Like most awful poisons, strychnine got its reputation early. Unlike most awful poisons, it was rarely mistaken for anything else. Here’s why strychnine is one of the world’s most common, but least subtle, poisons.
Strychnine is an alkaloid, which makes it the evil cousin of drugs like caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, and theobromine. All of these are nitrogen-rich, slightly basic compounds that plants pump into whichever part of themselves they don’t want eaten. This plan goes somewhat awry with the famous alkaloids, since humans have gone crazy trying to consume as much as they can—but the fact that humans then cultivate these plants provides some evolutionary compensation. Humans have had a hand in cultivating the plant that creates strychnine, but for much more sinister reasons than a mere cup of coffee or cocaine addiction.
The alkaloid comes from the Strychnos nux-vomica tree. It gets its scientific name “strychnos” from no less a mind than Carl Linnaeus, who classified it back in 1753, but it was known to the population of India way before then. Nux vomica originates in India, a surprising fact, considering the bulk of stories about strychnine poisoning don’t come from India. Perhaps the lack of stories shows the reticence of record keepers rather than a lack of ingenuity among Indian murderers. Or perhaps the poisoners in India came up with the most subtle way to use strychnine. While there are no famous particular poisonings, one book from 1900 speaks of a kind of black market for strychnine hidden in plain sight. Those who know where to go could get a drug called “kurchi”—a bitter but harmless tonic for mild ailments. Those who really knew where to go would find kurchi cut with the powdered pulp of the nux vomica. That would get the poison into a victim.
Next came covering one’s tracks. Strychnine kills through asphyxiation as the drug paralyzes the muscles which control the air way. Lucky victims will be unconscious for this part, but even the preliminary symptoms of poisoning make strychnine a bad way to go. Poisoning starts with extreme soreness and stiffness in the muscles, especially around the neck, jaw, and abdomen. It’s followed by intense muscle spasms and even convulsions. People who are poisoned know that something’s very wrong with them. There is some ambiguity. Strychnine poisoning comes on suddenly, but it looks a lot like tetanus poisoning. Apparently poisoners exposed their victims to strychnine, and then tried to pass the death off as tetanus. The fact that the ruse was well known over a hundred years ago indicates that they probably didn’t have much success.
Strychnine came sailing into Europe as soon as Europeans began trading, by boat, with the wider world. It’s easy to see how the trade in poison got started. All ships have rats, and all trading ships don’t appreciate rats eating their food and spreading disease. Strychnine is still used as a rat poison, although it’s falling out of popularity, both because it’s considered inhumane even for rats, and because it’s often eaten by other animals—including humans.
Throughout history there are examples of humans accidentally taking strychnine. In 1892, writer Henry Randolph bought a bunch of strychnine to poison a cat. He put it in the drawer in his bedside table. One night Randolph awoke and decided to take a dose of quinine, another bitter alkaloid sold in powder form. Fumbling in the dark, he mixed up a tonic and took it. He died three and a half hours later.
Other humans took the poison willingly. The similarities between quinine and strychnine did not go unnoticed. French physicians around Napoleon’s time figured that one bitter white powder did the same thing as another bitter white powder and gave patients with various illnesses, including malaria, low doses of strychnine. Nations tried to control the strychnine trade in order to block antagonistic nations from getting their hands on the “medicine.”
Strychnine causes convulsions by binding to the glycine receptor, which causes the neurotransmitters to fire even when there is a low level of stimulus. The constantly firing nerves cause people to get a rush of nervous energy, during which they feel the need to move and pace. We’ve noted before that, in 1904, and Olympic runner was given strychnine and brandy to get him across the finish line. But you didn’t have to be an athlete to want a pick me up. In 1896, a doctor wrote to The Lancet about his experience with strychnine. He injected too much and overdosed, but injected himself with with a “bromide of potassium and chloral.” He wrote that, “a little time after I lost consciousness and fell into a “profound sleep,” awaking in the morning with no unpleasant symptoms, no headache, &c., but a desire “to be on the move” and a slight feeling of stiffness in the jaw. These worked off during the day.”
For the most part, though, strychnine is used as a poison—and not a subtle one. This is why it tends to be the focal point of mysteries in which a victim has obviously and spectacularly been poisoned and the only question is which of the suspects did it. These mysteries aren’t confined to the page. In the 1800s, Thomas Neill Cream used strychnine to kill people, first in Chicago where he prescribed it to his patients as a doctor, and then in London, where he slipped it into the drinks of the prostitutes he met in bars. In 1904 Jane Stanford, co-founder of Stanford University, was poisoned twice when bottles of soda water she drank were laced with strychnine. The second poisoning proved fatal. Though there is a list of suspects, no one was ever caught. In the 1980s, a woman named Patsy Wright was killed when a bottle of cold medicine on her bedside table was contaminated with strychnine. To this day no one knows who poisoned her.
But strychnine’s continued popularity is probably mainly due to its availability. If people can’t scrape it off a tree, they can buy huge containers of it and store it in their house. Once it’s nearby, it just takes a bad accident to consume it, or a little too much temptation to give it to someone else. Carelessness, malice, and strychnine have all been around this long, and probably aren’t going anywhere.