The Life and Bizarre Death of “Necro-Entrepreneur” Locusta, the World’s First Known Serial Killer

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The Love Potion. Evelyn de Morgan, 1903.

Little is known about the world’s first serial killer, which is perhaps why accounts of Locusta’s death are . . . eccentric?

Here’s what we do know: Locusta hailed from Gaul, the outer province of Ancient Rome now known as France. Trained in herbs, she mastered the system of “patronage” and made a name for herself as a reliable assassin – or as Dr. Katherine Ramsland calls Locusta’s business, “necro-entrepreneur.” [1] To Locusta’s benefit, Rome brimmed with wealthy, would-be-patrons, eager to hasten the death of rich relatives. These clients also reliably bailed Locusta out of prison when events didn’t unfold per plan.

In AD 54, Empress Agrippina, the fourth wife—and niece—of Emperor Claudius, grew tired of her uncle/husband. She conspired with Locusta to murder Claudius in order to place her son from a previous marriage, Nero, on the throne. The Emperor, however, proved a challenging mark. Not only was he armed with taste testers, he also had a ghastly habit of vomiting each meal by tickling his throat with a feather in order to indulge again—a quirk which limited the time any poison could act.

But Claudius’ habit was not a challenge for Locusta’s ingenuity. Undercover, Locusta managed to avert the taste tester and serve the Emperor death cap mushrooms, likely flavored with aconite.[2] When symptoms of poisoning appeared, Agrippina gave Claudius a feather to purge the poison, but Locusta had laced that as well.

Suffering, the Emperor called for his personal physician, Xenophon, whom the devious women also had in their pocket. So when Xenophon gave Claudius a healing enema, he added poison to the mix as well. Claudius suffered a heinous death and eventually perished on October 13.

While Locusta was subsequently imprisoned in AD 55, Nero sought to secure his throne by contracting Locusta to craft a poison to murder Claudius’ son, Britannicus. When the concoction failed initial tests, Nero flogged Locusta with his own hands.[5] Motivated, her second attempt succeeded and the pair was ready for Britannicus.

During Roman times, it was customary to dilute wine with hot water. Britannicus was served wine that was too hot and when he called for cold water, Locusta’s poison was secretly waiting in the pitcher.

Upon Britannicus’s death, Nero bestowed Locusta with pardons, lands, lavish gifts, and condemned prisoners for experimentation. He also sent pupils to study with the poison master.

But all good things come to an end. In AD 68, the Roman Senate tired of Nero’s rogue practices and the Emperor took his own life with a dagger before facing punishment. The Senate’s attention then turned towards Locusta, and without protection from the Emperor, she was convicted with an execution sentence.

Some accounts say Locusta was smeared with vaginal juices of a female giraffe, raped by a specially trained male giraffe, and then torn apart by wild animals. [1] While that tale tantalizes the imagination, it is more likely she was led through the city in chains and executed by human hands.

I first came across Locusta’s story last fall, struck by the statement the world’s first serial killer was a woman. Even as a modern, non-traditional gal, it contradicted my expectation. My mind pondered what had motivated a female from Gaul to pursue such violence. What possessed Locusta to reach so far beyond expectation, to fulfill her sadistic cravings with poison? Where would she have learned her craft? How would she have honed the alchemy? The musings manifested in my historical fiction thriller, Apricots and Wolfsbane.

K.M. Pohlkamp

References

[1] Ramsland, Katherine. The human predator: A historical chronicle of serial murder and forensic investigation. Penguin, 2013.

[2] Cilliers, Louise, and Francois Retief. “Poisons, Poisoners, and Poisoning in Ancient Rome.” History of Toxicology and Environmental Health (2014): 127.

[3] Cilliers, L., and F. P. Retief. “Poisons, poisoning and the drug trade in ancient Rome.” Akroterion 45.1 (2000): 88-100.

[4] Macinnis, Peter. Poisons: From Hemlock to Botox to the Killer Bean of Calabar. Arcade Publishing, 2005.

[5] Belcombe, H. S. “Observations on Secret Poisons.” Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal 11.4 (1847): 94.

Apricots and Wolfsbane Front CoverK.M. Pohlkamp is a blessed wife, proud mother of two young children, and an aerospace engineer who works in Mission Control. She operated guidance, navigation and control systems on the Space Shuttle and is currently involved in development of upcoming manned-space vehicles. A Cheesehead by birth, she now resides in Texas for her day job and writes to maintain her sanity. Her other hobbies include ballet and piano. K.M. has come a long way from the wallpaper and cardboard books she created as a child. Her debut historical fiction novel, Apricots and Wolfsbane, was published by Filles Vertes Publishing in October. You can find K.M. at www.kmpohlkamp.com or @KMPohlkamp

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A Field Guide to Historical Poisons

[From the archives]

The Long Way Home takes place in the court of Louis XIV during the Affair of the Poisons. During this period, many people from all walks of life were employing poison to dispatch with rivals and even family members to improve their fortunes or standing in court. As you can imagine, poison plays a large part in the plot of The Long Way Home. Here are three that are featured in the book along with symptoms so you’ll be first to know if your enemies have dosed your wine.

You know, just in case.

Arsenic (also known as Inheritance Powder)

Arsenic was the most commonly used poison at this time, and was used alone or to add extra toxicity to other lethal concoctions. It was the primary ingredient in Inheritance Powder, so called because of the frequency with which it was against relatives and spouses for the sake of inheritance.

Tasteless as it was potent, arsenic usually went undetected in wine or food, although it was also added to soap and even sprinkled into flowers. It could easily kill someone quickly, but was more commonly distributed over a long period of time to make it appear that the victim was suffering from a long illness. The symptoms begin with headaches, drowsiness, and gastrointestinal problems, and as it develops, worsen into convulsions, muscle cramps, hair loss, organ failure, coma, and death.

Unusually for a poison apart from lead, arsenic has had many other common uses throughout history. It was used as a cosmetic as early as the Elizabethan period. Combined with vinegar and white chalk, it was applied to whiten the complexion as a precursor to the lead-based ceruse popular in later centuries.

Ad for Arsenic Wafers, 1896. Arsenic was a common complexion treatment until the early 20th century.

By the Victorian period, arsenic was taken as a supplement to correct the complexion from within, resulting in blueish, translucent skin. Victorian and Edwardian doctors prescribed it for asthma, typhus, malaria, period pain, syphilis, neuralgia, and as a nonspecific pick-me-up. It was also used in pigments such as Paris Green, Scheele’s Green, and London Purple, all of them extremely toxic when ingested or inhaled. A distinctive yellow-green, Scheele’s Green was a popular dye in the nineteenth century for furnishings, candles, fabric, and even children’s toys, but it gave off a toxic gas. It may have even played a part in Napoleon’s death. While it took nearly a century to discover the dangers of the pigment, it was later put to use as an insecticide.

A Glass of Wine With Caesar Borgia. John Collier, 1893. From left to right: Cesare, Lucrezia, their father, Pope Alexander VI, and a young man with an empty glass. The implication is that the man doesn’t know if it will be poisoned.

Cantharides (also known as Cantarella or Spanish Fly)

Cantarella was a poison that was rumored to have been used by the Borgias (among others). Although it appeared in literature as something that could mimic death, cantarella was probably made from arsenic, like most of the common poisons of the era, or of canthariden powder made from blister beetles, and was highly toxic. Cantharides are now more commonly known as Spanish Fly.

Although it was only rumored to have been used by the Borgias, it was definitely 8fda6-cantharidesassociated with the Medicis. Aqua Toffana, or Aquetta di Napoli, was a potent mixture of both arsenic and cantharides allegedly created by an Italian countess, Giulia Tofana (d. 1659). Colorless and odorless, it was undetectable even in water and as little as four drops could cause death within a few hours. It could also be mixed with lead or belladonna for a little extra f*** you.

In case you’re wondering how one would catch enough blister beetles to do away with one’s enemies, cantharides were surprisingly easy to come across. They were also used as an aphrodisiac. In small quantities, they engorge the genitals, so it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. In larger quantities, however, they raise blisters, cause inflammation, nervous agitation, burning of the mouth, dysphagia, nausea, hematemesis, hematuria, and dysuria.

Oh, and death.

The powder was brownish in color and smelled bad, but mostly went unnoticed with food or wine. More than one character in The Long Way Home has come in contact with it, and it even plays a part in the story.

Ad for Pennyroyal Pills, 1905.

Pennyroyal

Pennyroyal was not often used to intentionally poison anyone, but I’m including it in this guide because of its toxic effects. Usually drunk as tea, is was used as a digestive aid and to cause miscarriage. Is was also used in baths to kill fleas or to treat venomous bites.

Although this is the least toxic of the bunch, the side effects are much more worrying. Taken in any quantity, it may not only result in contraction of the uterus, but also serious damage to the liver, kidneys, and nervous system. It’s a neurotoxin that can cause auditory and visual hallucinations, delirium, unconsciousness, hearing problems, brain damage, and death.

Along with Inheritance Powder and Cantarella, Pennyroyal also appears in The Long Way Home and causes some interesting complications for a few of our characters.

*

All of these poisons were common and easily obtainable in much of Europe during the time this book takes place and as you can see, continued to be commonly used for a variety of purposes until very recently. The use of Inheritance Powder in particular is very well-documented and it played a huge part in the Affair of the Poisons as well as commanding a central position in The Long Way Home.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Magic and Sacrilege in the Court of Louis XIV

 

Nicolas_Régnier_-_Cardsharps_and_Fortune_Teller_-_WGA19040

Nicolas Regnier, Card Sharps and Fortune Teller (1620)

The belief in magic plays a large part in The Long Way Home. Many of the strangest things that happen to the characters are based on fact. Although the book takes place at the dawn of the Enlightenment, superstition and belief in magic was still common and in some cases, all-consuming. Let’s take a closer look.

In spite of the devout Catholicism of Louis XIV’s court, many courtiers not only believed in but attempted to practice magic, often with the intent of harming others, and usually with the assistance of a sorceress or renegade priest. While the courtiers attending the king were expected to attend mass every day without fail, business in spells, poisons, and magic charms was booming.

The Affair of the Poisons uncovered a thriving underworld of sorceresses and magicians trading in everything from cosmetics, love charms, and divination to demon conjuration, poisons, and even human sacrifice. The more potent the charm, the higher the price, and there were a number of ordained priests who were willing to assist with the most dangerous and powerful tasks: the conjuring of demons.

Schongauer_Anthony

Conjuring Demons: Sure, you *might* bend them to your will…or this could happen. Martin Schongauer, The Temptation of St. Anthony (c. 1470)

At best, magic could be dismissed as superstition, or worse, the serious crime of sacrilege. Admittedly, demon conjuration, murder, and human sacrifice don’t sound particularly Christian to the modern reader. So why involve priests?

As Mollenauer explains in Strange Revelations:

“Paris’ magical underworld exploited the practices, imagery, and sacramental of the Catholic Church to increase the efficacy of their magic. The composition of their spells and charms illustrates that the distinction between superstition and orthodox Christian belief was still very blurred in seventeenth-century France. The simple spells known as oraisons found in La Voison’s grimoires, for example, were made up of a linguistic hodge-podge of Christian imagery, ‘debased’ holy languages (Latin, Greek, or Hebrew), and simply alliterative nonsense.”

By involving priests and Christian rituals and imagery, they attempted to harness the power of the Catholic mass to serve their own ends. It was the idea of the priest as an intercessory between God and laymen which gave Catholic priests their power and their elevated status. The superstition could not be denied without also denying the priest’s divine power, or that of the devil on the other hand.

One way to guarantee the efficacy of a potion or charm would be to have a priest say a mass over it. Although the Council of Trent had advised against superstition and divination in 1566, there were some priests who were willing to accept to the freelance work as compensation for a life of poverty. It was believed to be a sin not only to have one’s fortune told, but to even believe that such a thing was possible.

Still, magic flourished. Along with cosmetics, fortune tellers and some midwives sold cures for ailments from headaches to leprosy, charms for love, luck, or impossibly long lives.

Gambling was very popular, and charms to bring luck at the gaming tables were prohibitively expensive and difficult to come by. With the huge sums of money won and lost often over single hands, many thought the spiritual and legal risks were worth it.

The list of charms is not for the squeamish, however. The preserved cauls of infants were popular charms, as were tiny miscarried or stillborn fetuses. Many sorceresses worked as or with midwives, so these could always be obtained for a price. The most expensive of the money charms was the main de gloire, which involved sacrificing a particular kind of mare, skinning it, and preparing its hide in an elaborate fashion for several days, after which point it was said to transform into a live snake that could double almost any amount of money put into its box…as long as you slept with the box.

Love magic was more popular than money magic, and many spells and charms were sold to inspire love in others, or to help one to gain the approval of troublesome relatives. If these didn’t work to remove impediments to love, there was always poison.

Poison was sold by sorceresses, magicians, fortune tellers, and sometimes even midwives. It was alarmingly easy to obtain and more common than one would think. The sale of arsenic had not yet been limited to those professions requiring it, so anyone without fear or moral compass could mix “inheritance powder”. Although arsenic is strong enough to cause death or serious damage on its own, it was believed that magic gave it its lethal power, and so renegade priests were often involved directly or indirectly in its sale.

The Affair of the Poisons exposed the activities of Paris’ criminal underworld and resulted in the arrest, imprisonment, exile, or execution of hundreds of people from all levels of society, including some within the king’s inner circle. As a result, the sale of arsenic was restricted and superstition was forbidden by law, but fear of death by poison remained a serious concern throughout the Age of Enlightenment.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Lynn Wood Mollenauer. Strange Revelations: Magic, Poison, and Sacrilege in Louis XIV’s France.

Anne Somerset. The Affair of the Poisons: Murder, Infanticide, and Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV.

Cantarella: Potent Renaissance Poison Made from Insects

As you now know (and probably could have guessed), I’m a big fan of the Borgias. What’s not to like? Every other week, it seemed like somebody was poisoning someone else with something called cantarella. Because I become fixated on odd little details, I had to know what it was, and now it’s part of my database of poisons (yes, I have one of those. You don’t?). 

So what was it?

Cantarella was a poison that was rumored to have been used by the Borgias (among others). Although it appeared in literature as something that could mimic death, cantarella was probably made from arsenic, like most of the common poisons of the era, or of canthariden powder made from blister beetles, and was highly toxic. Cantharides are now more commonly known as Spanish Fly. 

Poisoning your enemies with bugs.
Because f*** you, that’s why.


Although it was rumored to have been used by the Borgias, it was definitely associated with the Medicis. Aqua Toffana, or Aquetta di Napoli, was a potent mixture of both arsenic and cantharides allegedly created by Italian countess, Giulia Tofana (d. 1659). Colorless and odorless, it was undetectable even in water and as little as four drops could cause death within a few hours. It could also be mixed with lead or belladonna for a little added toxicity

In case you’re wondering how one would catch enough blister beetles to do away with one’s enemies, cantharides were surprisingly easy to come across. They were also used as an aphrodisiac. In small quantities, the powder engorges the genitals, so it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. In larger quantities, however, it raises blisters, causes inflammation, nervous agitation, burning of the mouth, dysphagia, nausea, hematemesis, hematuria, and dysuria.

Oh, and death.

The powder was brownish in color and smelled bad, but mostly went unnoticed with food or wine. So the next time you’re watching the Borgias (or re-watching, in slow-motion, as Cesare smolders through three seasons of political intrigue), pay attention to the poison, because the symptoms are all there. Nicely done, Neil Jordan. Nicely done.