Poisons and Poisoners: with Historical Accounts of Some Famous Mysteries in Ancient and Modern Times

By C. J. S. Thomson (Charles John Samuel)


Thompson, C. J. S.(1993 [1931]). Poisons and poisoners: With historical accounts of some famous mysteries in ancient and modern times. New York: Barnes & Noble.

This is an older work (1931) which was reprinted in the 1990s for a good reason. Thompson’s historical overview of poisons and poisoners is excellent. It covers the ancient world up through the 20th century in well laid out chapters. The earlier chapters discuss early plant and animal poisons used by tribes (think poison arrows) and early civilizations across the globe.

He points out that people discovered that if they shot someone with an arrow that had been previously pulled from a body, it had a more lethal effect (the arrows weren’t cleaned after being pulled from a body and helped add disease and infection to the wound). Soon folks started deliberately dipping arrows in blood and feces to make them more potent. Others used plant and animal toxins to coat their weapons.

Europe in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, especially Italy, became a hot bed of poisoners as people discovered ways of eliminating the competition through nefarious ways. Italy led the way, but the techniques and formulas for effective poisons soon spread.

In the 19th and 20th centuries Thompson gives examples of famous poison cases. Many times the poisoner had some sort of medical training which enabled them to procure and administer poisons. Also, poisons were easily obtainable for supposedly innocent purposes. Fly paper was sold with arsenic. If one soaked the paper (as one did in using it), one would get a highly toxic arsenical solution.  

This is an enjoyable jaunt through the history of poisons with the types and uses explained. In addition, some of the more memorable of famous poison cases (usually the more modern ones are from Britain) are laid out for the reader’s enlightenment.