Poisoning Someone 100 Years Ago

So, with current forensic knowledge we can pretty much determine the level of any and all poisoning within a corpse. What did they do, say 100 years ago? Could I have slipped someone a rat poison sandwich and been guaranteed to get away with it? What if they didn’t even suspect murder? Could I have poisoned without any repercussions? I can’t imagine that the forensics were as sophisticated, or that the capability even existed.

I suspect that you wanted this in GQ.

WAG, but I would imagine that it would depend on the particular poison and the doctor who analysed the body.

Do you have a time machine we should know about?

I’m charging the flux capacitors as we speak. Why?

Poisoned candy in mail kills 4yo girl, Kansas City
Boxed chocolates contained white powder, “supposed to have been strychnine.”

Mayor’s daughter poisons fiancé, Freiburg, Germany
Potassium cyanide in a beverage. The murderess, age 18, was subsequently beheaded.

Foundling baby poisoned - twice, Richmond, Virginia
First time, “corrosive sublimate”; second dose, chloroform, was fatal.

With an AXE! And the executioner was required by law to wear evening clothes as befitted the solemnity of the occasion! I can imagine him trying to explain the blood stains when he returned the suit to the tuxedo rental shop.

This does look more like a General Question.

That’s not really strictly true. In order to find poison, poisoning must be suspected as the cause of death; many poisonings mimic other ailments making them difficult to correctly diagnose. And in order to determine what poison was used, it has to be identified, which usually starts with suspecting a particular class of poisons. It’s not as simple as injecting a sample of bodily fluid into a CG/MS and having it spit out ARSENIC at you.

And thus, something else I learned from TV is proven wrong…

Oh how we would benefit from Gabriella’s expertise.

Well, the most common rat poison at the time was arsenic which is reliably detectable using the Marsh test, developed in 1836: so you’d need to go back 200 years or more to get away with that one.

The science of chemistry was pretty advanced by 1908, at least in so far as the detection of readily available poisons is concerned, as was its application in forensic investigation.

Then, as now, your best chance of escaping detection would be to avoid the first suspicion: disguise your murder as an accident or illness. But you’d have to be pretty fly – plenty of murderers tried without success (but then of course, we don’t know about the ones who got away with it :wink: )

I read somewhere that in the past woman would add poison to their husband meals as a way of making him sick enough to not want sex, thereby avoiding pregnancy. Unfotunately, just a little too much and he died.

Primitive and risky birth control, but you have to work with what you got.

If you read cases of old you can see they were able to detect poison and such even a long while back. But it wasn’t as easy because poisons were a lot more common and medicine was very sloppy.

For example wife puts a bit of rat poison in the food, man gets sick, calls doctor, who didn’t wash his hands, man dies of infection. Wife collects insurance. Of course she does this 4 or 5 times and people THEN start to get suspicious. Call cops, cops dig up bodies find poison in bodies, arrest black widow

There are some interesting cases at the

Crime Library

Look under the section marked “black widows.”

It’s not that easy to find poison, even today investigators in the Tylenol killings in the early 80s admit the only reason, they found out so quickly about the tainted pills was the one family that had all those deaths. If only one person in that family had taken the Tylenol, it would’ve taken them a lot longer to figure out what was going on.

You gotta think - there’s one murderer who really needed to be removed from the gene pool for sheer stupidity if nothing else. She got away with it on the first investigation - and then couldn’t keep her trap shut! And to her next boyfriend, no less!

Rule one for murderers - if nobody suspects you then SHUT UP!

Poisons are common, but getting a good one is hard. People generally didn’t have a whole lot of knowledge about what was poisonous in what dosage, which makes things very sloppy for would-be poisoners. You might know that a particular kind of mushroom is very fatal. But assuming it really is, and not just an old wives’ tale, then it’s likely a lot of other people around can identify it. Which doesn’t make the task impossible, but difficult. Chemical toxins were pretty hard to come by, too, before industrial chemical production.

Actually, when it comes to Arsenic or other heavy metal poisoning it is that simple. It would be extremely hard to miss this in even a cursory MS analysis given isotope ratios and whatnot it would be impossible to miss a heavy element. For other organic poisons it is certainly more difficult, but not entirely unlikely to pick a poison out of the blue with a skilled operator and a high quality instrument. Multiple instruments would need to be used and GC/MS would probably not be my first choice depending on what I suspected.
First, of course, they have to suspect poison. In the nineteenth century, if you knew the right poison and enough chemistry, I have no doubt you could get away with it. Ethylene glycol is quite sweet and I suspect would be pretty indetectible in those days. Better yet, it would be a slow sickness that increases gradually as you feed the victim more tainted food “in hopes that he/she improves”.

On the otherhand, a good portion of investigative work would have nothing to do with chemical detection of ther poison. If the local pharmacist notices that you bought a gallon of ethylene glycol recently it hardly matters that they can’t detect it chemicaly. Effective poisons obtained directly from the environment would be very difficult to come by I think.

Re: the OP. I’m confident that anyone you poisoned 100 years ago is dead.


Oddly enough, when the National Socialists came in at the beginning of 1933, one of the first things they did was to reinstate this executioners’ dress code, according to a Time magazine article of the time.

The golden age for poisoners was the reign of the Emperor Nero. He employed the infamous Locusta to poison the previous emperor Claudius and his son Britannicus, and:

Alas, the good days didn’t last. When Galba became Emperor he had the old crone executed.