high concentrations can be found in ground water that people drink. A 2007 study found that 137 million people in 70 countries exhibited mild symptoms of arsenic poisoning from grains, produce and normal drinking water.
There are reports that increased consumption of arsenic causes cancer and may heighten the risk of skin, stomach and kidney cancers; but the studies appear to be inconclusive, and they have not been substantiated in the laboratory.
Current commercial uses of arsenic include it as a preservative in lumber and animal hides, in pesticides, as an additive to lead in lead-acid batteries and in glass manufacturing, and as a gas to enhance the performance of semiconductors. Some of these commercial uses, however, have been outlawed in the United States.
Ironically, there are medical benefits to arsenic. Some studies have shown the chemical to be useful in TREATING certain cancers, sending the cancer into remission. That’s an interesting fact since arsenic was previously thought to CAUSE cancer.
And in the past, women would consume a couple of drops of arsenic to enhance their beauty. It would cause the complexion to turn white and pale.
As I’ve seen on many occasions with chemicals, there are benefits and drawbacks with any potent element. But a murder mystery writer can’t go wrong when expertly exploiting the lethal qualities of this spectacular poison!
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!
Wow! Thanks for another great article, James, for all mystery, crime and thriller writers.
And I’ve made a note to remember, given your knowledge of poisonous substances like these, to be nice to you at all times, from now on! I’m just sayin’ . . . 😉
Funny, that last statement is what my wife always says . . . 🙂
I’m interested to know a slow poison which is undetectable during autopsy.Is there any?
None that I’m aware of. Slow poisons usually always leave a residue and that residue builds slowly in the body and has an accumulative effect which is then lethal after a certain toxic level is reached.