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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 1st June 2013

Another day, another ‘ricin scare’. To me, it is no surprise that, following the reporting of any incident involving the alleged presence of ricin, the toxin obtained from the seeds of Ricinus communis, castor oil plant, there are ‘copycat’ incidents. I didn’t bother writing about the ‘Spokane letters ricin scare’ because I saw one report that described the contents of the letters as crudely crushed castor beans and that is a very long way removed from pure ricin.

I decided I would write about the ‘Bloomberg ricin letters’ because the reporting of that incident ties into some reading I’ve been doing about ricin that originated from a completely different story.

The story on the NBC New York station’s website has a short video clip as well as text. In the video, the danger of inhaling ground-up ricin is mentioned but no distinction is drawn between the important difference between ground-up ricin, ground-up castor bean and crudely crushed castor bean.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

That crudely crushed castor bean is the substance involved is clear from an image included in the story. I don’t know if the image was added later or I just didn’t notice it the first time I saw the page when my interest centred on the description of the substance as ‘a pink, oily substance’. Pure ricin is a white powder that is not oil soluble (that’s how castor oil comes to contain no ricin even though they are both in the seed). Looking closely at the image it becomes very clear that this is just crushed castor bean. The mottled casing of the seed is quite clear.

The almost complete absence of risk from crushed castor bean, other than a risk of gastro-intestinal upset if eaten, makes it strange that the NBC story also says that;

‘Some members of NYPD's emergency service unit who did come into contact with the opened letter in New York initially showed some minor symptoms of ricin exposure, but the symptoms have since abated.’

That raises all manner of questions about what actually happened; how the personnel came to have contact if the letter had already been identified as suspicious, was protective clothing being worn, what were these ‘minor’ symptoms (especially given that the media usually gives the impression that there is no such thing as ‘minor’ when it comes to ricin), was treatment given?

It is that difficulty in understanding what happened in a very open incident immediately reported that leads me to my recent reading. Ricin is still the substance of interest but that interest was piqued not by these ricin letter scares but by something written about the 2006 death of Alexander Litvinenko. The author included Georgi Markov’s assassination to put Litvinenko’s death in context. She gave a brief description of the incident on Westminster Bridge and said that, after the attack, the assailant had ‘hurried away’.

I’ve read many accounts of Markov’s death but none has suggested that the assailant ‘hurried away’. It is generally said that he climbed into a taxi. It may appear to be a trivial point but, to me, hurrying away is possibly suspicious behaviour whereas giving up on queuing for a bus and taking a taxi is perfectly normal and unlikely to attract attention.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

I decided to see what had been said at the time. My first thought was to read the inquest transcript expecting that to have the definitive version of the incident. Unfortunately, even in the world of the Freedom of Information Act, inquest transcripts are not public documents and you have to demonstrate that you are a properly interested person before having any chance of seeing one.

It was suggested to me that I should do whatever research I could to be able to make a case for seeing the transcript so I started with all the newspaper archives I could find. I won’t trouble you with the details but, as a result, I found and purchased “Kill the Wanderer” By Hristo Hristov. ‘Wanderer’ was the Bulgarian government’s codename for Markov and the book is a detailed look at why he was killed and what happened after the fall of the communist regime. It also contains some information on how he was killed. I say ‘some’ because Hristov spends very little time explaining why the weapon wasn’t an umbrella.

From all this reading, and I have much more to do, I’ve concluded that there are three sources for what happened on Westminster Bridge that day.

When Markov returned to the BBC he spoke to a colleague, Teodor Lirkov. Lirkov’s account says that Markov was walking across Westminster Bridge when a passer-by bumped into him and dropped his umbrella. Markov had felt a small sting in his right thigh at the same time.

The second source is Markov’s wife. When Markov became ill in the early hours of 8th September he told his wife about the incident. Her recollection is that he said he had been waiting for a bus when he felt a sharp pain in his leg. He looked round and a man was picking up an umbrella. He then hailed a taxi and Markov noted that he was a foreigner because he had trouble telling the driver his destination.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

But, it seems to me, it is the third source that has become the accepted, though wrong, version. This is not a primary source – it is the Scotland Yard report. It says that Markov told his colleague about an incident in which a man had stabbed him with an umbrella in the rear of his right thigh. It is important to remember that this was 1978, before news gathering became the competitive event it is today, and it was not the way to stick cameras in the face of every participant in, or witness to, an event. Also, this was not immediately a big story so I think it is reasonable to conclude that the news reports would have been based on the police report rather than direct reporting.

And that, I believe, brings us to the question of the vagaries of the English language. Whether it was Markov telling Lirkov or Lirkov telling the police, the phrase ‘stabbed in the thigh by a man with an umbrella’ can be interpreted two ways. Either the stabbing was done with an umbrella or a man with an umbrella did the stabbing. I have no way of knowing how well Lirkov spoke English but that doesn’t really matter because native English speakers can get confused over this sort of construction. It’s been a staple of comedians for many years. “I opened the door in my pyjamas.” “You have a door in your pyjamas?”

Whoever prepared the police report went for an unambiguous construction but, unfortunately, made the wrong choice about what was meant by ‘stabbed by a man with an umbrella’.

There are very many versions of what happened to Georgi Markov. I think that tells us a lot about the reliability of news stories all the way to the present.

What none of the versions suggests, however, is that the assassin ‘hurried away’.

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