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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 15th November 2012

One reason I ceased making this a daily task was that I recognised the danger of repeating myself or, worse, contradicting myself. Not having the need to write something means I don’t have to go after every ill-informed ‘Top 10’ of poisonous plants nor do I need to respond every time someone like Peter Hitchens says something stupid about cannabis.

But, just occasionally, I come across something that disappoints; that is a piece from an organisation that one would be justified in assuming would be well informed. Today, that happened when I read the transcript of a podcast from the Royal Society of Chemistry (RCS).1 It is from a series entitled ‘Chemistry in its element: compounds’ and features ricin the poisonous component of Ricinus communis, castor oil plant.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

It is in the form of an interview with Neil Withers, features editor for the RCS magazine ‘Chemistry World’. Mr Withers begins very reasonably by saying that 10 castor beans are estimated to be enough to kill an adult and immediately follows that up by pointing out how difficult it is to effect poisoning with either castor beans or ricin itself by ingestion. He notes, however, that injection of even a tiny amount can be fatal and, naturally, refers to the ‘umbrella’ murder of Georgi Markov in 1978.

I want to return to the key part of that story i.e. the umbrella, but first I want to consider what is said about ricin as a chemical weapon and as a weapon of choice for terrorists. Thankfully, Withers dismisses the notion of ricin having the role as a weapon of mass destruction so often attributed to it though he says ‘It has definitely been stockpiled for use in anger, with Iraq declaring 10 litres of ricin solution to the UN inspectors in 1995’. It might have helped to note that the Iraqis were known to have disregarded it as a mass weapon but were considering its use for assassination.

But then he says;

‘In addition, quantities of it have been found in caves frequented by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.’

Most, but not all, of the places where I’ve seen that claim preface it with ‘some reports say…’. Some wit runs a Twitter account named ‘Fake AP Stylebook’ and, on 5th October they tweeted;

‘You can pass off any old bullshit by simply prefacing it with "some claim that" or "some wonder if."’

In other places, as here, the qualifier gets dropped and what was a highly dubious suggestion becomes a ‘fact’.

Mr Withers then mentions the case of the four elderly men from Georgia USA who were entrapped by an FBI agent. Mr Withers says;

‘They are accused of plotting to murder officials using ricin, and were arrested after traces of the poison were found in their possession.’

None of the many reports I have read on this case says anything about any ricin being found. The agent provocateur is said to have provided some castor beans to one of the men as a sample and though he said he was going to ‘peel’ them there are no reports that he did any processing. The case rests on what these disgruntled men said they would like to do rather than on anything they actually did.

Then he says;

‘Over the past ten years, there have also been a number of high-profile cases of the powder being sent to government mailrooms in the US.’

It is true that there has been one case of ricin being sent through the post but all the other cases have been of ‘suspicious white powder’ that turned out to be completely harmless.

As I started by saying, I’m aware of the danger of repetition so when I came to the story about the umbrella I wanted to think about it a different way. So, rather than repeat the flaws in the story that I’ve discussed before, I started thinking about it from the other point of view. Suppose it was a modified umbrella that was used to deliver the ricin pellet.

All the depictions of the supposed umbrella gun, like this non-copyright image, show the trigger as being in the handle. Or see this image online for the full umbrella.

Alleged umbrella gun

To fire the pellet the assassin must have been holding it by the handle. Try picking up an umbrella by the handle and selecting one spot on the wall in front of you. It is possible, as long as you have a firm grip of the umbrella. But, if you’ve got a firm grip of the handle why would you drop the umbrella immediately after firing the pellet? It is not going to slip out of your hand unless you deliberately relax your grip.

This is something you can try at home. Get a friend to stand with their back to you. Stand about three feet away from them with an umbrella vertical with the point on the ground. Now, swing it up, select a spot on the back of their thigh, ‘fire it’ (say bang) and then let the umbrella fall into the sort of pendulum swing that many people do when standing bored.

The chance that they will see anything odd in the movement is remote and the chance that they will associate that movement with a sting in the back of the thigh is non-existent. Dropping the umbrella in that situation only draws attention to yourself; not something a professional assassin would do.

If the umbrella had been the weapon it would not have been dropped. Dropping an ordinary umbrella in order to approach close enough to fire a weapon concealed in the other hand, at the same time as distracting any onlookers, is, probably, the only sensible explanation of how Georgi Markov was attacked.

I was anxious to be fair to Mr Withers so I listened to the podcast to see if he were speaking off the cuff. It is very clear, however, that he is reading from a prepared script and that, I think, makes my disappointment justified. Chemistry World is about ‘advancing the chemical sciences’. I think it is a shame that the opportunity was missed to stress the need for critical appraisal of perceived wisdom.


1. Chemistry in its element: compounds - Ricin  Royal Society of Chemistry 

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