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The (real, weird) History of CYANIDE Poisoning
It's creepy and it's kooky. And it plays a role in the new Wednesday series. But what's the scoop on historical cyanide poisonings?
Like many of you, I have watched the new Netflix series, Wednesday, where the titular character spends her first semester at Nevermore Academy solving seriel murder. Ah, nostalgia! (Okay, maybe not the murder part, but the reading alone in graveyards—yes ma’am.) In this recent season, there’s quite a lot of talk about poisons in general, and cyanide in particular. No spoilers! But I will provide what our heroine thinks are the tell-tale signs of cyanide poisoning: dilated pupils, confused behavior, foaming at the mouth, blue fingers. Oh. And death. Definitely death. How do these stack up to real life cyanide poisoning? Let’s find out with a little history lesson.
Cyanide compounds occur naturally, albeit in small amounts. Cassava, lima beans and almonds, plus the pits and seeds of common fruits (including apples). Chemically, cyanide is the CN- ion, and appears as: 1) hydrogen cyanide, a volotile, colorless (or pale blue) liquid, 2) potassium or sodium cyanide, salts or powders, and 3) hydrogen cyanide, the gas used by Nazis in their consentration camps. But it’s a long way from bitter almonds to biological weapons. First, cyanide needed to be isolated. The credit goes to Swedish chemist Carl Scheele, in 1782.
Eighteenth century science ran a hot-footed race to identify new elements and compounds and chemicals and animals and—well, basically anything you could stick a name on. Scheele sigle-handedly identified tons of acids, including tartaric, oxalic, lactic, mucic, uric, prussic, citric, and malic. But he was most interested in arsenic and cyanide, particularly cyanide gas. Not surprisingly, his life was very short (he died at age 43, or after around 20,000 experiments in un-venitlated lab space).
Once the chemical recipe had been isolated, cyanide could be manufactured in the lab. Organic, naturally occurring cyanides are usually called nitriles; in Wednesday, we are led to believe the poisons at Nevermore are naturally derived. However, in a pinch, hydrocyanic acid (hydrogen cyanide) can be made using the Andrussow process, named after another friendly scientist who came up with it in 1930. It’s a combination of methane, ammonia, oxygen and platinum (as a catalyst). I’m told. I mean, I haven’t tried this myself, though the search history for this article is going to raise eyebrows.
Right: we know what it is and where it came from. What does it do? The simplest description is that the victim essentially suffocates. In the case of acute poisoning—that is, sudden injection, injestion, or inhalation—the cyanide binds to red blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen. Rather than being smothered with a pillow, your body stops being able to make use of oxygen, even if you are breathing it in. It’s considered one of the most rapid-acting of the poisons, and as little as one milligram per kilogram of body weight can kill. And since it acts so quickly, it’s very hard to treat by antidote (in fact, there isn’t much agreement about what an antidote would be, though other nitrite compounds have been used in some cases).
Given the basics, you might be able to guess what the symptoms are likely to be—and credit goes to Wednesday for getting it mostly right. The CDC lists dizzyness and headache, nausea, dilated pupils, confusion and convulsions—and yes, foaming at the mouth. Why? Remember, your heart and lungs are not working properly. The same is true of drug overdose; fluids can gather in the lungs, mixing with carbon dioxide and making a foam. But it’s also true that during convulsions, people often cannot swallow their saliva. Cyanide poisoning may result in both of these happening at once, thus: foam. But our gothic sleuth also suggests that cyanide may result in a blue hue, or cyanosis. Unfortunately, the poisoned dead do not turn blue as a tell-all. And yet, it’s named for the Greek word blue; why? It was first obtained by heating the dye pigment powder known as Prussian blue. And strangely enough, the formation of Prussian blue can be used as a positive test for inorganic cyanide—just not quite how it happened in the show. Then again, if that’s what offends your suspension-of-disbelief (in a show about teenage vampires, gorgans, and werewolves featuring a sentient disembodied hand), I don’t know what to tell you.
It can be suprisingly difficult to tell if someone has been poisoned by cyanide. According to criminal justice professor Chi-Chung Yu, unless cyanide is found at the time of death on the mouth or nose, “elevated cyanide concentration can only be found for up to two days under current toxicological testing.” His laboratory has been working to discover a biomarker present in the liver which will linger for much longer, but it’s best it the corpse is fresh. Why? Because in addition to smelling slightly of bitter almond, the deceased victim will be pink and their blood a bright, cherry red. Bright red blood is such a good indicator of cyanide poisoning, that it helped convict Dr. Robert Ferrante, a medical researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, of murdering his wife. Treating her for a “mystery” condition, they drew blood and found it was abnormally sanguine. Why? Hemoglobin oxygen saturation. Remember, the body has been taking in oxygen, but unable to use it. The same thing occurs with CO (carbon monoxide) poising; here, you have too much carboxyhemoglobin in the bloodstream.
Useful forensic tips! We heard about “cherry red” skin in Deborah Blum’s Poisoner’s Handbook for the Peculiar Book Club… and I believe Charming Disaster may just have a song about it…
There have been numerous high profile murder cases where cyanide played a role—the Ferrante murder, above, but also the Tylenol Murders of Chicago. In 1982, a killer bought several bottles of the popular painkiller Tylenol and replaced the contents with potassium cyanide before placing them back on shelves. It remains unsolved. Also among famous cyanide murders would be the Jonestown Massacre. Rev. Jim Jones ordered his followers to drink a cyanide / sedative punch and 900 died—thus comes the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid.” Recent cases have also appeared, including a “cyanide soup” that resulted in six deaths in India, but though murder tends to take the headlines, cyanide has an even longer and more intimate history with suicide.
I was astonished to learn that whole databases exist cataloguing suicide by cyanide. It seems grisly, but it would be a preferable end to arsenic, which left it’s victim lingering in wretched throes of agony. Until fairly recently, cyanide could be easily acquired, and the end was both assured and quick (though not painless). At the turn of the century, the poison had an allure for one gifted and beautiful poet, Nora French. She took her own life in 1907—and was followed by a number of others, including Carrie Sterling, in whose arms she died, and George Sterling, Carrie’s husband and Nora’s lover. (Yes. It’s complicated.) Upon Nora’s death, the headlines read like movie pitches: “Midnight Lure of Death Leads Poetess to the Grave” and “Girl Writer Tires of Life.” Young people, equally disillusioned with life in the dizzy and disruptive new century, chose to follow her lead, often with her poems in their pockets. They died, and they were also largely forgotten (especially the women). It’s not like the movies; it’s a moment’s decision that cannot be undone.
And then again, it is like the movies—or at least the Netflix series or police dramas we consume on the regular. Cyanide makes for a useful plot device; a way of ending a life, a way of erasing a suspect, a sacrifice of character so the plot moves ahead. We know the famous authors of Carmel, including Upton Sinclair and Jack London. We forget the women who helped build that community, and who were ultimately betrayed by it. I learned about the lovers’ triangle, their bohemian and literary lives, and the strange legacy of cyanide suicides that followed, from Catherine Prendergast’s book The Gilded Edge. Throughout, she describes how premature ends make for difficult recovery efforts. It can be hard to resurrect the legacy of forgotten women, but bit by bit, she brings Nora and Carrie back from the dead (cyanide notwithstanding).
And let’s face it, that’s something Wednesday Addams could get behind.
Want a preview of Prendergast’s book? Check out her Crime Reads Article. Want to talk endlessly about Wednesday on Netflix? You know I’m on Facebook, y’all, I am obsessed with that show… And, if you like, do join us for the next Peculiar Book Club.