The sordid history of a perfect poison

Suxamethonium chloride is a common hospital anesthetic that has, off and on, moonlighted as murder weapon.

Used to paralyze patients so that doctors can more easily put insert a breathing tube, the drug can kill very easily if the person who gets a dose of it doesn't have access to things like respirators, or a medical team. And when somebody is killed by "sux", the death can look conveniently like a simple heart attack. More importantly, writes professional chemist and anonymous science blogger Dr. Rubidium, for many years, there was no way to test for sux in a dead person's bloodstream.

Since the early 1950s, sux has been used in a clinical setting mainly by anesthesiologists. It’s a mystery when it was first used in a homicide, but the first high-profile killings came in the 1966 and 1967. This salacious tale of murder involves anesthesiologist Dr. Carl Coppolino, his mistress, his mistress’ husband dying suddenly in ’66, Coppolino’s wife dying suddenly in ’67, a quick remarriage by Dr. Coppolino (not to that mistress), two trials in different states leading to different verdicts.

Coppolino’s first trial in New Jersey involved a shaky witness (that jilted mistress) and a tricky toxicology problem. ...

Back in the mid-to-late sixties, sux was likely considered a “perfect poison” as no tried-and-true method for detecting it in tissues was developed until the 1980s. Previous analysis had holes – including the analysis presented in both of Coppolino’s trials. It wasn’t sux that was detected, but the metabolites succinic acid and choline.

You can read the rest of Dr. Rubidium's post at The Journal of Are You Fucking Kidding.

Her post is part of a bigger series, though. If you dig weird, toxic chemicals, you should check out the "My Favorite Toxic Chemical" blog carnival—a collection of horrifying and wondrous posts about poisons.

Toxic Chemical Carnival: Day 1
Toxic Chemical Carnival: Day 2
Toxic Chemical Carnival: Day 3
Toxic Chemical Carnival: Day 4
Toxic Chemical Carnival: Day 5


  1. Any time you leave a body behind, you’re at risk.   Either dump it, well-weighted, out to sea, or (thanks fictitious Las Vegas CSI team)  seal it in an airtight duffel bag and wait for the anaerobes to completely liquify all but the bones.  Grind them into meal and dump into a storm drain.

        1. I’m aware; that’s a direct quote from Breaking Bad, albeit one that always irked me.

          HF is nasty stuff. My “favorite” (term used loosely, considering how horrifying this is) trait of that particular acid is that an aqueous solution of it can soak through your skin in seconds and devour the compact bone directly underneath, and you won’t realize it until the bone breaks or it hits the spongy layer and excruciating pain sets in.

          Quite dangerous. Fluoroantimonic is my choice for most terrifying acid though. There’s something that was probably just synthesized “for science.” It protonates hydrocarbon chains.

          1.  Perhaps their consulting chemist should have suggested they use ‘powerful acid’ rather than ‘strong acid’, although arguably anything capable of dissolving bone is ‘strong’ by a layman’s definitions. The character, arguably, however is not a layman.

        2. It is, however, a remarkably strong weak acid.

          You can’t expect non-chemists (even scientist non-chemists) to know the unintuitive nuances of jargon in other fields. Don’t get me wrong, I get pedantic too sometimes, but this one doesn’t bother me. HF is nasty stuff.

  2. Well, that was a fun ride through a lot of chemical nastiness. I especially like the post about selenium compounds – describing it like ‘six dead skunks, wrapped in inner tubes, and set on fire’ is pretty apt…

  3. On the way home, I was just thinking that I needed an obscure and hard-to-detect poison. Thanks; well timed.

  4. This was called succinylcholine when I was in school.  It would be a particularly cruel murder weapon, since the victim would be unable to move, call for help, or breathe, but would be wide awake.

  5. Sux races are a med school favorite (myth or reality – who knows).
    1: dose up.
    2 : Run until you fall over. Then have your fellow med students ventilate you until you recover.
    Winner:  Person that gets the furthest.

  6. There’s an even more interesting post further down the home page:

    Dow Chemical CEO reveals that only 95% of stuff is made of stuff. Apparently, 5% of the stuff in the marketplace contains no chemicals.

    I think I understand how these titans of industry can lose $2 billion overnight and drive the whole entire economy into the weeds. They’re dumb as a bag of hammers.

    1. The other 5% are the dreams and hopes of orphans about to be rendered down for tallow.

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