Choose your poison

For some reason, my husband got nervous tonight when he found me cooking dinner and reading a book on poisons. If only he knew how normal this is in our house…

Research is a passion of mine, as it is with many authors. At the moment I’m struggling with Christmastime poisons in regency England. In 1800, over 90 percent of poisonings were due to plant toxicity. Today, that percentage is down to 7 percent. Since I need to kill my villain, I need something that was deadly and available in England at that time. Mistletoe? Not very toxic at all for an adult human, although it would make anyone sick. Holly berries? The same.

Now, the English or European Yew tree is another matter. Found in many church yards all over the British Isles and France, a tea made from the leaves is deadly in only a few hours. Withered leaves are even more potent than fresh ones, and fortunately for my Christmas story, the yew keeps its leaves year round. But how am I going to disguise the taste? Hmmm.

English nightshade is another possibility. Although it flowers in the summer, the deadly fruit doesn’t show up until fall. Even the roots are deadly. This plant is known for belladonna, used in small quantities to make pupils dilate by the rich and famous in the renaissance.

Hemlock is another good choice. While Socrates famously drank it, a sneaky writer would put the leaves in a salad along with spinach. Not a good choice for a Christmas story, so let’s put this away for a later tale.

Privet hedges are all over England and give wonderful privacy. The entire genus Ligustrum plant is poisonous, particularly the blackish berries. However, a well-tended hedge won’t flower or have any berries. The plant thrives in the wild, so our intrepid villain could go on a stroll to gather his murder weapon.

This was in the days before autopsies, CSI laboratories, or even the germ theory of disease. Poisonings could be passed off as natural causes or terrible mistakes. It’s impossible to know at this distance how many poisonings were never suspected or ignored by relatives, neighbors, and the community. 

Makes you wonder why Mr. Bennett put up with Mrs. Bennett all those years when relief was right outside his door. 

Kate Parker makes her living by killing people, but only in her stories. The third Victorian Bookshop Mystery, The Royal Assassin, comes out in July. Bon Appetit!

20 responses to “Choose your poison”

  1. Great post, Kate! I love herbal lore and poisons fall right in there. My first book has herbal remedies throughout it. I love researching that stuff!

    And yes, word of warning to the modern villain – those CSI labs will figure it out if you use it today : )

    Oh – and do watch pets and kids. I recently read how tulip and daffodil bulbs can be very poisonous to pets. Luckily I plant most of mine in the front yard where my crazy golden can’t dig.

    Can’t wait to read your latest, Kate. : )

    • Kate Parker says:

      This is why I love to write historical stories, Heather. No modern forensics.

      And I didn’t know that about bulbs, but I don’t have the heart to hurt children or pets in my stories.

  2. June Love says:

    Kate, I laughed out loud when I read that about your husband. Too funny. I also agree about the Mr. Bennett. If only….right?

    Informative post. To learn all this and retain it one reason I don’t write mystery. I love to read and watch mysteries, but if I were to write it, I’d probably just take the easy way out and shoot the person. 🙂

  3. Great article, Kate, but you’ve convinced me to stay in the house. I had no idea I had such a poison factory just beyond my front door. It makes me wonder why the previous owners chose to landscape with so many of the plants you’ve mentioned. Hmmm…

  4. jbrayweber says:

    I am a sucker for research. It’s one of my favorite parts of writing (and procrastinating from writing) a book.

    What a timely, post, too, Kate. I am using belladonna in my current story. Just not as a poison. Well, sort of. The hero’s nickname for the heroine is belladonna – because she will be the death of him. 😀

  5. I once had to research what kind of poison a scorpion creates…and whether it could be replicated in a lab. Fun! LOL (For one of my books, of course.)

    Also, my sister is trying to eliminate different groups of things from her diet to see if it improves her health. One of the groups is the nightshade family, which includes tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and peppers. Who knew?!

  6. Rita Henuber says:

    I have several ligustrum in my yard. The yard guys do keep them trimmed back. Oleander is a beautiful blooming shrub that grows quite large here. All parts of it are extremely poisonous. Even getting the sap on your skin can kill you. A few years ago after a hurricane blew through, a dolphin in an enclosure in central Florida died from chewing leaves that were blown into the tank.
    In the 50’s, here on the island, a neighbor killed his wife by using sticks from the bush to cook shish kabob for her. My aunt told him the plant was poisonous. We all knew it was murder but he got away with it. Long, very creepy story.
    Yes, I have used that in a WIP.

  7. Too funny, Kate. I emotionally torture my characters unmercifully, but I never poison them. 🙂

    • Kate Parker says:

      Is it emotional torture to read about poisons while cooking dinner? I think it’s normal. My kids think it’s normal, but they think it’s not normal to get a dinner that tastes good.

  8. Elisa Beatty says:

    “At the moment I’m struggling with Christmastime poisons in regency England.”

    Gotta love anybody who writes a line like that!!!

    Oh, research is so fun! And did you see the story going around the web about how a medieval herbal remedy was shown to combat one of the modern super-bugs that antibiotics can’t kill? There’s powerful stuff in our gardens….


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