Poisoners are dumb

Science writer and poisons specialist Deborah Blum rounds up the year's news stories regarding malicious poisoners and expresses her disappointment that poisoners are often incredibly stupid about how they go about their trade (though, of course, it's possible that we only hear about the dumb ones because the smart ones get away clean).

But poisoners tend to have, let’s say, a curious way of seeing the world — and their place in it. When detectives interviewed Lampron, he felt he had cause: “He said he was close to retirement and he should be able to slow down the last few months.” Just as a Michigan college student who sent her roommate to the hospital (again in the first week of December) explained that she poured bleach into the other girl’s tea after they argued over who should wash dirty dishes. Her roommate was “mean” about it, she said.

I’ve written before about bleach poisonings. They remind us that household supplies are the most frequent source of such attacks. They remind us that people sometimes just poison to punish. In November, for instance, a deputy sheriff in Florida was charged with dumping hand sanitizer into a co-worker’s coffee following an argument over vacation days.

They remind us, once again, that the everyday poisoner is vindictive. Sneaky. But not necessarily that smart.

Dumb Poisoners: A Year-End Appreciation [Wired/Deborah Blum]


  1. Okay, smartypants. What would be an effective, easily obtained and administered poison?

    Um, just out of curiosity.

    1. nicotine. easily distilled from chewing tobacco, lethal in relatively small doses. low profile.
      also sourcing local flora is nice, no trace of purchase. belladonna grows in quite a few areas, very poisonous. wikipedia has an article giving a list of poisonous plants.
      of course if you are an idiot probably best not to bother you will just end up poisoning yourself.

    2. The most effective poison I can think of offhand that you might actually get hold of is Dimethylmercury.  You couldn’t buy it anywhere – it’s a reference toxin and well known – but it’s not chemically complicated enough to be hard to make.  Easy to administer, too.  The problem is that it’s too easy to administer; it would be almost impossible not to poison yourself (and possibly a lot of bystanders) as well.

      Effective, though, and the long-delayed effect is a big bonus for a murderer.

      1. On the minus side, the effects are pretty dramatic and unusual, and mercury isn’t hard to test for.

        Very likely to be lethal(or at least horribly crippling), and the trail will have some time to get cold; but next to no chance of it being passed off as a death by natural causes.

        1. True; mercury poisoning is not exactly low-key.  But assuming you’re smart enough to disguise your motive (and your purchase of the materials), it’d be very hard to prove who did it.

      2. A quick trip to Wikipedia now has me terrified of that stuff. I consider myself pretty handy in the lab, but I wouldn’t want to touch dimethylmercury with a ten foot pole. Literally.

        1. Being able to soak right through standard protective gloves is the really mean trick. That, and the 6-ish months of relentless neural decline ending in death, of course.

          1. There was a guy I worked with who wanted to use dimethyl mercury as a precursor. He’d been using dimethylzinc, and was so damn cavalier it, I told him it just wouldn’t work. Scary stuff.

        2. In the Wetterhahn case, I have to wonder how many molecules of dimethylmercury actually entered her body.  The “dosage” seems to have been “a few drops” on a latex glove.  How many molecules were in a few drops?  How many of those actually penetrated the glove?  How many of those actually penetrated her skin?  Does a single dimethylmercury molecule have the ability to kill multiple cells?

          1. The way that stuff goes through barriers is the scariest think about it.  Gloves, synthetics, skin, the blood-brain barrier… it pretty much ignores all of them.

          2. Here is what I’m trying to understand:  How many molecules of ((CH3)2Hg) does it take to kill a cell?  Does the compound persist after it causes cell death/damage?  The wiki page indicates that absorbing 0.1mL through the skin can be fatal.  Based on the other constants on the page, I get about 7.7×10^20 molecules in 0.1mL.  There are about 10^14 cells in an average body.  Assuming an even distribution, that would be about 7.7×10^6 molecules per cell.  But how could you possibly get an even distribution?

          3.  (reply to Bill; thread depth)

            It’s not really the number of cells it kills directly that’s the problem; it’s the damage to your biochemistry.  Cause of death is, essentially, mercury poisoning.

            Mercury reacts strongly with selenium. Some really important enzymes depend on selenium, including ones which maintain antioxidant molecules.  Which you really don’t want to stop working.  Damaged selenoenzymes –> Not enough antioxidants (especially in the brain) –> cell damage from oxidation.

            (Disclaimer: I am not a biochemist.)

      3.  Dimethylmercury actually is a pretty difficult synthesis for the home chemist. Not that you couldn’t do it, but you would first need to source elemental sodium, mercury, and then either source or synthesize something like methyl bromide. Phosgene would be much easier.

        1. True; I was being a little facetious there. It’s possible, but not trivial. But if you’re not smart enough to figure out how to source the components, you’re definitely not smart enough to use it without killing yourself.

          Phosgene’s harder to use to get away with murder, though. 

    3.  Cyanide poisoning. You can get a hydrogen cyanide precursor from apple and peach seeds, apricot kernels, cassava roots. Not a nice way to die, but with a decent level of plausible deniability.

  2. In the TV Show Dexter this season one of the characters was a poisoner. I also like how in so many detective/mystery series they always make the comment. “Poison is usually a woman’s handy work.”  So, if you are a guy and are going to frame someone and they are a woman, you should consider poison. It’s the smart thing to do.  Hmmm. I think I’ve been watching too many murder mysteries.  

    1.  well that would be one data point against you…
      also a general good reason to suspect a woman in a poisoning:
      women tend to be less aggressive than men and not as strong, acts of brute force are less likely. women are often in a position to prepare someone’s food or drink giving them ample opportunity.
      while guns tend to be gender neutral.
      poison, like guns, overcome the gender dimorphism and puts power back in a woman’s hands. also a favourite of weak men (that is men too timid to confront their aggressors, too weak to beat them up, or in a subordinate position preventing them from acting)

    2.  Still bummed about Dexter’s latest love interest, though the whole thing with Deborah knowing about the dark passenger was really contrived.

      In the interest of logic,some poisoner’s may be idiots as they were easily caught. I wonder how many people actually get away with accidental poisonings.

  3. I heard of a conversation with a (NZ) coroner about how few malicious poisonings we have now compared to the 19th century.  He said then we had poisoning and now we have divorce.

    Obviously there are exceptions (including a local case that came up after that conversation).

  4. I was surprised on reading a piece in the LRB about Robert Oppenheimer to learn that he had attempted to poison a professor Patrick Blackett with a poisoned apple.  I would suggest instead that when people try to commit any crime the stress causes some tunnel vision, loss of the big picture and glossing over of details which bring people unstuck.

    1. Throw in a certain amount of “I’m so clever that they’ll never catch me” egotism and sprinkle with a little ignorance about forensics…

  5. After reading a couple books on how medical examiners actually work (screw you CSI) I’d be confident that anything even a little uncommon wouldn’t be identified postmortem. That said, botulism toxin would be my poison of choice. Lethal in small quantities, easy to administer in food. Refining it isn’t TOO hard with basic lab skills. Of course, now that I’ve posted that online, I can’t use it least it get back to me.

    1. I suspect that the bigger problem is that people generally want to kill people with whom they have some sort of strong(but now frayed) social relationship. Since this isn’t a huge secret, any surprising deaths among people you would want dead cast a certain amount of suspicion on you.

      On the one hand, this means that you don’t necessarily even need to conceal the lethal agent: a nontrivial number of angry-college roommate’s roommates would probably be written off as ‘tragic; but not really surprising’ if they showed up dead with so much ethanol in their system that the medical examiner could diagnose them by scent from a dozen yards. Similar circumstances probably govern people with a variety of serious illnesses that carry an increased risk of death or involve a medication dosage schedule that can be lethal if you overshoot or undershoot.

      On the other hand, if somebody in apparently perfect health catches a serious case of idiopathic death-itis after a nasty argument with you? *Raises skepticism eyebrow*

      1. This one I like… find a victim who is already on a slippery slope and give’em a little nudge.

        1. A toxin needn’t be undetectable, merely non-suspicious(and, sometimes, a non-detectable toxin might actually be more suspicious than a detectable-but-reasonable one)…

          If you are in the position of being a default suspect, by virtue of known association with the victim, you may well actually be better off with an agent that leaves clear traces; but isn’t out of place, rather than a totally-mysterious-death-of-mystery. Especially now that modern medicine has neatly categorized(and not infrequently cured) a lot of the formerly mysterious and poorly understood fluxes and fevers and bacterial infections and so on. There just aren’t as many ‘expected’ modes of death, particularly for the young and healthy, as there used to be.

          1. Capitalizing on self-destructive behavior, while hiding in plain sight, letting law enforcement work to prove intent? 

    2. Of course, now if someone DID show up with botox poising, it COULDNT be you because how could you be that silly as to post about it and then do it. Right?

  6. It sounds like the moral of the story(for the stories presented above) is that ‘crimes of passion are ill-planned’… Since there has been a reasonably concerted effort to get most of the really good toxins out of the home(if more out of concern for inquisitive toddlers and worries about longer-term effects of exposure during use than as a specific anti-poisoning measure), ‘heat-of-the-moment’ poisonings also tend to be pretty unimpressive in terms of lethality, unlike spur-of-the-moment shootings or stabbings; but most dubiously premeditated violence against close social contacts is really pretty dumb.

  7. Oh shoot! I just bought a book on poisoning. Now I guess I’ll need to get another! ;)

    What fascinates me about poisoning is how it has been done with such flair in recent years – Gu Kailai poisoned Neil Haywood with potasium cynanide and basically got away with it until his family made a huge fuss and Alexander Litvinenko was killed with polonium-210 (the “perfect” poison). Litvinenko’s killed got away with it as well. So Poisoners may be dumb, but some poisoners are truly brilliant.

    1. Also the dioxin poisoning of Victor Yushenko(sp?)

      It wasn’t lethal, but the disfigurement is truly horrific, with the terrible facial scarring due to the massive eruption of chloracne.

      I don’t know which is worse, the immense but brief pain of strychnine or the pernicious way your body seems to fall apart over time with dioxin

  8. In America, lead poisoning seems to be pretty popular. Delivery of the poison is relatively easy, and can be done from a few feet to hundreds of yards away from the victim.

  9. Death by trazodone? Dream on, would-be poisoners. There’s a reason why it’s prescribed for the suicidally-depressed.

    1. If you read the article it actually is more insidious. She was trying to give him enough to have him slip off of the ladders he had to climb at work. Had she actually used a better method of giving him the drug and not blabbed about it she might have actually caused him to have an injury at work, which it seems was her goal. She could have probably come up for an excuse as to why he had taken the drug, but beyond thinking “this makes me sleepy I bet it will make him sleepy too!” she didn’t get very far.

      It’s actually *almost* smart except… for everything.

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