Some of history’s most lethal substances were once used for cosmetic purposes—well, at least before their deadly qualities became obvious. Unfortunately, the evolution from cosmetic to murder weapon developed somewhat from an “on the job training” thing!
An example of such commercial carelessness included thallium, which was marketed as a depilatory agent. It effectively removed unwanted hair, but it had a rather severe side effect of killing the person in the process.
Belladonna, known as Atropa belladonna and more commonly called deadly nightshade, is another interesting lethal substance that was popular as a cosmetic throughout history.
In Roman times, diluted eye drops of belladonna dilated the pupils, which was thought to make women more seductive. And if gently rubbed on the cheeks of the face, belladonna produced an intriguing reddish blush. Although these practices have fallen out of favor because they cause dangerous increases in heart rates and possible blindness, there are still commercial products available that contain belladonna.
Deadly nightshade (belladonna) is considered one of the most toxic of plants in the Eastern Hemisphere. All parts of this botanical contain toxic alkaloids. While the roots are the most deadly part, poisonous alkaloids are present throughout the plant.
Scopolamine and hyoscyamine are the main toxins in the plant and these produce extreme delirium and hallucinations. I’ve written about these alkaloids in other blogs (here and here) since they are present in some modern pharmaceuticals used for motion sickness. They have the potential for a serious interaction with alcohol to produce temporary amnesia.
The berries of the belladonna plant create the greatest danger to children since they look as attractive as fruit and have a somewhat sweet taste. Two berries consumed by a child could kill, and it takes about 10 to 20 berries to kill an adult (depending on a person’s body mass).
Adding the berries to food during preparation would make for an interesting method of murder for the mystery writer searching for a simple murder weapon. A more efficient use of this plant, however, would be to use the root or a leaf to murder. It’s been documented that a single leaf of the belladonna plant can be fatal to an adult.
It’s interesting to note, however, that many animals (cattle, horses, rabbits, goats and sheep) can eat the plant without ill effects, but many domestic pets are vulnerable to its toxicity.
Belladonna has been used for centuries in herbal remedies as a pain reliever, a muscle relaxant, for motion sickness and as an anti-inflammatory agent. The US Pharmacopeia still lists the methodology to prepare tincture of belladonna. In medical literature, its indications include use as an antidote for certain poisonings (such as opium and chloroform) and the deadly insecticide parathion.
So, while belladonna might be considered “old school” for deadly poisons, this toxic botanical continues to be in the top 10 list of efficient murder weapons because of its effectiveness, its relative ease of availability and because it discreetly hides in food or drink.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!