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Strychnos nux-vomica, strychnine tree

Summary

A once popular murder weapon that is believed to have killed an unknowable number of people, especially during the 19th century.

Family

Loganiaceae

Meaning of the Name

Strychnos
Said to be from Greek, 'strychnon'  but no origin is apparent. Usually translated as ‘nightshade’ after Pliny.
 
nux-vomica
‘Nux-vomica’ does not, as many people believe, mean ‘no vomiting’ or ‘stops vomiting’.  ‘Nux’ is Latin for ‘nut’ and ‘vomica’ means ‘lump’ or ‘abcess’.  In the context of this plant, then, ‘nux-vomica’ means ‘the seed looks like a nut and has a lump on it’.

Common Names and Synonyms

strychnine tree, poison nut, snake-wood, semen strychnos, Quaker buttons

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

It is sometimes said that strychnine builds up in the body over time in the same way as arsenic. This is not true. Strychnine is metabolised quite quickly. The body does, however, become sensitized to strychnine so that repeated exposure to small doses increases the effect. In time the same dose has a much greater effect which may explain the belief that it remains in the body until a fatal accumulation is achieved.

Strychnine, an indole found in the seeds, is a powerful central nervous system stimulant that competes with the inhibitory neurotransmitter glycine, producing an excitatory state with hyperreflexia, severe muscle spasm, and convulsions.

Its principal action is to cause uncontrolled muscle contractions. In overdose, these lead to death from exhaustion or cardiac arrest. The muscle contractions can result in muscle tearing itself away from bone allowing the body to be twisted into normally impossible positions.

Incidents

A young Strychnos plant

A young Strychnos plant

The October, 2002 edition of the journal ‘Critical Care’ carried a paper about a 42 year old man who took himself to hospital after swallowing some white powder he found in his shed where he had been drinking a whole bottle of wine.

Shortly after arrival, he suffered cardiac arrest and was resuscitated. He suffered muscle spasms so severe that he was given a paralysing agent and his blood pressure remained very low for some time. The twitching continued for three days but, after five days he returned to normal and, apparently suffered no lasting damage.

There are a number of reports of both fatal and non-fatal poisoning in Asia after the use of strychnine-based herbal remedies. These all mention the rapidity of onset of symptoms and the need for prompt, aggressive treatment.

Strychnine is one of the principle murder poisons both in fiction and in fact. In Victorian times it was a major part of rat poison, which was available, no questions asked, from most shops. The pre-death convulsions it causes are called tetanic because they look like tetanus, a disease that was endemic in the inner cities at the time. It is believed that many men met their ends via strychnine but murder was never suspected.

From the late 19th century, when it became much more tightly controlled, murder by strychnine became the province of the medical profession. A number of users of strychnine feature in the talk about 'Medical Murderers', more details of which can be found on the 'Talks' page.

Folklore and Facts

At the 1904 Olympics in St Louis, the first man to cross the line in the marathon, Fred Lorz, had been seen waving from the backseat of a car for much of the course.

The gold medal was, therefore, awarded to Thomas Hicks, a British born man who ran for the USA. Hicks had been on the point of collapse ten miles from the finish so his trainers gave him strychnine sulphate mixed in egg whites and washed down with brandy. One dose was not enough and Hicks crossed the line being held up by two trainers. His legs were running but his feet were not in contact with the track. He required four hours of medical treatment before he was able to leave the stadium.

Until very recently strychnine was still in use as a mole poison. The UK government lost its appeal against having to enforce new EU legislation on the use of strychnine based poisons to kill pests. The UK government was concerned about the 3000 licensed mole catchers who, until this ruling, could use strychnine in their work.

This use to poison moles cost a life as recently as 1934. Ethel Major used strychnine, which her gamekeeper father had for pest control, to murder her husband. His death was attributed to ‘status epilepticus’, a condition producing prolonged seizure with convulsions, and she might have got away with it had she not put some leftover food scraps out for a neighbour’s dog which died as a result. The police were able to do a post mortem examination of the dog and obtain evidence of the presence of strychnine which gave them grounds for exhuming the husband.

It is sometimes said that Venetian ladies used Strychnos nux-vomica as the ‘inheritance plant’. There is no evidence for this use. There was an ‘inheritance powder’ which has been shown to be arsenic used as a way of speeding the acquisition of the family silver. Madame Toffana, who, in the 17th C, was accused of being responsible for 600 deaths mostly undertaken by women she had trained, used a paste containing arsenic. This was sold as a cosmetic but women who had the benefit of Madame Toffana’s training knew how to apply it to more deadly purposes.