In my well-thumbed files of strange deaths, there are a number of curious poisoning cases. These are not the humdrum “I-mistook-Rough-on-Rats-for-sugar” stories of the harried housewife or careless servant nor the plausible tales of strychnine bought to exterminate vermin—unwanted stepchildren, for instance, or inconvenient spouses. No, these are more subtle, and to my mind, more interesting “indirect poisonings.”
They come in three flavors: animal, vegetable or mineral. Animals are by far the most numerous. We begin with an article by a dog-loving journalist. The baby seems to be an afterthought.
(Fort Wayne News-Sentinel)
Out in Spokane Washin., one of those sneaking beasts in human form, whose milk of human kindness has been curdled with the venom of a cancered soul, set out some poison for a dog the other day. The dog found the bit of food that had been poisoned and took the bait. In his agony, the poor creature crawled to his little pal, a 19-months-old child, and licked the baby’s hands. The baby put his hands to his mouth and got some of the poison and was soon in the throes of excruciating pain. At the moment when these lines are written, the baby is hovering between life and death. All this ghastly tragedy because some beast unworthy of the association of dogs had vented his sinister and unnatural spleen upon society. If nothing else will avail to withhold these perverted pusillanimous caninophobiacs from throwing out poison for dogs, let them reflect upon the Spokane case and consider the possibilities of death to human beings which may result from the death of a normal human being’s animal friend. But will a dog hater be much worried about what can happen to a baby? Hammond [IN] Lake County Times 27 February 1930: p. 4
Cow’s milk was often a hazardous commodity. There are too many cases to count of persons killed or driven mad by cows ingesting poisonous plants. [In The Headless Horror, for example, there was a case of an Ohio village in the grip of a witch mania from poisoned milk.] In this snippet, the culprit is supposed to be a snake, but one wonders….
Pittston, Pa., June 18. Eighteen persons were seriously poisoned here yesterday, by milk taken from a cow supposed to have been bitten by a rattlesnake. Evening Star [Washington DC] 18 June 1878: p. 1
Cows also might prove a more direct hazard, especially when the victims were groping around in bovine intestines.
SINGULAR POISONING CASE
Death of Two men from Poison Received in Handling the Intestines of a Dead Cow
Woman and Boy Dangerously Ill.
[From the New Albany Ledger.]
On Thursday of last week a very remarkable and terrible case of poisoning occurred at Tell City, Perry county, resulting in the death of two men, the probable death of a woman, and the serious illness of a little boy ten years of age. The circumstances of the case, as we learn them from E.E. Crumb, Esq., of Cannelton, are about as follows;
On Wednesday night the cow of Dominic Friant died very suddenly. On the next day (Thursday) Mr. Friant determined to open her and examine as to the cause of her death, suspecting she had been poisoned. He called to his assistance his wife, a little boy of ten years, and Mr. Joseph Sporcey. Upon cutting open the paunch of the cow, small pieces of pewter and a silver spoon were found in it; and each of the parties named pushed their hands into the paunch and felt among its contents for other pieces of the spoons than those already found.
On Friday morning, when the persons arose from bed, they found their hands and arms much swollen and broken out with large red blotches. The swelling continued to rapidly increase and spread until it covered the entire upper part of the bodies of the victim. Medical assistance was summoned, and everything possible done for the relief of the sufferers, but all was of no avail. Mr. Friant died on Saturday, Mr. Sporcey on Sunday, and Mrs. Friant was still dangerously ill on Tuesday and it was thought would die. The little boy was out of danger at last accounts.
The physicians gave it as their opinion that the unfortunate victims took the poison from the cow’s paunch into their systems by absorption, as there was no abrasure upon the skin of either of them. The case is one among the saddest and most singular we have ever been called upon to record. The Cincinnati [OH] Daily Enquirer 13 July 1870: p. 3
Rats were a favorite animal culprit. They could be found in a domestic setting.
Apples Poisoned by Rats
Poison placed in a grocery cellar at Bucyrus, O., to exterminate rats was dragged by them over a lot of apples. Loren Haman bought some of the fruit and his whole family is sick. Ethel, aged 5, died in great agony. Many other purchasers of the apples suffered—New York World Marion [OH] Daily Star 16 February 1899
Or they could be found operating on a grand, public scale.
The National Hotel Sickness Again.
The Editor of the New York Scalpel makes the following statement in regard to the mysterious sickness at the National Hotel, Washington.
We have a patient from the immediate vicinity of this hotel—a very common-sense man and a housekeeper—who assures us that his premises were overrun with rats from the hotel; dozens of them might be seen at almost any hour of the day in the yard—indeed, they were so numerous as to be incredible, and a man from this city was sent for to poison them. He did so, and what he used it is not very probable he told. Those ingenious philosophers are not apt to communicate their secrets. The rats all disappeared. My patient tells me not one is visible on his premises, and they were in numbers so incredible, that he would not venture to say; but we know, for we have been there and seen them in the hotel-yard. He had a servant who had been employed at the hotel, and she told him, that it was known to all the other servants, that a great number of dead rats were taken from the water-tank, which was used for cooking and other household purposes! This was published at the time, and is doubtless true; for a rat’s instinct, after eating arsenic, will lead him to the top of a house to get water; and nothing is easier than for them to get in a water-tank. No other person than those who ate at the hotel were affected, although that sewer opens directly before the room, and under the doors and windows of a telegraphic office, where sixteen gentlemen are constantly operating. It by no means follows that all who ate of the food should be similarly affected; all did not die, and some ate mostly perhaps of dishes that did not require so much of that filthy water in their preparation. Some drank much strong coffee, and coffee is an antidote—in short, some had stronger constitutions, and many are still suffering.
No doubt, the proprietors of the National Hotel felt disgraced at the discovery of the filthiness of their premises; and no doubt the committee felt sore at our letter—it had too much common-sense in it; but we can’t cure committees—never. As for the hotels at Washington, they are the most disgraceful and filthy holes that humanity ever vomited in; and if our business again leads us to Washington, which it often has, and probably will, we will either live out of town in the suburbs, or carry some food with us. Such filth as we have there witnessed, we never wish to see again. We should not have been surprised to have found a rat entire in a hash or a pie.
Whilst reading the proof of this article, we find a very learned paper in the American Medical Monthly, by the excellent Dr. Hall, of Washington — a gentleman who is admired by all who know him — designed to prove the miasmatic character of the disease. The last paragraph is as follows: “One thing, however, jostled my theory, and has staggered me a good deal, and that is, that many persons who partook of but a single meal were seized! Could the miasma have affected or adhered to food? The water of the house I drank copiously without any ill effects.”
Dear Doctor, they never gave you that water to drink; it was a little too filthy for drinking; as the poor woman said, who wished to settle the stomachs of her guests, when they rebelled at their breakfast, her eggs were “not fresh enough for boiling;” so she fried ’em.
So far as regards the power of concentrated exhalations from sewers to produce disease of the bowels, no one doubts it; Heaven knows every physician in a large city is abundantly convinced of its power; but it acts chiefly on children, and in connection with teething; the dysentery of our summers is chiefly admitted to be caused by heat, and is dysentery and nothing else; that this National Hotel epidemic should have been confined solely to one house, and have produced the set of symptoms it did, without a specific or material poison acting on the stomach and its appendages is absurd. Arsenic, mechanically diffused from the decayed rats, and slowly acting on the stomach, is sufficient to account for all the symptoms. The Highland Weekly news [Hillsboro, OH] 9 July 1857: p. 1
Fatally Poisoned by Impure Water.
Findlay, October 19. Miss Hattie Wade of Mount Cory, died of a strange malady just two weeks after her mother, Mrs. Rebecca Wade, the two cases showing the same symptoms. Investigation shows the cause to have been poisoning, due to the use of drinking water from a well in which a poisoned rat had been drowned. Cincinnati [OH] Commercial Tribune 20 October 1883: p. 6
We are, of course, reminded by both articles above of that tragic case where a young woman tourist drowned herself in the rooftop water tank of the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles.
Everyone knows that snake venom is still lethal for a long period after a snake’s death. Apparently it maintains its lethal qualities even in another animal’s body.
It is stated that the blood of an animal bitten by a venous snake assumes poisonous properties. Frank Buckland on one occasion having seen a rat bitten and killed by a cobra, dissected off the skin to examine the wound. Having discovered the two minutes punctures made by the poison fangs, he scraped away with his fingernail the flesh on the inner side of the skin which he had removed. Unfortunately, he had shortly before been cleaning his nails with a penknife, and had slightly separated the nail from the skin beneath. When he had completed his rapid examination of the rat he walked way, characteristically stuffing the skin into his pocket, (what strange things, alive and dead, did those pockets often contain!)
He had not walked a hundred yards before, all of a sudden, he felt as if somebody had come behind him and struck him a severe blow on the head, and at the same time experienced a most acute pain and sense of oppression at the chest, “as though a hot iron had been run in and a hundred weight put on top of it.” He knew instantly from what he had read that he was poisoned. Luckily he obtained ammonia and brandy, but was ill for some days. “How virulent, therefore,” he says, “must the poison of a cobra be! It had already been circulated in the body of the rat from which I had imbibed it at second hand.” From the account that he gives, however, it seems at least possibly, if not probable that some of the poison was hanging about the wound unabsorbed, and had thus entered his system directly and not, as he believed, indirectly. Murray’s Magazine. The Christian Recorder [Philadelphia, PA] 18 April 1889
I have a note in my files to the effect that “Charles Drury, taxidermist of Cincinnati was poisoned by rattlesnake head on specimen he was preparing,” but I cannot find the citation.
Tainted poultry has also been responsible for many food poisonings, but not for the same reason as in these two cases. Another reason to avoid Thanksgiving.
IDAHO YOUTH CAUSES ILLNESS OF HIS FAMILY
Feeds Poison to Flock of Turkeys Thanksgiving Morning
Results are Disastrous
Two of Those who Eat the Poisoned Birds in a Precarious Condition and May Die.
Boise, Idaho, Nov. 30. James Bashor, a 12-year-old boy, poisoned his entire family Thanksgiving day, and his brother and sister are so seriously ill that they may die.
The Bashers live on a farm and have a large number of turkeys. It was James’ duty to take care of the fowl and he became very fond of them.
As Thanksgiving day approached the youth heard talk of killing some of his pets. He protested against the slaughter, but his appeals were made light of. On the morning of Thanksgiving day he fed the turkeys a poisonous substance used in the preparation of seed wheat, thinking it would sicken them temporarily and their lives would be saved.
The hired man killed two plump birds and they were served at dinner. Every member of the family was taken sick shortly after the meal and an investigation was made. The boy finally made a full confession. He said that he thought the turkeys would be taken sick, and as no one wants to eat an unhealthy bird they would not be molested.
The physicians who were called in pronounced the members of the family out of danger but two—a boy and a girl. Their lives are despaired of.
All the poisoned turkeys died before nightfall, but the condition of the flock was not noticed until after the dinner had been served. The San Francisco [CA] Call 1 December 1900: p. 8
Two Families Feed on a Poisoned Turkey
Little Rock, (Ark.), April 10th. Advices received here to-night from Conway, a small town in the interior of Faulkner County, gives the particulars of a most singular poisoning, which happened near there last evening, of which it is feared has resulted in the death of several persons. Sixteen in all were stricken down in a single hour, and notwithstanding the attention of the best physicians to be had, at last accounts their efforts seemed unavailing to save hat least half the number.
Two families, Hayes and Crownings, gave a turkey dinner, Will Browning having killed a large wild gobbler turkey. It’s thought the bird got some strychnine just before it was killed, the farmers in the vicinity having put out poison in the woods to kill wolves. Every member of the dinner party was affected in a similar manner, and all but four were thrown into convulsions, and at last accounts eight of the number were in a very critical condition. Sacramento [CA] Daily Record-Union 11 April 1890: p. 1
Did this young man die of anthrax poisoning? It is said that people who sorted wool or worked with animal bone, bristles, or hides were susceptible to inhalational anthrax. The wonder is that it didn’t kill more people.
A SINGULAR POISONING CASE
Jas. Francis McLean, whose singular poisoning was yesterday referred to, was employed in the morocco factory of James. S. Barclay, on Piano Street, Newark, N.J., where imported skins are tanned. Last Wednesday he was engaged in the handling of some Russian hides that were in the process of tanning. While his hand was still wet, he rubbed a pimple of his chin. On Thursday night he was taken ill, and on Friday morning he complained of chills, and his throat was slightly swollen. He continued to grow worse, the swelling extending upward to the forehead and half way down his chest. The swelling affected his breathing and he suffered intense pains. A consultation of physicians was held and the conclusion was reached that the young man was afflicted with a malignant pustule. All efforts to save his life proved unavailing, and on Saturday evening he died, partly from strangulation and partly from nervous prostration. These pustules arise generally from the infusion into the blood of virus from diseased animals, and the skins of animals who had died with disease are said to have communicated the poison months after their slaughter. [N.Y. Times, 6th.] Evening Star [Washington, DC] 7 June 1878: p. 3
Then we have the animal that is man. There are a surprising number of stories of people dying or becoming ill from human bites.
A DYING MAN
Bit His Wife’s Finger and her Life is Despaired Of.
Tiffin, O., March 25. Mrs. Elizabeth Atkinson lies at the home of her parents in this city in a critical condition, the result of being bitten by her late husband while he was in the throes of death. The deceased by W.H. Atkinson, a man high in railroad circles in Cleveland. He died in that city last week of Bright’s disease, and his body was cremated. While his wife was administering to him just before his death, he seized her little finger in his teeth and in his delirium lacerated the flesh badly. She accompanied the ashes of her husband here, and a few days later the injured hand began to swell, until now her entire arm is swollen to twice its natural size, and she suffers excruciating agony.
It is believed that blood poisoning has resulted and that the woman’s life is in danger. Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 25 March 1902: p. 1
A letter from Portsmouth, Ohio, written by a lady to her husband in this city, makes mention of an extraordinary circumstance. A short time ago a young lady was bitten by a dog. Hydrophobia manifested itself on her, and while confined with the disease she bit her sister, who was waiting on her. The sister was soon attacked by the same disease and bit the mother. All three were alive at the last account, but were all raving mad, and there was no prospect of their recovery. Louisville Journal.Standard [Clarksville, TX] 8 October 1859: p. 2
While insect bites also could be or turn poisonous, this is an unusual story of insect toxicity. Any explanations?
At Piqua, Ohio, last week, Rev. W. L. Fee picked a quantity of potato bugs off his vines and placed them in a tin can; then pouring boiling water into the can, he stood over it to watch its Christian effect on the enemy, but soon became very ill and it was concluded the vapor had poisoned him. Cleveland [OH] Leader 2 June 1871: p. 3
Our final animal entry circles back to dogs in a seemingly unlikely case of indirect poisoning.
Singular circumstance. A Baltimore paper states, that a girl died recently in Virginia from having biten [sic] a thread with which she had sewn up a rent made by the bite of a mad dog, in her apron. Ohio Monitor [Columbus, OH] 29 June 1831: p. 2
Stories of indirect vegetable poisons are more rare.
Mr. John Thomas, residing at No. 2233 B street, visited the Odd Fellows’ Cemetery in company with some friends, on Sunday last, and while there weeded some grass from the flowers on a grave. On arriving home he discovered a poison had entered his skin, completely covering his body with a mass of putrid corruption. The doctors in attendance say they are unable to determine the natural of the poison. The Evening Telegraph [Philadelphia, PA] 29 may 1871: p. 8
Singular Case of Poisoning
From Our Jacksonville correspondent we learn of a strange poisoning case. J.M. Dille, a citizen of Richhill township, while cleaning off some ground for the plow, recently, and burning brush with which was mixed some mercury vines (rhus radicans?] and other poisonous vegetation, inhaled some of the smoke of the burning mass. This, singular to relate, acted upon the lungs like poison upon the external surface, and soon produced serious sickness. Mr. Dille is now lying in an almost hopeless condition from the effects of the poisoning. Waynesburg Republican. Washington [PA] Reporter, 27 May 1874: p. 1
A curious case of tobacco poisoning is reported from Brooklyn. A child purchased a cake at one of the refreshment stands in Prospect park. After eating a small portion of it, he was taken with nausea and vomited freely. A physician being summoned declared that the child was suffering from tobacco poisoning, and, on examination, tobacco was found scattered through the cake. This accident indicates the necessity for some sort of supervision of the bakeries, as there is but little doubt that the subordinate workmen are not of the most cleanly habits possible. Chicago Medical Review Denver Medical Times, Volume 2, Issue 3 1883
Indirect mineral poisonings are even rarer (although there have been suggestions that lead leached from pipes or ceramics brought down the Roman empire.) but I find these to be some of the most interesting.
A bartender was believed to have rheumatism, but the doctor suspected that he was suffering from lead poisoning.
One point in his history was suggestive, and that was the fact that he was accustomed to drink a good deal of what he termed “soft stuff,” [i.e. soft drinks] being a total abstainer, yet compelled to drink something when “treated” by his customers. The bottles containing these beverages were closed with old-fashioned lead stoppers and the carbonic acid gas dissolved in the beverages made them much better solvents of lead than uncharged fluids. Eliminative treatment led to quick recovery of the patient and proved the correctness of the diagnosis. Medical Record, George Frederick Shrady, Thomas Lathrop Stedman, Vol. 74, 1908
I have previously written about the perils of poisoned stockings. Here is one more.
Cincinnati, March 18. Last Saturday Louis Mosser, purchased a pair of stockings. He wore them Sunday. Monday morning he was unable to leave his bed, and to-day the physician, who has been in constant attendance, considered his case very precarious. His feet and legs are swollen two or three times their natural size and give him the most intense pain. The stockings were dyed a cardinal red, and it is supposed the coloring matter must have contained poison. The Highland Weekly News [Hillsboro, OH] 24 March 1886: p. 2
And finally, watch out for peaches.
The Granada (Mi.) Register of the 19th ult., says the family of G. Morehead, residing near the Yazoo Pass, were recently poisoned (as is supposed) by eating peaches which had been dried upon a painted scaffold—‘the acid of the peaches, combining with the alkaline and other properties of the white lead, probably producing a poison like sugar of lead.’ Mrs. M. and two of the children died. The other members of the family recovered. Boston [MA] Traveler 2 December 1842: p. 2
My alter-ego, the murderous Mrs Daffodil, has a penchant for what one might call “indirect murder,” never resorting to direct violence, but allowing circumstances or other people to do her dirty work. The cases above seem to be accidents, but contain some useful details. Mrs Daffodil is taking notes.
Any other indirect poisonings? Is the book-page poisoning from The Name of the Rose strictly a fictional creation? Thoughts to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com, who does not lick her fingers when turning over the leaves of a book.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.