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Who discovered the poisonous properties of arsenic, and who first used it to murder a fellow human?The answers to these questions are lost to history. The naturally occurring arsenic sulfides realgar and orpiment were known in ancient times and were even used to some extent in medicine. The fact that they were toxic was certainly recognized, but they would not have been useful for homicidal purposes. These compounds are insoluble and colored, and so would have been difficult to administer to someone undetected.The form in which arsenic is generally used as a poison is arsenic trioxide, a white powder that has sometimes been called white arsenic.The trioxide dissolves readily in water and is colorless and tasteless, thus making it an ideal poison. The poisonous nature of arsenic trioxide and methods for making the compound , which does not occur in nature, were certainly known by the ancient Greeks and Romans. It is easily produced, for example, by the smelting of copper ores that contain arsenic as an impurity. Roasting orpiment would also produce a white compound that would have been largely arsenic trioxide . The sodium salt of the trioxide, which had similar properties to the trioxide , could be prepared readily by heating orpiment with natural sodium carbonate. Some accounts argue that arsenic trioxide was the poison used byAgrippina the Younger and her son, Nero, to eliminate his rivals for emperor of Rome. The evidence for such a claim, however, is not definitive, and other substances , such as cyanide, are also possible candidates. Plants, such as hemlock and wolfsbane, were apparently the most widely used poisons in ancient Greece and Rome. Hemlock, of course, was the poison administered by the city-state of Athens to execute Socrates, and wolfsbane was actually so 5 c h a p t e r o n e King of Poisons Arsenic and Murder 01_KingOfPoisons_Chapter01_REV1 9/21/12 1:51 PM Page 5 6 KING OF POISONS frequently used as a poison that the emperor Trajan banned the growing of the plant in Roman domestic gardens.1 It was not until the beginning of the fifteenth century that arsenic became popular as a poison. The most notorious name associated with poisoning in the Italian Renaissance period is the Borgia family, especially Rodrigo Borgia (who became Pope Alexander VI in 1492) and two of his children, Cesare and Lucrezia. It appears that Lucrezia has become unfairly associated with murder, however, as exemplified by the scene in Donizetti’s opera Lucrezia Borgia where she poisons five people. In reality, Lucrezia was a pious woman who died at the age of 39, probably without poisoning anyone. There seems to be little doubt of the guilt of her father and brother, however. Cesare, in particular, probably poisoned dozens of people in the furtherance of political ends.Arsenic (probably the trioxide) was almost certainly the key ingredient in the Borgias’ favorite poison, called La Cantarella. Poisoning became a formal method of assassination in Italy. By the sixteenth century, there was a branch of the government of Venice that arranged for the elimination of enemies of the state. Professional poisoners worked for hire and charged fees. In Naples, beginning in the second half of the seventeenth century, a woman named Giulia Toffana (La Toffana) gained notoriety as a poisoner.Arsenic appears to have been the crucial ingredient in the poison she sold, which was frequently referred to asAquaToffana.When La Toffana was finally arrested and executed in 1709, she confessed (probably under torture, so the reliability of her information is questionable) to being responsible for the poisoning of some six hundred people. In the midsixteenth century, another woman named Hieronyma Spara (La Spara) sold an arsenic-based poison in Rome. La Spara even formed a society where she taught women how to get rid of their husbands with the use of poison.2 Catherine de Medici (who married Henry II, the future king of France, in 1533) often gets the credit for bringing the Italian art of poisoning to France and using it for political gain, although this view has not gone unchallenged.3 There was a widespread belief in France that Italians were a devious people who got rid of their enemies by covert means. Italians were deemed experts on poisons, possessing secret knowledge of powerful toxins. The French were themselves making significant use of arsenic and other poisons for political or personal gain by the seventeenth century. Marie01_KingOfPoisons_Chapter01_REV1 9/21/12 1:51 PM Page 6 KING OF...


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