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.

The Affair of the Poisons

The Long Way Home is set in the court of Louis XIV at the beginning of the murder scandal that would become known as the Affair of the Poisons. Although this has become an overlooked corner of history, the revelations that arose from this scandal once caused terror throughout France and had serious consequences for hundreds of citizens from all walks of life. So what was it?

The Affair of the Poisons

The Affair of the Poisons was a major scandal that took place during the reign of Louis XIV in France between 1675 and 1682. Hundreds of people were accused of murder, conspiracy, and witchcraft, resulting in the imprisonment, torture, exile, or execution of more nearly three hundred people, many of them prominent members of society.

Brinvilliers

Madame de Brinvilliers

Madame de Brinvilliers

The Affair of the Poisons is generally considered to begin with the trial and subsequent execution of Madame de Brinvilliers in 1675-6. A wealthy and respectable woman, Brinvilliers was convicted of conspiring to poison her father and two brothers with hopes of inheriting their estates. This was no crime of passion, but a coldly calculated maneuver executed very slowly over the course of years. She went to trouble of installing her own servants in the homes of her father and brothers, and successfully poisoned all three relatives. She had also poisoned her husband and daughter, but gave them both antidotes in a fit of conscience.

This trial called attention to other mysterious deaths and raised fears across the kingdom. When an anonymous note detailing a plot to murder the king was found in a confession box in 1677, paranoia hit fever pitch.

The fears were well-founded. When Madame de La Grange was arrested in 1677 on murder charges, she appealed with information of other serious crimes, leading to the discovery of a vast network of people involved in poison, murder, witchcraft, infanticide, and even Satanism right under the King’s nose.

Investigation

Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, the chief of Paris police, followed the accusations to a number of fortune tellers, alchemists, and even renegade priests. If you’re thinking all this was over a little palm reading, think again. Fortune tellers and others were found to be selling poisons and other “remedies” door-to-door or even in shops along with cosmetics and household tonics (think evil Avon lady).

Catherine_Deshayes_(Monvoisin,_dite_«La_Voisin»)_1680

La Voisin

The most infamous of these was midwife Catherine Deshayes Monvoisin, also known as La Voisin, who was arrested in 1679. Following her arrest, La Voisin implicated many of her clients who were prominent members of the aristocracy, including one of the king’s mistresses, Madame de Montespan, the Comtesse de Soissons, the Duchesse de Bouillon, and the Duke of Luxembourg.

Poison and Witchcraft

Although the poisons they were using were potent enough to do away with rivals without any help, it was believed that magic gave the poison its power. We’re not talking about a few little spells, here, either. The magic was believed to come from priests, and a number of unscrupulous priests accepted this kind of work on the side to supplement their clerical livings. For a fee, they would say mass over magic charms and even poison to infuse them with power, regardless of their intended use. If poison of charms made from holy oil or menstrual blood did not prove to be potent enough to achieve the person’s aims, there was also something called an Amatory Mass. What was that, exactly? You probably don’t want to know. If you’re at all squeamish, maybe skip the next paragraph.

black mass 1895

A depiction of La Voisin and the Etienne Guibourg performing a black mass for Madame de Montespan, 1895

At the height of the Affair of the Poisons, there were accusations that certain prominent members of the court, most notably the King’s longest-serving mistress and mother to seven of his children, Madame de Montespan, had employed corrupt priests to perform a ritual called an Amatory mass. While it was superficially similar to common Christian mass, it differed with a few key details. Said over the body of a naked woman (usually the person requesting the magic), it culminated in the sacrifice of a human infant. While the existence of these has not been conclusively proven, testimony of priests thought to be involved is eerily similar.

Aftermath

Marquise_de_Brinvilliers

The interrogation of Madame de Brinvilliers

The investigations into the Affair of the Poisons resulted in the imprisonment, torture, and interrogation of many people, as well as the execution of a further thirty-six. Following the execution of La Voisin in 1680, the king’s minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert helped to sweep things under the rug on the king’s instruction. His Chambre Ardente, a court established to judge cases of poisonings and witchcraft, was closed in 1682 on the king’s instruction because so many courtiers and those connected to them had been questioned and found guilty that he could not abide the scandal.

Some measures were taken to limit the availability of poisons after the scandal. In 1682, an edict proclaimed that anyone convicted of supplying poison, whether or not that supply resulted in death, would be sentenced to death. Alchemists found themselves under greater scrutiny because of the involvement of a small number of them in the formulation of the poisons, most notably Brinvilliers’ alchemist lover. The same edict restricted alchemy to that conducted with the protection of a permit. Further limits were placed on the sale of arsenic and mercury sublimate, so that they were no longer available to the general public, but only to professions that were deemed to require them.

The Long Way Home takes place in Versailles in 1677, just as the Affair of the Poisons is beginning in earnest. The court is plagued with mysterious deaths, the king fears for his life, and Alice quickly discovers that court is not as virtuous as it appears.

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.