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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 7th May 2012

What killed Lenin? That question was posed at a recent halfday conference at the University of Maryland  School of Medicine.1 Harry Vinters, MD, professor of neurology and neuropathology and chief of the division of neuropathology in the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles examined the medical evidence for various possible causes of death with a noted expert in Russian history, Lev Lurie, checking the various theories against the historical record.

Apparently, the Historical Clinicopathological Conference is an annual event. I assume it is meant to be quite light-hearted but with the serious point of showing the importance of looking very carefully at all available information, including that which is not directly medical, when forming a diagnosis. As well, of course, as indicating how far medicine has advanced since the historical event chosen each year.

Reading about it reminded me of the number of famous poisoning murders from the past two centuries that have been subject to re-examination, often in order to reach a different conclusion.

Dr Crippen’s killing of his wife, Cora known by her stage name Belle Elmore, is one of the most prominent. When writing about the Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane, I mentioned that I had a number of misgivings about the quite recent suggestions that Crippen was wrongly convicted. An American obtained a small tissue sample from one of the forensic slides prepared during the 1910 investigation and had a US university perform DNA testing. That testing found that the DNA identified did not match samples from current descendants of Crippen’s family and was, even more damningly, male not female.

Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane

Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane

This finding was used to argue that the remains found under the scullery floor at 39 Hilldrop Crescent could not be those of Cora Crippen. I have a problem with that finding in that it ignores the historical context. Photographs taken during the search2 show police officers in their normal clothes working with bare hands, thus providing one possible way for male DNA to be present. Then there is the preparation of the slide from which the DNA material was obtained. It is unlikely that Bernard Spilsbury or any of his assistance wore gloves during their work.

But there is another problem with the inference that Crippen did not place the remains under the floor at Hilldrop Crescent. The pieces of flesh were wrapped in parts of a pair of pyjamas carrying a label that the manufacturer testified did not exist until after the Crippens had moved into the premises.

Another attempt to re-write history comes with the case of Dr William Palmer. Some years ago, a TV drama based on the case sought to leave the viewer with the impression that Palmer had been wrongly convicted of the killing of John Parsons Cook. It did this by showing only the prosecution case, whereas it was the defence case that led to Palmer’s conviction. The defence called a number of expert witnesses thinking they would testify that it was impossible to distinguish between the convulsions caused by strychnine poisoning from Strychnos nux-vomica, the poison nut tree, and those resulting from tetanus.

The witnesses actually testified that, though the two might look similar to the layman, an expert who had seen enough proven cases of both types of spasms could without doubt separate them and they were in no doubt that Cook suffered strychnine poisoning.

In addition to that flaw in the argument that Palmer was innocent, there is the fact that the authorities were ready to proceed against him for anything up to 11 other murders had they failed to obtain a conviction in the John Parsons Cook case.

The attempt to suggest that George Henry Lamson was innocent came even before his execution. Or rather, not that he was innocent as much as that he deserved clemency as a result of his addiction to morphine. I’ve written before Tuesday 29th November that I find it odd that there is no indication in any of the trial material that Lamson had a substance problem.

Not every alternate version of a murderer’s story is given credence. I doubt if anyone will ever subscribe to Dr Marcel Petiot’s claim that, rather than murdering innocent Jews who had trusted them to escape the Nazis in Paris, he had executed collaborators and should, therefore, be treated as a hero of France.

I wonder if, in forty or fifty years, someone will try and present a credible argument to show that Dr Harold Shipman was innocent of the hundreds of murders he perpetrated during his 25 year killing spree.

So, what did kill Lenin? Well, the University of Maryland account says he had a genetic pre-disposition to strokes. Oddly, the Associated Press report of the conference states that Lev Lurie, the historian, believes Stalin had Lenin poisoned and goes on to claim that Vinters agreed this was a possibility.2

Reading the two reports side by side throws up some confusing differences;

The University of Maryland says Vinters told the conference;

“What happened to Lenin is not a mystery…The autopsy findings and history are classic of stroke.”

But, according to AP;

‘“And then he experienced a series of really, really bad convulsions which is quite unusual for someone who has a stroke," Vinters said.’

The University of Maryland account says;

‘Over time, his condition worsened. In November 1921, Lenin faltered during a major speech, forgetting the words and snapping his fingers as he tried to remember. “Later on, aphasia — the inability to speak — and agraphia — the inability to write — continued to develop, at times slightly lessening,” explains Dr. Lurie. "But finally they took their course. He could hardly walk. His right side was paralyzed. He had to learn to speak anew and to write with his left hand. He suffered in his estate before dying on January 24, 1924’

But for AP;

‘Lurie said Lenin had recovered enough in early 1924 that he celebrated the new year and went hunting… Reports from the time also show Lenin was active and talking a few hours before his death.’

The University of Maryland account makes no mention of poison but, I suppose, throwing in that possibility, no matter how remote, makes a better story as AP sees it.

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