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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 14th January 2012

There is always a problem with data that relates to the whole world. Different countries have different levels of quality when it comes to compiling statistics and they may use different definitions that can determine how a similar event is classified in different places.

When I wanted to get an idea of how many people get murdered every year, I decided to take the first number I found and recognise that it is bound to be highly inaccurate.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that there were 468,000 homicides in 2010 (though it included data from previous years if the 2010 figure wasn’t available).  I don’t know how inaccurate that number is but it could be 100,000 out either way. Taking a lower end estimate, and making the arithmetic easy, let’s say that 365,000 people are murdered every year. That’s a nice simple 1,000 per day.

Clearly, no newspaper is going to report on every one of those deaths no matter how much it prides itself on its coverage of foreign news. So, for a murder to get reported other than in its home country, there must be something different about it, some hook to catch the readers’ attention.

A recent murder that was quite widely reported contained three such hooks; ‘Chinese billionaire’, ‘cat stew’ and ‘poisonous plant’.

One of the fuller accounts of the incident comes from ABC in America The victim, Long Liyuan, is described as being a billionaire after making his fortune from a forestry company though there is no indication of the currency  in which Mr Long’s billions are denominated.

I’m not sure the rest of the world has ever understood China and that remains the case, today. As almost the last, and emphatically the largest, country still governed by communism, the notion of billionaires still strikes us as strange. The death of a billionaire is immediately intriguing.

Mr Long had lunch at a favourite restaurant whose house speciality was, apparently, cat stew. The ABC account makes sure to pass on the comment reported by the local paper, Xin Kuai Bao, that the cats used in the stew were always freshly killed. The local paper reports this to allay any idea that the death could have resulted from food poisoning caused by rotten meat but, I suspect, the ABC repeats it because it adds to the repulsive attraction of the story for western readers.

Though clearly not established ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’, it is being said that the police have confirmed that the death resulted after another of the lunch guests, fearing that Mr Long was about to expose him as corrupt or unable to repay money borrowed/embezzled from Mr long, depending on which report you read, added Gelsemium elegans to the stew. The suspect, a local official name Huang Guang, also became ill after the meal but this is being said to have been an intentional plan to take suspicion away from himself. He recovered as did the third lunch guest who is reported as having said the stew tasted unusually bitter.

Gelsemium elegans is native to south-east Asia and is not a plant I’m familiar with so I turned to my key reference sources for more information. Dr. Liz Dauncey includes it because it is part of the Horticultural Trades Association list of potentially harmful plants though only as Category C. Liz suggests that it is not a source of accidental poisoning but that ‘inappropriate use by adults’ has caused ‘severe poisonings’. This accords with the reports that it has been used as a means of self-harm hence the translation of its Chinese common name as ‘heartbreak grass’. In the UK, it is known as false yellow jasmine, or possibly yellow jasmine, garden centres being reluctant to label a plant ‘false’ as we know is the case with Fatsia japonica.

The International Poisonous Plants Database cites only two papers under Gelsemium elegans though both are about poisonous plants in general rather than just this species. There are more references online but the one I noticed points out the difficulty of detecting the plant’s alkaloids because they are extremely complex.

Wink and van Wyk, in ‘Mind-altering and Poisonous Plants of the World’ describe Gelsemium sempervirens, one of the other two species in the genus, as an extremely hazardous neurotoxin and say that it is ‘traditionally used for murder and suicide in Indomalaysia’. They give figures for the lethal dose of the tincture used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) but no indication of what that relates to in terms of fresh plant material.

Though the BBC report of the story talks about Mr Huang allegedly adding ‘the toxic plant’ to the stew I would have thought that adding the tincture would be less likely to be seen. You would think a substantial bunch of plant material would need to be added to ensure a fatal strength.

So, it is easy to see why this one death from the, on average, 1,000 or so that happened on the same day was of such interest. Sadly, I doubt if the follow-up investigation and, presumably, trial will attract the same coverage so we’ll never know whether and precisely how Mr Long was deliberately poisoned.


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