The Poisoner’s Poison

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Hugh Killdme let the spoonful of peas and carrots rest on his tongue. He closed his eyes, savoring the combined taste of his two favorite vegetables. In his mind, he pictured the green and orange delicacies as they danced and rolled in boiling hot water. He saw tendrils of wispy pea-carrot flavored steam shimmying and twisting their way from the blue porcelain Rachael Ray pot to the gleaming stainless steel hood above the range.

Hugh shifted his thoughts to the basement freezer. He’d ordered the Super-Duper Chill-Zero model from Acme (Wile E. Coyote isn’t the only character in the world who knows where to shop for a good deal).

The day after Acme’s number one best-selling frost-making machine arrived, he’d packed it to the brim with bags of frozen peas and carrots. Bought every single package within a twenty-mile radius.

Thinking about the plentiful stockpile of veggies caused his meaty lips to split into a lopsided grin. Thirty seconds later he was graveyard dead.

The instant Hugh’s face crashed into his dinner plate, sending airborne little green pellets and perfectly cut squares of orange, his wife of thirty years scurried toward the basement to unplug the freezer, muttering along the way about never again cooking another pea or carrot as long as she was able to draw a breath. For that she was thankful. She was also thankful that the poison had worked so quickly. Not because her husband hadn’t suffered long, though. Instead, she had plans to play Bingo at the Presbyterian church over on Save-a-Soul Drive, and to have her husband flopping around on the kitchen floor for hours would have absolutely ruined her evening. Probably would’ve ruined the shine on her brand new linoleum too. Her mother always said things have a way of working out. She, too, went quickly…bless her heart.

Questions about poisons. I get them all the time, and the number one question that most often pops up is, “What’s the best poison a wife could use on her husband that would act quickly and be difficult for police to detect?” So lets dissect this one, but strictly for use in works of fiction.

First of all, police officers won’t be the folks who detect the poison. That’s the job of the medical examiner and/or laboratory scientists. Next, to detect a specific poison the medical examiner would have to request specific testing for the substance/toxin/chemical/etc. A tox screen is not a one-stop-shop and does not detect most poisons. This is where the police can be a big help to the M.E. and lab technicians and scientists. For example, a savvy detective may notice a bottle labeled “Husband Killer” on the kitchen table next to the head of the deceased. If so, he/she would collect the bottle as evidence and report his/her discovery to the M.E., who would then order testing for the potentially deadly concoction.

Another huge clue that sharp detectives should pounce on would be the fact that the widow works as a scientist for a bio-pharmaceutical company. And that’s sort of what happened in the case of Tianle Li, the Chinese woman who was convicted of murdering her husband, Xiaoye Wang. Her weapon of choice—thallium.

Thallium, a metal that’s used in electronic switches and some medical devices, was once used as a major component in insecticides and rat poisons. It’s basically odorless and tasteless. And it is well known as the “poisoner’s poison” because it is so difficult to detect in the human body. Thallium use as a pesticide was banned in the U.S. in the early 70’s.

Biotech and pharmaceutical companies are permitted to conduct research using dangerous chemicals, toxins, poisons, extracts, etc. That’s how Tianli Li obtained the thallium she used to murder her husband. As a chemist for Bristol-Myers Squibb, Li ordered thallium to research its effect on humans.

After receiving doses of thallium (how Li introduced the thallium into her husband’s body is not clear) Wang became ill with flu-like symptoms and checked himself into a local hospital, where he lapsed into a coma and died two weeks later.

Had it not been for a quick thinking nurse who’d read about a thallium poisoning case in China, Li would have gotten away with murder…the “perfect murder,” using the “poisoner’s poison” as her instrument of death. The nurse alerted officials who then conducted tests and indeed found thallium in Wang’s body.

So there you have it, my writer friends—two very important bits of information for possible use in your work (writing, that is). One: thallium is the poisoner’s poison because it is difficult to detect. Two: people who work in biotech and pharmaceutical research are able to purchase just about anything in the name of “science.”

By the way, it takes a while for most poisons to get the job done. Having your character go as quickly as Hugh Killdme is, well, fictional.

12 thoughts on “The Poisoner’s Poison

  • Sheryl Dunn

    Wayne Jeffreys, Head of the RCMP Toxicology Lab in Vancouver, BC,(now retired) gave me the perfect poison for my novel. I had been researching for weeks for a poison with the seven characteristics I needed. Wayne and his staff spent five minutes brainstorming, and came up the solution: scopalomine.

    Thank the universe for experts who are willing to share their knowledge with writers.


  • Pat Rice

    Thanks for the info! The police/medical examiner link is the one I’ve been questioning.

  • Chris Norbury

    Thanks, Lee for another great little tidbit to file away until I need the perfect poison for s story. The things we learn on the internet!


  • Jason Leisemann

    As another note, there’s another striking tidbit about Thallium – the almost universal mass hair loss. Which is why it was used in depilatory creams and products for decades! :D

    So, y’know, if your killer is after somebody who’s a baldy, life has become much easier for them.

  • Pat Marinelli

    More great info. Of course, I’m still laughing about the bottle of Husband Killer on the table.

  • John Gordon

    Lee – There’s a story on the web about a teenager’s accidental death (anaphylaxis) after being kissed by her boyfriend who had recently eaten peanuts to which (obviously) the woman was extremely allergic.
    In a fictional setting, could an ME have a way to detect the cause of an anaphylactic death where the deceased would have no evidence of the “killer” nut in the digestive tract?

  • Lee Lofland

    There are physical signs, such as hyperinflated lungs, petechial haemorrhage, pharyngeal/laryngeal edema, etc. An increase of mast cell beta-tryptase levels is an indicator of an allergic reaction. And, of course, there’s always the medical history of the victim.

  • Diane s.

    Lee, loved your tale and the name of your victim. Now if I could only get my hands on some thallium for some operational testing. . .

  • Carol Baier

    Love your blog and your sense of humor, Lee. Thallium was the weapon of choice in Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse. In real life, a murderer who used it was caught because someone on the periphery of the case (a nurse, I think, but not sure) had just read the novel.

  • John Gordon

    Lee — It seems to me that unless the ME with the anaphylactic corpse could identify the specific nut allergen that caused the deadly reaction, the death would be termed an idiopathic (unknown allergen) anaphylactic death. With that there would be nothing on which a detective could begin an inquiry. The victim would go to the grave with her family bumfuzzled. I.e., the killer could not be identified.

  • Lee Lofland

    Not necessarily, John. The mistake many people make is to assume that all crimes are solved by uncovering smoking gun evidence – DNA, fingerprints, etc. That’s just not so in real life. Sure, it’s nice to have those things, but most cases are solved by good old fashioned police work – knocking on doors, talking to people, etc.

    Somebody somewhere, knows something. Besides, remember Locard’s Exchange Principle that basically states everyone who enters a scene leaves something behind, and they always take something away when they leave. The clues are there. It’s up to the detective and his/her skill level as to whether or not they find them.

    In the scenario you mentioned, we already know a few things that give us a starting point.

    – Post autopsy we know the death was cause by an allergic reaction.
    – Stomach contents may lead investigators to a location.
    – The victim will have medical records.
    – The victim’s family will most likely know the specific food allergy.
    – We’ll know where the death occurred, so someone there more than likely saw something.
    – If a witness saw even the slightest hint of a clue, detectives will soon extract it from their memories, or from others in the area – car, person of interest, cameras, DNA, footprints, etc.

    The list is long, and it takes time to develop and process the information, but it’s rare that viable leads wouldn’t be discovered.

  • John Gordon

    Lee – Thanks for your reply!
    In my scenario, the only “family” is the woman’s partner, who, in fact, is the killer. She alone* knows her partner’s allergy to macadamia nuts, learned when they had vacationed in Hawaii, prior to adopting a daughter who they named Kalea. *Kalea, now eleven, at a fancy party where several kinds of nuts are on the table and querying the name of the macadamias that she didn’t recognize, confides in her “Aunt” Penny (my protagonist) that she remembers, as a youngster, the dead “mom” telling her she got deathly sick from what the kid remembered as “macky-dames” which of course she didn’t understand at the time, and just recognized the connection, thereby concluding that one of her “moms” caused the other’s death by kissing her after eating macadamia nuts just before bedtime (They were not sleeping in the same bed.)
    So I’m thinking that there will be no nuts of any kind in her stomach, and fingerprints in her bedroom will all be from family or friends.
    If Penny and Kalea voice their suspicions, the body will have to be disinterred, but then, I doubt if there’d be any way to confirm that it was a macadamia nut kiss that triggered the anaphylaxis.

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