Research brings me currently to the phenomenon of poison. There appear to have been many kinds and a great many practitioners of the toxic arts during Europe’s Early
Modern period, AKA the 16th century. I have found a delightful number of poison objects and accounts of assassination, some of which I will borrow in The Peddler of Wisdom.
So it wasn’t just banking magnates who carried poison in a cignet ring to bump off rivals. Some much lowlier characters have been guilty. The Bible’s Jezebel applied stibnite, an antimony derivative, to victim’s eyelashes. A young woman from Sienna tried her hand at poisoning when faced with the future at a convent.
1568, a 14-year-old Sienese girl … poisoned her family’s dinner salad in order to evade forced entrance into a convent … by grinding down one of the mercury glass mirrors that her mother and older sister used for primping.
Another poisoner of the Renaissance produced this superb device: the poison cabinet.
This chest-within-a-book contraption includes drawers with eleven different poison labels, including deadly nightshade, opium, and a weed called Devil’s Snare — a powerful anesthetic and hallucinogen.
So what of history’s antidotes? Much has been written about zinc and charcoal, but the antitoxin most used throughout history was a substance called theriac. In use since the 1st century AD, when King Mithridates first made a personal supply, the snake venom derivative has treated illnesses as various as pimples and plague with a high rate of success. Theriac recipes traveled continents, reaching as far as China and the New World and acquiring the more modern name, Swedish Bitters, by the 19th century. Theriac had as few as three ingredients (snake venom/viper flesh, opium and spices) and as many as one hundred. Local herbalists added native ingredients like myrrh, ginger, animal parts, tree resins, and lavendar.
My choice of poisons for The Peddler of Wisdom will be mineral-based. There are a number of materials still mined in French mountain regions that produce toxic effects in excavators if not handled with great care. The crystals of galena (seen below), cinnebar, asbestos, and chalcanthite deliver enough mercury, silica and toxic copper levels through skin absorption or inhalation to produce
hallucinations, tremors, and, eventually, organ failure. Kidney failure is a particular threat with high concentration exposure to these substances, some of which were used in the decoration of tableware and domestic objects, jewelry and makeup through the ages.
Evidence of toxic minerals continue to emerge near mining areas, especially in the western United States leading to a need for constant vigilence on the part of the public to inform regulators to ground water and air quality vulnerabilities. Even the lesser known toxins appear in the news from time to time with devastating effects. One such case is with the sudden illness and death of PLO leader Yasser Arafat. ABS news reported in November, 2013 that his bones revealed high levels of radiation from Polonium-210. It would have been almost impossible for the politician to have run into the rare element accidentally.
I continue to research Earth’s toxic materials for my novel research and out of an increasing interest I have in geology. It occurs to me that if we wanted to, we
could likely find a fast action poison for any cruel overlord by pulverizing great-granny’s pinky ring! Don’t go licking clean your jewelry any time soon …..