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THE POISONING OF THE FUTURE.
CIENCE must be reckoned with. Many are the special attributes
by which this our time has been distinguished. It is the age of labour and the rights of man, of talk and the rights of woman: it is the age of minor poetry, of manufactured jam, of prize-competitions and of cheap psychology. But it is essentially the age of applied science. Under Acts for the regulation of public health, science invades our homes ; with a growing school of novelists she supplies the chief interest in their stories; she leavens the modern sermon, and has a column to herself in many of the popular prints. As a result of this omnipresence of science, and of the unbroken laudation of the value of scientific discovery, and of the breathless marvel at the feats of scientific achievement, there has grown up, not among the nervous and ignorant alone, a suspicion that a power able to go so far in certain directions for human welfare might, under the employ of the unscrupulous, prove herself a very formidable assistant in evil designs. And while there are many sets of rogues to whom science would prove an excellent handmaid, to no one could she be more obviously useful than to the poisoner. It is proposed here to indicate the methods in which this advancement of scientific knowledge might facilitate the poisoner's plans, and to show that the apprehension—which is perhaps more marked in France than with us—that secret poisoning is, and will be, on the increase is a groundless one.
“What is a poison?" seems an easy enough question to answer, common intelligence replying at once —anything that being in any way absorbed, assimilated, or received into the subject, results in bodily harm of any sort. Such a sweeping definition, though too vague to be of any value from a lawyer's point of view, has so much to recommend it that it will be adopted here; the more so that some of the destructive agents to be passed under consideration would hardly be classified as poisons in any official list of poisonous substances. On the other hand, it is impossible for a lawyer to be exact, and to codify all substances into poisons and non-poisons. If, for instance, a generous host should seduce a pliable guest to vinous excess, would this be a case of poisoning within the legal meaning of the term ? And if the host should know from common experience of wine, or from special knowledge of his own cellar, that his pressing invitation might lead to disaster, would such knowledge constitute the difference between indiscretion and crime? But whatever it may be under convivial circumstances, under others alcohol is a poison, and a very effective one. Or again, if a man should, as Brunel the great engineer did, under a too literal auri sacra fames swallow a half-sovereign, and it should stick in his larynx and cause inconvenience or death, the occurrence would not constitute a certain combination of gold and copper a poison. Yet some forms of gold and copper, given in adequate doses, are virulent mineral poisons. And it must not be supposed that the merely mechanical nature of the accident places it clearly outside the conditions of poisoning. There is no clearness in the matter at all, and no possible hard and fast line between a mechanical injury and what is known as “local” poisoning. Death after swallowing a corrosive occurs by suffocation and shock. The same causes might be present in death after swallowing a sovereign and would certainly be present in death after drinking boiling water.
Poisoning in England has hitherto been rather a crude process. Arsenic, strychnine ; hydrocyanic, carbolic, oxalic, and certain mineral acids, have been the more usual agents, and the quantity administered has generally been so entirely enormous—so vastly in excess of the necessarily fatal dose—that not only has suspicion been aroused by the violence of the symptoms, but plentiful traces of the poison have been found in the victim's body. So that the following is a fair résumé of a typical case ending in the conviction of the murderer
The subject is taken suddenly and extremely ill. He dies with signs and symptoms that accord with those produced by the administration of a well-known drug. This drug is found in his body after death; and possession of it is traced to the suspected person.
If now the suspected person can be shown to have any reason for desiring the removal of the victim, the story is complete. In such a case, which is an example of the most frequent kind of poisoning, it will be seen that the one safeguard of the public is the ignorance of the poisoner. It is his ignorance which leads him to employ the usual agents—for he knows of no others; and it is his ignorance of their phy
sical consequences which leads him to administer them in the grossly unskilful manner that ultimately leads to his detection.
It must be understood that reference is made throughout to secret poisoning, and that it is assumed that the fear of the law has its intended effect; so that the chances of detection, inasmuch as they jeopardise the poisoner, constitute the protection of the public. There are no precautions now, and there never will be any, that will protect the life of a man from one who means to take it, laying down his own life in exchange. Poisoning conducted on those give-and-take lines resembles the action of the wife-basher, who attacks his victim with a poker, with the expressed intention of "swinging for her." He kills her and he swings, and the law cannot prevent the crime, but can only punish it and hope that the punishment will prove a deterrent to others. The fear on the poisoner's part of being caught is the chief safeguard of the public, and if the poisoner feels that he cannot work in secret, he will very generally refrain from working. And it may be noted that the poisoner is usually the sort of man who values his own skin. But if his agent is as obvious as a poker, and the injuries inflicted as patent and as gross as a fractured skull, he will be caught and he will be hanged, and the example will discourage others. Again, while the injuries which follow poisoning, as usually performed, are as gross as those in the case of a fractured skull, it is as easy-for those who know how-to find an overdose of undigested arsenic in the victim's stomach as it is to pick up a bent and blood-stained poker from a hearth-rug. The two crimes are similar, and against a poisoner who fears no consequences there can be no adequate precautions taken. But the Board-schoolmaster is abroad, and chemistry is nowadays treated of in penny handbooks. The horrors, also, rather than the ingenuity of one or two recent crimes have turned public attention to the question of poisoning. So that it has been seriously asked whether the triumphs of science may not, by removing the poisoner's ignorance, constitute him the enemy to society that he was—or is stated to have been in mediæval Europe.
There are two directions which the prisoner of the future may take in an intelligent attempt to use superior knowledge in the accomplishment of undetected crime. One of them is the bringing of the older methods of poisoning to perfection by the exhibition of subtler drugs. The other, and by far the more terrifying, is the employment by the poisoner of the results of recent biological research. Neither attempt will be successful.' The public safeguard in our present thoughtless poisoning is just the poisoner's ignorance. It will be seen that in elaborate poisoning there is another added. For in crude poisoning all can get the agent and all can try to use it, but in elaborate poisoning it is only open to a few to use the drug, and they are not only likely to be ignorant by comparison with experts, but will be comparatively marked men, inasmuch as they will belong to a limited class.
(1) As chemistry perfects itself, there will undoubtedly be a very general discovery of what we may term “active principles." Of these the alkaloids strychnine, atropine, digitalin, and aconitine, being the active principles of nux vomica, belladonna, foxglove, and monkshood respectively, are examples. The poisonous dose of these substances is exceedingly small. Without going into detail, it will be sufficient to say that it is, in the case of each drug specified, but a fraction of a grain; and the administration is therefore very easy, and the symptoms produced may sometimes be very obscure—so obscure that the ordinary physician may well be excused for not immediately detecting their significance. It would seem at the first glance that if a poisoner should acquire sufficient knowledge to use one of these deadly essences, he would have many chances of immunity on his side. But that this is a superficial view is certain, and so well proved by at least one notorious case that a short account of that case will be the readiest method of making the point.
The Lamson Case. A doctor having a pecuniary interest in the death of a connection gave him a poisonous dose of aconitine, enclosing it in a capsule with some white sugar. He chose his time wisely, for his victim, who was in delicate health, had just made a plentiful meal of the sort that might be well expected to induce indigestion. Some hours after swallowing the capsule the unfortunate lad died. Even a man who had completed a medical education, and was familiar with the ordinary processes of an autopsy, might be forgiven for having believed that the fraction of a grain of an alkaloid, for which there was no chemical test, would escape detection after death, especially when mixed with the contents of a full stomach. Lamson believed in the first place that the symptoms of poisoning would go unrecognised, and in the second place that, should the death-certificate be withheld, the agent that he had selected would defy chemical research. But his belief was ill-founded, and this fortunate result is so certain to be the usual issue of this kind of crime that in seeing how it was brought about in this case we shall be able to appreciate what our safeguards are against the criminal use of elaborate developments in the art of chemistry,
This poisoner, then, was not an ignorant man. He was a duly qualified physician, by convention an expert in drugs, and by law in a position to obtain possession of deadly poisons with ease-a privilege, by the way, that has recently been seen to be largely shared with the medical profession by the public at large. He chose a poison the dose of which was excessively small, the chemical tests for which were unknown, and the symptoms of which were obscure. Indeed, aconitine had never, or at least only once previously, figured in the law-courts as a cause of death, so that its effects were necessarily a secret to most men-medical or lay. As might have been expected, therefore, the ordinary post-mortem examination revealed no cause of death. So far all went well with Lamson, and so far his expert knowledge stood him in good stead as a secret poisoner. But suspicion chanced to fall upon him-of the nature of that chance more will be said—and an investigation was started with the view of proving that the boy had been murdered by an irritant poison. The clue was obtained by a few words of dying complaint in which the unfortunate lad alluded to some peculiar sensations in his mouth and throat. This suspicion was confirmed beyond a shadow of doubt by scientific evidence from two sets of experiments, undertaken by the experts upon themselves, and upon living mice by injecting them with the alkaloidal extract of the victim's stomach. This alkaloidal extract produced to the taste of the examiners certain symptoms that are always associated with the use of aconite, and the signs of aconite-poisoning more or less corresponded with those that the moribund lad had described. Again, the alkaloidal extract killed mice in certain times and with certain signs, and these signs and times were demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt to be identical with the signs and times when the same little animals were killed with solutions containing aconitine of a known strength. This was held to be a proof that the boy had died of aconitine poisoning. The late Mr. Montagu Williams in an able defence did his best-which in that line was far in excess of anybody else's best-to argue and laugh the method of proof out of court; but the scientific men were rightly too strong for him, and the position that they took up was practically unassailable. It was freely admitted that there was no known chemical test for the vegetable extractive aconitine, but it was claimed, and the jury allowed the claim, that the analyst had demonstrated the certainty that the
VOL. IX.-No. 50.