Ask the Expert: Lessons from the Poison Lady

Edith here, happy it’s summer on the steamy North Shore (and the ebook versions of A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die are on sale right now for only $1.99 everywhere!)

The Wicked Cozys are starting a new occasional series we’re calling Ask the Expert. We’re starting off with a presentation from Malice Domestic, but from here on out we’ll be asking particular questions of an expert. Chime in with requests in the Comments area! The following is an excerpt of an article I wrote for the Volume 18, number 4 issue of First Draft, the newsletter of the Sisters in Crime Guppies chapter, edited by Lourdes Venard.

I was lucky enough to catch Texas pharmacist Luci Zahray’s presentation at Malice

Luci Zahray, aka, The Poison Lady, holds a 24-milligram  e-cigarette cartridge during her talk at Malice Domestic. Photo used with permission by G.J. Puhl.
Luci Zahray, aka, The Poison Lady, holds a 24-milligram e-cigarette cartridge during her talk at Malice Domestic. Photo used with permission by G.J. Puhl.

Domestic this year. I had heard Luci speak twice in the last decade, but she varies her presentation so I always learn something new, plus she has that funny southern sense of humor and is a delight for the entertainment value alone. And now I know exactly what the murder weapon will be in my next mystery. (Dibs…)

Here are just two of the common poisons she described. Caveat – this post is from my hastily typed notes during the session. Please check the information out for yourself before using it – in your books, of course!

Nicotine. Luci said it is very dangerous to handle and in its liquid form nicotine can kill you from touching it. Two to three cigarettes would kill an adult, and one ingested cigarette butt would kill a child. You can now buy E-cig cartridges of pure nicotine anywhere. It costs $6.95 for six cartridges, ELiquidenough to kill two adults. It is stable and pure, and is absorbed through every part of the body. Death can be in as little as five minutes. 40 mg is a fatal dose. Death can also be delayed. If it’s ingested in liquid, death will be quick. If it’s applied on a Band-aid, for example, death can be delayed for an hour or so. In a heavy meal, death would be delayed for several hours.

Death is from respiratory failure. Nicotine first stimulates the breathing then slows it down. Blood pressure correspondingly goes up and then down, then heart failure, coma, and death. A high dose can skip a few of those steps. Animals can be found dead with the plant still in their mouth. It has a mild tarry taste, but you can hide it. You can put ten to fifteen drops in a strong-tasting tea, coffee, chai, or a mocha latte. You can also buy flavored liquid nicotine in, for example, watermelon or bubblegum flavors. There is no antidote.

Rosary pea. You can grow your own, obtained on the Internet, or you can buy them as part of a rosary in a RosaryPeasCatholic store. It has red and black seeds, which contain abrin. Abrin is the third most toxic substance in the world. It’s a pretty shrub, can also be grown as a houseplant. One rosary pea in a child’s mouth can kill.; two to three seeds for an adult, if the dried seed has been pierced. You can put it in a soup, grind it in a grinder. It clumps up red blood cells and can imitate arsenic poison. Symptoms are delayed for hours or days. Nausea and vomiting are severe, with abdominal pain. A small dose is gradually toxic to the kidneys and liver. Four weeks later hair will fall out.

Related: Castor beans have ricin. The castor bean has three seeds inside its shell, and eight beans can kill a whole room. Castor beans look like pinto beans. Two beans in a pot of chili will kill.

Poison gardens. Luci has a Texas back yard full of poisonous plants for her research, and she mentioned others in North Carolina (at the North Carolina Botanical Garden at UNC in Chapel Hill) and Philadelphia. Cornell University in Ithaca, New York has the Muenscher Poisonous Plants GardenBlarney Castle in Cork, Ireland also has a Poison Garden, as does Amy Stewart in Eureka, California, the author of the excellent Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities.

Luci recommended as a reference The North American Guide to Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms by Nancy J. Turner and Patrick von Aderkas, and the Home Health Guide to Poisons and Antidotes by Carol Turkington. Luci says you’re welcome to email her with questions and she’ll try to get back to you: If you get a chance to hear her at a conference, go! You will not be disappointed.

Readers: What’s the best poison you’ve read about in a mystery or your favorite that you’ve used in your own writing to kill someone off? And what kind of expert would you like to see here next?

12 Thoughts

  1. Lovely to see you here, Lucy. You always give us something to think about. Every time I walk past my large patch of lily of the valley, I think of you.

    I’m reminded that before my parents were married, my father worked for a company (whose name I forget) where he had to carry open buckets of liquid nicotine. It should be no surprise that he suffered from a bout of nicotine poisoning. Of course, he was a smoker at the time.

  2. The facts about Nicotine sounded familiar. I want to say I read it as a murder weapon in a book, although I can’t remember which one any more. Either way, it is scary they are sell that kind of poison as an e-cigarette these days. And that we ever started smoking it to begin with.

  3. Scopolamine is a drug I am using in my next novel. It is typically used for motion sickness but in powder form when inhaled it takes away a persons free will. They will do anything they are told to do and will have no memory. Even jump off a cliff. Hmmmm.

    1. Wow, Cindy. I didn’t know that. It’s also called Twilight Sleep, and many mothers now in their 80s were given it during childbirth! No memory of the pain.

  4. We have deadly nightshade on our mountain property. I’ve heard its purple berries were the inspiration for the poisonous berries in The Hunger Games.

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