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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 17th April 2012

Cyanide is back in the news as part of the investigation into the death of British businessman, Neil Heywood, in China in November 2011. Though now produced chemically, cyanide can be obtained from quite a few plants.

I should really have said speculation about cyanide is back in the news because, so far, there is very little official information about what was originally reported to have been a death due to an alcohol overdose.

The media does love to speculate, especially if there is any hint that a poison might be involved in an unexpected death. For days after the sudden death of cricket coach, Bob Woolmer, during the Cricket world Cup in Jamaica in March 2007, the media was full of stories that he had been poisoned using aconite or aconitine obtained from a member of the Aconitum genus.

In fact, the speculation was so rife and the stories of the use of aconitine as a murder weapon so overblown that it, plus a poorly conducted investigation by the police in Jamaica, led the inquest jury to return an open verdict in November 2007 in spite of clear evidence that Woolmer died of a heart attack.

In the Heywood case, there are rumours that Gu Kailai, the wife of a leading Chinese politician, gave the businessman, who had lived in China for ten years, a drink laced with cyanide. There are suggestions that he was seeking a larger ‘commission’ for assisting with transferring a substantial sum of money overseas and threatening, if he did not get it, to expose her1. Her husband, Bo Xilai, has been forced to resign from his positions and, regardless of the outcome of the present investigation, it seems to be settled that his political career is at an end.

Prunus laurocerasus, cherry laurel

Prunus laurocerasus, cherry laurel

Given the secretive nature of official matters in China and the political dimension to this case, it is likely that full details of what happened may never emerge and we will never know if cyanide was used as the murder weapon and, if so, how it was obtained. Since Heywood’s body was cremated there is no chance of identifying the presence of any toxin forensically.

I said that cyanide can be obtained from plants and there is a possible murder by plant-derived cyanide in my notes where, again, the truth will never be known. Graham Young was fascinated by poisons from an early age and, in 1962, was committed to Broadmoor after confessing to trying to kill members of his family. He could not be charged in connection with the death of his stepmother as she, like Heywood, had been cremated.

He was released after nine years and proceeded to poison up to 70 work colleagues though none of them died. It was his suggestion that the unknown illness afflicting so many people might be thallium poisoning that led to his discovery.

But, it is an incident in Broadmoor that makes him of interest when discussing plant-derived cyanide. Young was, apparently, a model patient and was allowed to work in the kitchens preparing food for the hospital inmates. The story goes, and it is only a story for reasons that will emerge, that just outside the kitchen was a garden where Prunus laurocerasus, cherry laurel, bushes grew. When a patient, John Berridge, died suddenly, Young claimed that he had been picking the leaves of the laurel bushes and extracting the cyanide in order to kill someone he didn’t like.

Supposedly, according to the story, his claim was not investigated because most of the other patients also claimed credit for bringing about the death in a variety of ways. Berridge’s death was recorded as suicide.


1.UK businessman 'poisoned' in China scandal Al Jazeera 16th April 2012 


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