Fun Facts About Poison
by Sarah Beth Durst
One weird side effect of life as a writer: your Google search history looks really, really suspicious. You start wanting to issue disclaimers with your searches, “It’s for a scene, I swear!” This is especially true when one of your characters is a poisoner. In The Reluctant Queen, book two in the Queens of Renthia series, I introduce Garnah, an expert poisoner. She actually wasn’t in my original outline. She was a character who popped into a scene and quickly became one of my favorites. Love when they do that.
I’m not an expert on poison. But I have done my share of wandering around the Internet in search of interesting facts for a story. Facts are an important tool for any writer. Just as powerful as metaphors or well-placed commas. You can use them for inspiration, worldbuilding, or just plain procrastination. And so, without further ado, here are few tidbits that caught my attention on the subject of poison…
The history of poison can be summed up as: “Well, that was a bad idea.” See also: “Maybe don’t touch that.”
First, let’s review some definitions: “poison” is basically any substance that can make you dead. A thing is “poisonous” if its toxins hurt you when you bite it; it’s “venomous” if its toxins hurt you when it bites you.
Per National Geographic, there are 1,200 kinds of poisonous marine organisms, 700 poisonous fish, 400 venomous snakes, 60 ticks, 75 scorpions, 200 spiders, 750 poisons in more than 1,000 plant species, plus a few innocent-looking birds.
The most toxic animal of all is the box jellyfish. Its venom causes a release of noradrenalin. Basically, if you’re stung by a box jellyfish, you panic to death.
The slow loris is the only known venomous primate. It sucks venom from a gland near its armpit before biting. (I really like the image of a loris stopping mid-fight and saying, “Hold on, time out! I have to suck my armpit.”)
The reason the supermarket sells cashew nuts without their shells, unlike pistachios or peanuts, is that cashew nut shells are toxic to the touch.
Puffer fish poison is over 1,000 times more toxic than cyanide. For a chef to earn legal permission to serve puffer fish, s/he must eat a puffer fish (a.k.a. fugu) s/he prepared.
Speaking of cyanide… Actually, let’s not. Despite the prevalence of cyanide pills in action movies like Captain America the First Avenger, the real-life uses don’t fall under the “quirky” or “fun” category. There have been some truly horrific uses of cyanide in history.
So let’s skip to more fun poisons. Like arsenic. Thanks to the delightful family Borgia in the Middle Ages, arsenic has a sordid history. The Borgias treated their guests to wine enhanced with arsenic. (Sources say it improves the taste of wine.) The use of arsenic for political reasons became so popular that it was known as “the powder of succession.” Nowadays, though, its residue is too easily detected in hair and fingernails for it to be a practical choice in politics.
Other common poisons in history include hemlock, strychnine, and curare, as well as deadly nightshade, which is also known by the lovely name belladonna. Apparently, women used to use belladonna to dilate their eyes to look more attractive (?!?), hence the name.
There are all sorts of instances of people accidentally poisoning themselves in the name of beauty. In the 1800s, people used to eat it to appear bright and rosy-cheeked, at least until they died horribly. And in the 1700s, people used lead face powder to hide blemishes. Again, more death.
And then we have the Radium Girls. Eighty years ago, they painted clock faces on luminous watches using radioactive paint. It’s said that if you bring a Geiger counter to their graves today, the needle would still jump.
Very unsettling to wonder what in our everyday lives will be unveiled as deadly years from now.
But on a brighter note… Also fascinating is the potential in poisons to heal. For example, there’s a diabetes drug that is a synthetic version of a component found in the saliva of Gila monsters. Always knew I liked Gila monsters and not just because they look like real-world dragons.
Okay, yeah, it is just because they look like real-world dragons.
Anyway, poison. Google it sometime. You might just end up with an unexpected character for your story. Or at least a really suspicious search history…