CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

Poison: The History of Potions, Powders and Murderous Practitioners

By Ben Hubbard
2020, Welbeck Publishing, London
ISBN-10: 0233006117; ISBN-13:
$29.95; Hardcover; 176 pages
Dimensions: 7.3 x 0.8 x 9.4 inches

Poison, A History: An Account of the Deadly Art and its Most Infamous Practitioners

By Jenni Davis
2018; Chartwell Books, an imprint of Quarto
ISBN-10: 0785835881; ISBN-13: 978-0785835882
Price: $10-$20; Paperback; 192 pages
Dimensions : 7.75 x 0.5 x 10 inches

Poisoning is the dark art as old as human history itself. Chronologically recounting the story of history’s silent assassin, Poison: The History of Potions, Powders and Murderous Practitioners documents the gripping tales of the users and victims of these mysterious natural substances derived from plants—and mushrooms!—as well as elements extracted from the earth’s crust. More recent poisonings, ripped right out of the news headlines, have included plots involving sarin, polonium, and novichok. From Cleopatra, the Borgias, and religious cults to contemporary secret service agents and terrorists. Profiles of the most commonly used toxins of each era reveal how the power-hungry, the dangerous and the desperate have harnessed these natural killers to achieve their ends. The Roman emperors used poison liberally to dispose of rivals, guests at Renaissance dinner parties were quietly assassinated with adulterated wine, and professional poisoners equipped murderous wives with toxic tonics for their husbands. In twentieth-century warfare, poisonous substances were used in new and awful ways to terrorize and obliterate both civilians and enemy forces. Today, in the search for the perfect covert weapon, shadowy figures deploy pernicious poisons which are almost impossible to trace. They are only the latest in a long line of experimenters: for the same poisons used to kill or injure others have been used throughout history as intoxicants, aphrodisiacs and even elixirs of life. As every amateur toxicologist knows, the difference between a poison and medicine is often simply the dose.

Hubbard has produced a pretty book, beautifully illustrated, and with glossy pages. Much of the book has an old world look to it. Nearly every story is a single page with a facing page of artwork. I like how the book is laid out in chronological order; chapters are: Poison - a Recurring Story, Poisons of the Ancient World, Medieval and Renaissance Poisons, 17th and 18th Century Poisons, 19th Century Poisons, 20th Century Poisons, and 21st Century Poisons. The book is pretty complete, including many famous poisonings from my lifetime, e.g., Jonestown, the sarin attack of the Tokyo subway system, and the Salem Witch trials; though a few wartime attacks were omitted, e.g., the “yellow rain” episode in Southeast Asia shortly after the Vietnam War. The book is also very current, including recent episodes of Russian attacks on dissenters and former spies, including the novichok attack in Britain of the Skribals in 2018, and poison gas attacks in Syria and Iraq.

Our old friend John Trestrail III—authority on mushroom poisonings even makes an appearance. It seems there was a famous poisoning in the early 1900s of the wife of a certain Dr. Hawley Crippen. The body of his wife was never found … well, not entirely. A few dismembered parts were found buried beneath the cellar floor after he fled the UK for Canada. He was nabbed by Scotland Yard, put on trial, convicted and executed by hanging in 1910. The toxin used as the weapon was hyoscine, a toxin found in deadly nightshade. Many years later, an unconvinced American toxicologist—Trestrail—got permission to examine some of the evidence and was unconvinced that the “murderer” was actually guilty of a crime. All that is still in dispute. What is not in dispute is that, as a result of Trestrail’s work, it was determined that the body under the cellar was not that of Crippen’s wife! Trestrail, who heads the Center for the Study of Criminal Poisoning, told me that “the results of our DNA research were published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Forensic Sciences, but the British powers that be, have refused to accept the proven DNA results. As a result, our further attempts to get Dr. Crippen’s conviction overturned, and get his remains exhumed and returned for burial in the Crippen family plot in Coldwater, Michigan, remain at a standstill!” In a 2012 mock retrial held in Britain, led by British barristers representing prosecutor and defense, the citizen jury present found Crippen “not guilty.”

A good companion book to the previous, would be Poison, A History: An Account of the Deadly Art and its Most Infamous Practitioners by Jenni Davis. Davis, a history/travel writer with a passion for stories of unsolved mysteries, is the author of several titles, such as Scottish Clans and Tartans, Cathedral Architecture, and The Irish Americans. Her book on poisons is also excellent, very well illustrated, and priced so affordably you should not pass it up. (My new copy was just five bucks; in checking many other sellers I found all were offering it for less than $10.)Both books are very similar in layout and proceed in chronological order to very recent episodes. Davis’s book affords much more complete information on any given topic, however is limited only to intentional poisonings. The brand new book by Hubbard provides similar information, albeit more briefly written, but does discuss many other natural poisons that have killed or sickened people, including accidental poisonings. If you are interested in purchasing one, I’d strongly recommend purchasing both at the same time—you cannot go wrong. (Though your spouse may wonder what you’re up to.)

— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi