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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 11th May 2012

I thought I should put thoughts of murder to one side, today, and see instead if one of my other suspicions could be proved or otherwise from the British newspapers archive.
I’ve written before, last October and in March, about my belief that a lot of the reputation Laburnum has for being a very dangerous plant to have around children was the result of over-hysterical reporting so I decided to see what the archives had to say on the matter even though they only go up to 1950, so far, and the problem seems to have been worst in the 1970s.

The present archive runs from 1700 to 1950 so I wasn’t really surprised when a simple search for ‘Laburnum’ produced over 25,000 results. It soon became clear that a lot of these were advertisements for seeds or young trees for sale or were descriptions of the grounds of property for sale or to let where the presence of Laburnum was, clearly, seen as a benefit. Narrowing the search to articles only and adding the word ‘poison’ brought the total under 1,000 so I started looking from the earliest stories forwards.


The archive delivers the whole page on which the searched for word(s) appear and I find it very hard to concentrate because so much of the other content is amusing or of contemporary interest. The first result I looked at for example, from 1813, had, on the same page a story ‘from France’ about a father and son marrying two sisters and the complex family relationships resulting plus a piece about the editor of a publication called ‘The Intelligencer’ defending himself against the charge that he deliberately misled his readers.

1813 was the first reference to Laburnum in connection with poisoning but I was surprised that the earliest appearance of the word in any context was in 1775. Laburnum is mentioned by John Gerard in his 1598 ‘The Herbal or General History of Plants’ but, perhaps, it wasn’t widely distributed earlier in the 18th century.

That first reference, in 1813, is a note to warn people that the seed or berry is ‘a rank poison’ and it says that seven children had been poisoned by it the previous autumn. The archive, however, contains no reference to any such incident. That surprises me because, looking at what was reported I’m sure seven children in a single incident resulting in them nearly being ‘cut off’ would have attracted the attention of the press.


1819 is the earliest reference to an actual incident, in Wimborne, Dorset where three children ate some seed pods but were successfully treated. An 1825 report named an infant girl who ate some seeds and required ‘great exertions for several hours’ to prevent her falling asleep. That notion of not permitting a victim of Laburnum poisoning to go to sleep was still prevalent late in the 20th century.

An 1827 report talks of eight cows being poisoned by Laburnum but the same report goes on to discuss the danger resulting from storing wine in lead vats and the Bath Chronicle, in 1829, has a one line report on a paediatric poisoning but the same page details a fatal poisoning where a child drank a lead-based insecticide and a case of two children falling from a window.

An 1843 story tells of five children from the same family who became ill after eating Laburnum seeds. Their parents made them vomit repeatedly and put them to bed and by the morning they were almost completely recovered.

But, the most bizarre story I saw, albeit with no reference to poisoning, was in the Northampton Mercury in 1828. Explaining that its story comes from ‘a work recently published’ without naming the source or the author, it talks of experiments with using human bones as bone meal fertiliser. The author claims to have used bribery to obtain bones of people from a variety of classes and occupations and made a systematic study of which bones are best for different plants.

He claims that ordinary ‘citizens’ produced excellent results for plums and mushrooms but it took a lord mayor to give good results for Laburnum. ‘Hospital’ bones, apparently, produce good cyclamen and bones from a battlefield were good for laurel. Courtiers and ministers were, it is claimed, best for parasitic plants.

Having got some idea of how Laburnum poisoning was reported early in the 19th century I think I’ll have a look at what had changed by the mid-20th but I’ll save that for another day.  

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