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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 30th September 2011

I’m one of those people who grew into gardening in middle age. It was really only when we moved to Scotland in 2001 that I had to develop some sort of interest in gardening and, of course, since 2003, when I started researching poisonous plants, it has been my passion. Well, the plants have though I’m still not great when it comes to the actual gardening.

But, I think, it is quite common for people to ‘grow into’ gardening at or just after middle age. Taking the whole lifeline, I suppose we grow out of gardening when we become teens before growing back into it later. I think most of us know of some scheme to encourage primary school children to learn about how vegetables end up on their dinner plates and/or how plants help to nourish wildlife from the smallest insects to the largest land mammals in the world.

It would seem that, without me noticing, Germaine Greer has grown into gardening. I was surprised to find her writing a ‘Country Diary’ column for the Daily Telegraph. Her column was, mostly, on the theme of the difference between plants and weeds after some people she allows to grow vegetables in her garden asked if they could get rid of the weeds in an area and plant wildflowers instead.

Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane

I’m not here to précis the whole article but I latched onto it because Ms Greer mentioned Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane, calling it ‘One of the most charismatic of the vulnerable plants of cultivated fields’. It is, without doubt, one of my favourite plants. The flowers are stunningly beautiful, the seedpods are architectural masterpieces and it has a rich array of folklore attached to it.

It was used medicinally for a variety of things especially to treat toothache because the arc of the seedpods is supposed to look like a jawbone and teeth and the Doctrine of Signatures applied. Its use to treat toothache dates back to ancient Rome, at least, but it reached a particular refinement in Anglo-Saxon times when toothache was thought to result from worms in the teeth and henbane was thought to be able to kill those worms just by drawing the fumes from heated seeds into the mouth.

At one time, its medicinal use was so great that it had to be cultivated as not enough was growing in the wild. I don’t know what began its decline but, today, it is very rare to see it in the wild and, sadly, it seems only a few people grow it in the garden. I’m pleased to hear that Ms Greer is in that select group.

Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane

I can’t help wondering if one of the most famous murder trials of the 20th century played a role in its decline. In 1910, Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen was tried and executed for the murder of his wife after giving her a fatal dose of hyoscine, the main alkaloid in Hyoscyamus niger. Crippen was having a long-running affair with Ethel Le Neve and the prosecution’s case was that he had decided to remove Cora Crippen, who used the stage name Belle Elmore, from the love triangle.

Within the last few years, there have been suggestions that Crippen was wrongly convicted. I won’t go through what to me are the many flaws in the ‘Crippen was innocent’ argument but I will say that I’m not convinced that Crippen set out to murder his wife. Until recently, I thought my theory about what might have happened was original but then I read about Edward Marshall Hall who thought the same thing at the time of the trial.

Hyoscine, in small doses, was used as a sedative and what I wonder, as did Mr Hall a century ago, is whether Crippen was using hyoscine to keep Cora quiet so that he could save his energy for Ethel le Neve. Cora’s death, therefore, was the result of accidental overdose. At the time, apparently, Hall’s theory was dismissed on the basis that Crippen was a medical man and so knew what was and wasn’t a safe dose.

        Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane        Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane

        Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane        Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane 

That argument, for me, ignores two points. Crippen seems not to have had a formal medical qualification. In essence, he was a snake oil salesman who found it useful to style himself ‘Dr’. And the second, and more important point, is that on 31st January 1910, the last time Cora was seen alive, the Crippens had guests to supper. There’s no suggestion that large amounts of alcohol were consumed but I wonder if either Crippen had had enough to cause him to mistake the dose of hyoscine he gave Cora or whether Cora had had enough to mean that her usual dose had unusual effects.

Whether the poisoning was accidental or deliberate murder is of no consequence to the outcome. The criminal justice system in 1910 would still have found Crippen’s actions sufficient to incur the death penalty.

But, to all the theories about what actually happened in 39 Hilldrop Crescent that night, I would add the possibility that the notoriety that attached to Hyoscyamus niger as the source of the fatal toxin may have contributed to its almost complete eradication from the countryside.

Perhaps Germaine Greer and I should start a campaign for its re-habilitation.


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