THE POISON GARDEN website      Arum maculatum berries on a Cannabis leaf 


This free script provided by JavaScript Kit

Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 27th July 2012

In honour of the day, I thought it might be interesting to look at the connections between the Olympics and poison. It was, in a way, encouraging to find very few such connections. Over the history of the modern games, at least, I would have expected to see more stories.

In fact, I found very few items where plant based poisons have been associated with the Olympics so I’m going to widen my net to all poisons.

The stories I did find cover a range from the very serious, through the ridiculous to the bizarre but true and I’ll leaf through them in that order so we finish with the humorous rather than the sad.

There’s been quite a bit of protest about the involvement of Dow Chemical as a sponsor of the games. In May, I wrote about the odd statement made by the CEO but that isn’t related to the current protests. Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide, the company responsible for the Bhopal poisoning disaster1 following a leak of methyl isocyanate gas. For many people, Dow has not done enough to atone for that tragedy and for others a chemical company is always going to be a villain.

During the preparations for the 2008 games, Russian wrestler, Bilyal Makhov, became ill and was diagnosed as suffering mercury poisoning. Though doctors confidently said he had inhaled mercury vapour they were unable to explain how this happened. Makhov made a full recovery but not in time to take part in Beijing so he is hoping that London will offer him the chance to win a medal.

Those are the serious stories. What of the ridiculous?

Three such stories caught my eye. Unsurprisingly, they all come from the British press; two relate to that old favourite the alleged ‘terror threat’ and the third is about that other staple; nature is about to kill us all.

As early as March, the Daily Telegraph was reporting an Al Qaeda plot to kill visitors to the Olympics in London.2 The plotters, apparently, intended to mix cyanide with hand cream so that people would absorb the deadly poison through the skin. Now it is true that cyanide can be absorbed through the skin though it is difficult to define just how much is required for a lethal dose to be absorbed. There is, however, a rather obvious flaw in the ‘plot’. How do you persuade enough people to use hand-cream at the same time to cause enough deaths to produce the terror that is part of the job description of the terrorist?

The alleged plot was discovered not by some brave spy going deep undercover in a known terrorist cell. No, as the Telegraph says in the opening line of its report ‘Extremists have posted “detailed instructions” on a website’. Never mind the impracticality of the proposed route of administration, does the Telegraph really think that a post on a publicly accessible website is proof of a genuine threat? What the Americans call ‘a credible threat’.

Cyanide in hand-cream is just too incredible to ever be credible. Mind you, these ‘“detailed instructions”’ were in Arabic so, for the Telegraph, that’s all that matters. Perhaps the Telegraph has never heard the term ‘Dark Web’. I’ve written about it 16th February 2012 in the context of the Silk Road website that sells all many of illicit products but, if terrorists really wanted to use the internet to spread their evil intent, I’m pretty sure they’d get the TOR software and set up an invisible site for the purpose.

In fact, I like to think they already have. It would be wonderful if some Islamist comedian had established a website on the Dark Web where people could develop ever more bizarre ‘terror plots’ and compete to see which ones garnered the greatest media coverage.

The second poison terror threat comes courtesy of Mail Online3. This is the idea that terrorists were planning to load a small remote-controlled aircraft with a biological toxin and fly it into the Olympic Park. It seems to have originated from a meeting with residents to explain the need for missile batteries to be stationed on the roof of their blocks of flats to deal with any aerial threat. The officer in charge, it seems, was talking about the nature of such threats and said it could be anything from a hijacked airliner to a small ‘drone’. When he refused to go into more detail the Mail was able to put its fevered imagination to work.

It is interesting to judge just how ridiculous this ‘threat’ was from the failure of any other media outlet to pick it up and either re-report the Mail or make it its own.

For the natural threat, we return to the Telegraph.4 It wasn’t the only news outlet to report on the spread of poisonous caterpillars whose hairs can cause stomach upsets and asthma attacks if inhaled or ingested. It does seem to be the only one, however, to realise that there are oak trees in the same neighbourhood as the Olympic venues enabling it to predict that millions of people could become sick during the games.

I don’t like the cliché ‘You couldn’t make it up’ for the simple reason that they do.

The final story about the Olympics and poison is one I’ve written about before. I find it amusing and ridiculous and, also, the perfect response to all those people who complain about the way the games have evolved in recent times and yearn for ‘the old days’ when, allegedly, it was all about the sport and good behaviour and no-one tried to enhance their performance with substances.

In fact, it is such a favourite story that I’m going to plagiarise myself and repeat what I wrote last October;

[T]his happened during the 1904 Olympic Games.

Travelling to the USA was no easy matter and, as a result, only 12 countries were represented at the games. Even so, some of the competitors for the 11 non-host countries were Americans with some tenuous link to the country they represented. And it wasn’t just this small entry field that made the 1904 games less than the Olympic movement hoped for.

1904 olympic marathon

First across the line in the marathon was an American called Fred Lorz but it took only a short time before suspicions were aroused. People said they had seen him waving from a vehicle along the route and, when challenged, Lorz freely admitted he had ridden for quite a distance after becoming exhausted. It is said that the vehicle he was in broke down short of the stadium so he completed the journey on foot and was surprised when he was acclaimed the winner. He appears to have claimed that he got caught up by events and wasn’t able to tell anyone he was not the rightful winner.

After the error came to light, the gold medal was awarded to Thomas Hicks. Hicks was an American citizen but, having been born in England, he was competing for the UK. But Hicks own marathon was not without incident. He had collapsed from exhaustion around fifteen miles into the event and his support team gave him strychnine, from Strychnos nux-vomica, the poison nut tree, mixed with egg whites and washed down with brandy to revive him.

Some reports suggest that he required another four ‘revivers’ before reaching the stadium and that he was so intoxicated that his coaches held him up, with his legs still running but not in contact with the ground, to get him over the line. Though his feet are on the ground in the picture they may not have stayed there.


Full Entries


Tuesday 25th October 2016
Saturday 20th August 2016
Sunday 6th March 2016
Wednesday 3rd February 2016


Saturday 28th November 2015
Friday 27th November 2015
Monday 17th August 2015
Wednesday 15th July 2015
Friday 26th June 2015
Thursday 25th June 2015
Thursday 30th April 2015
Wednesday 29th April 2015
Wednesday 11th March 2015
Tuesday 3rd March 2015
Saturday 28th February 2015
Sunday 22nd February 2015

November 2014

Monday 24th November 2014
Saturday 8th November 2014

October 2014

September 2014

Wednesday 24th September 2014
Monday 1st September 2014

August 2014

Tuesday 26th August 2014
Saturday 16th August 2014
Tuesday 5th August 2014
Friday 1st August 2014

July 2014

Sunday 27th July 2014
Wednesday 23rd July 2014
Sunday 13th July 2014
Sunday 6th July 2014
Tuesday 1st July 2014

June 2014

Wednesday 25th June 2014
Tuesday 24th June 2014
Sunday 22nd June 2014
Monday 9th June 2014
Wednesday 4th June 2014

May 2014

Monday 26th May 2014
Sunday 18th May 2014
Wednesday 14th May 2014

April 2014

Sunday 13th April 2014
Saturday 5th April 2014
Thursday 3rd April 2014
Tuesday 1st April 2014

March 2014

Monday 31st March 2014
Tuesday 25th March 2014
Friday 21st March 2014
Monday 17th March 2014
Sunday 16th March 2014
Tuesday 11th March 2014
Tuesday 11th March 2014
Thursday 6th March 2014
Wednesday 5th March 2014
Saturday 1st March 2014

February 2014

Thursday 27th February 2014
Monday 24th February 2014
Wednesday 19th February 2014
Monday 17th February 2014
Thursday 13th February 2014
Monday 4th February 2014
Monday 3rd February 2014
Saturday 1st February 2014

January 2014

Thursday 28th January 2014
Thursday 23rd January 2014
Friday 17th January 2014
Wednesday 15th January 2014
Monday 13th January 2014
Thursday 9th January 2014
Tuesday 7th January 2014
Wednesday 1st January 2014

December 2013

Monday 23rd December 2013
Friday 20th December 2013
Tuesday 17th December 2013
Friday 14th December 2013
Thursday 12th December 2013
Sunday 8th December 2013
Wednesday 4th December 2013
Sunday 1st December 2013

November 2013

Friday 29th November 2013
Wednesday 27th November 2013
Tuesday 26th November 2013
Friday 22nd November 2013
Monday 18th November 2013
Friday 15th November 2013
Thursday 14th November 2013
Sunday 10th November 2013
Thursday 7th November 2013
Wednesday 6th November 2013
Friday 1st November 2013

October 2013

Thursday 31st October 2013
Sunday 27th October 2013
Wednesday 23rd October 2013
Monday 21st October 2013
Friday 18th October 2013
Friday 11th October 2013
Wednesday 9th October 2013
Tuesday 8th October 2013
Monday 7th October 2013
Tuesday 1st October 2013

September 2013

Monday 30th September 2013
Saturday 28th September 2013
Friday 27th September 2013
Monday 23rd September 2013
Sunday 15th September 2013
Monday 9th September 2013
Tuesday 3rd September 2013
Sunday 1st September 2013

August 2013

Sunday 8th September 2013
Tuesday 3rd September 2013
Sunday 1st September 2013

Tuesday 27th August 2013
Sunday 25th August 2013
Monday 19th August 2013
Friday 16th August 2013
Tuesday 13th August 2013
Friday 9th August 2013
Friday 2nd August 2013
Thursday 1st August 2013

July 2013

Saturday 27th July 2013
Sunday 21st July 2013
Wednesday 17th July 2013
Monday 15th July 2013
Saturday 13th July 2013
Friday 12th July 2013
Thursday 11th July 2013
Wednesday 10th July 2013
Tuesday 9th July 2013
Saturday 6th July 2013

June 2013

Friday 28th June 2013
Tuesday 25th June 2013
Friday 21st June 2013
Thursday 20th June 2013
Wednesday 19th June 2013
Saturday 15th June 2013
Sunday 9th June 2013
Saturday 8th June 2013
Saturday 1st June 2013

May 2013

April 2013

March 2013

February 2013

January 2013

December 2012

November 2012

October 2012

September 2012

August 2012

July 2012 blog

June 2012 blog

May 2012 blog

April 2012 blog

March 2012 blog

February 2012 blog

January 2012 blog

December 2011 blog

November 2011 blog

October 2011 blog

September 2011 blog

August 2011 blog

July 2011 blog

June 2011 blog


The POISON GARDEN website is not connected with Alnwick Garden Enterprises Ltd and/or The Alnwick Garden Trust.