Historically, strychnine is one of the more popular methods that writers have used to kill off characters in literature and film. Even the queen of murder mystery writing, Agatha Christi, used this method in her works.
The primary source of this poisonous alkaloid is from the seeds of the nux vomica tree (S. nux-vomica) found in southern Asia, especially in India, and in some parts of Australia. The chemical is still used today in some rat poisons, and as a stimulant administered by veterinarians in small doses.
In the past, strychnine was available in tablet form to treat a variety of human ailments. Although that is no longer the case, strychnine is sometimes found mixed with street drugs (such as LSD, heroin and cocaine) and smoked or snorted. The results are often fatal.
This lethal substance was discovered in the early 1800s by two French chemists. The primary action of strychnine is to increase the flex of the spinal cord, thereby causing severe contractions of the back muscles. Unnatural arching of the back is a common symptom of strychnine poisoning. The backward arching can be so severe that the spinal cord will often break due to the extreme posturing that results from larger doses.
Strychnine is a white, odorless but somewhat bitter crystalline powder that can be ingested by mouth, inhaled, or mixed into a solution and injected directly into a vein. If given by mouth or injected into muscle tissue, strychnine rapidly enters the blood stream and severe symptoms of poisoning appear within about 20 minutes. If injected directly into a vein, symptoms begin almost immediately. This follows the general rule of intravenous injections: “One mg of dose equals an almost immediate one mg of therapeutic or detrimental effect.”
The chemical is not very soluble in water and only a little more soluble in alcohol and other organic solvents. Therefore, when mixed in a solution for injecting, the crystalline powder will not dissolve completely.
If the poison is added to food, the food choice would have to have a very strong taste to overcome the exceptional bitterness of strychnine. A better method of poisoning your villain in your writing is by inhalation of the powder released into the air. Rapid absorption through the nose, eyes and mouth mucous membranes usually results in a lethal outcome.
The symptoms of strychnine poisoning begin with abdominal cramps that progress to general muscle cramping. These culminate in powerful and very painful convulsions resulting from severe muscle contractions. These convulsions (or what has been referred to as “strychnine fits”) may stop after about a minute. However, at the slightest touch, a noise, or some other minor stimulus, the convulsions reoccur. The arms and legs stretch out and become rigid, uncontrollable arching of the neck and back occur, the jaw tightens, breathing becomes difficult, and painful muscle spasms leading to dangerous spikes in body temperature occur. These are all dramatic symptoms of strychnine poisoning, and this makes for writing powerful, theatrical murder scenes.
Even though the person remains conscious and is aware of what’s happening, the victim cannot control the extreme muscle spasms and becomes very excitable and experiences extreme pain. Eventually, the victim’s muscles tire and the cause of death is usually from asphyxiation resulting from the continuous spasms of the respiratory muscles. The person simply cannot move the diaphragm muscles to breathe.
If medical help is available and aid is given quickly, a person may survive a strychnine poisoning event. Treatment consists primarily of respiratory supportive care and intravenous fluids, medications to suppress the convulsions and spasms, and cooling measures for the usual rapid increase in body temperature.
It is most important to remove any clothing contaminated with strychnine by cutting it away from the body rather than pulling it over the head and risking inhalation of the lethal chemical. It is also important to flush the skin, eyes, nose and mouth of the victim, while at the same time making sure that those aiding the victim do not touch any contaminated clothing or affected areas of the victim’s body. If proper precautionary measures are not taken, those offering supportive help might inadvertently contaminate themselves in the process.
Strychnine is truly a dramatic way to kill off a villain in your novel. However, since it has been a favorite method to kill off characters in the past, make sure your murder scene is set uniquely and administer the poison in an unusual way to impress your readers.
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