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Memories of the 28th Century

The Art Of Murder

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There was a thread on another forum that I follow about killing a character in a book and getting away with it. The character in question was a musician in popular music, so my first thought was a drug overdose. Then I realized that there are many ways to do that same thing. Some of the methods are as relatively easy, while some are difficult and even messier.

We all know the old standards, loose stones on the castle walls, leaky flues, and such. But some of the most interesting became more difficult in the mid 1800’s, when a test for vegetable alkaloids was devised. That didn’t mean an end of vegetable alkaloids as instruments for murder, but it made detection and prosecution more likely. That didn’t touch the old standby of accidental poisoning, at all. It is still possible to feed someone nightshade berries. Other members of the nightshade family are also toxic; although the toxins are often in less succulent seeming parts, such as the leaves, stems, and so on of tomatoes and potatoes. A wide variety of edible plants have parts that are toxic, especially seeds. Among these are apples, cherries, peaches, almonds, etc. the seeds of which contain a cyanogenic glycosides that are quite toxic; although one would have to eat quite a few seeds to receive a fatal does, the quantity would be reasonable maybe a cup to the fatal dose. Rhubarb leaves have potentially fatal amounts of oxalic acid in their leaves, but other sources claim that there isn’t enough in a quantity that someone would be likely to eat, and the leaves would not taste very good. One that I didn’t know about is the kidney bean, which contains phytohaemagglutinin, a lectin. The beans must be heated to above boiling point of water for more than ten minutes to destroy the compound. Other beans, including soy beans, also contain toxins, but most contain so little that it can be ignored, except for soy beans that are toxic enough to kill someone who ate the beans raw.

I started looking into this in regard to a murder mystery that I was thinking of writing. I finally decided to use nicotine, which is extremely toxic, but consuming a toxic by accident would be difficult because it is so powerful at lower doses. Interestingly, murder by nicotine was what spurred a clever chemist to devise a test for detecting plant alkaloids in the human body, and . . . well read the account

Deadly nightshade is still grown as an ornamental plant; a friend of mine had some growing around her house, even though she knows what it could do. And people have died from eating the delicious looking berries. Black nightshade is equally toxic, but it is thought that some varieties are edible, and that tomatoes were derived from Black Nightshade. I remember a comment on a TV show. “But everyone thought they looked like tomatoes,” but it was just a teaser meant to help show that character as someone who wasn’t safe in the kitchen, or anywhere else.

There are some other plants that are well suited for poisoning, because they also look like they should be edible. Pokeweed is one example, because it has lovely berries, and the roots are similar to horseradish, but according to authorities the roots cannot be made edible, and all parts of the plant should be regarded as toxic; although it is alleged that some parts of the plant can be made edible if treated properly. (See link below) Here’s a site that discusses poke salad and eating the roots.
I recommend that readers avoid pokeweed, unless they are contemplating murder, but parts of the plant probably are safe at certain times. That ‘sometimes edible’ bit would make this an excellent plot device in a murder mystery. A character could say with a straight face that it was perfectly safe to eat and tell the truth according to what he may have known at the time, but pseudo- information might have been provided.

There are many other plants that might be used as poisons. Some look the part, while others, like the fruits and vegetables, seem so innocent. Most medicinal plants are toxic to some degree; remember castor oil, belladonna, mandrake, and so on.

If anyone asks, then I am just writing about cautions that must be taken while preparing food and about ideas for murder mysteries. But remember that just because some people eat it or eat something like it doesn’t mean that it is safe to eat. And if I offer you a dish made from poke weed and apple seeds, then you should discover an appointment elsewhere.

Online database of poisonous plants that seems to have an extremely broad definition of toxic

Another online list


  1. Dark Muse's Avatar
    *Takes notes and begins plans to host dinner party*
  2. PeterL's Avatar
    Yes, it's one of those things where the more one looks the more one finds. This little article just scratched the surface, but nicotine is a good starting place.