H is for Hemlock

I’m continuing my examination of major Victorian murder cases brought about by poisoning. A new one every Monday! These posts were inspired by Kathryn Harkup’s book A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie (2015), from which I am quoting below.

Today let’s talk about hemlock.



Harkup discusses how hemlock isn’t just one poison, but rather “several species of plant that are collectively referred to as hemlock; these include four Cicuta species of water hemlocks, which grow throughout Europe and North America, and the closely related spotted hemlock, Conium maculatum. The plants are similar in appearance and are all highly toxic, but they contain very different poisons. These plants are also similar in appearance to less toxic species such as Aethusa cynapium, the poison parsley, which contains compounds with similar toxic effects to Conium if ingested . . . . All of these plants are part of a family that includes edible species such as carrots, parsnips and parsley” (128-29).

The most famous case of hemlock poisoning was, of course, Socrates, but there had been considerable debate over whether he was actually killed by hemlock: “Socrates was found guilty of corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens, and of impiety. His punishment was to drink from a poisoned cup. In his dialogue Phaedo, Plato describes how Socrates was encouraged to walk around until his legs felt heavy, and then to lie down. He was also told not to speak, as talking was apt to ‘raise the heat’ and interfere with the action of the poison. Those who excited themselves were sometimes obliged to take a second or third dose, as the jailer only prepared as much poison as he deemed sufficient. Socrates appears to have been indignant regarding the requirement to stop talking, and he told the jailer that he should be prepared to give him poison two or three times.

"Socrates drinking the hemlock." Illustration from Cassell's Illustrated Universal History by Edward Ollier (1890).

“Socrates drinking the hemlock.” Illustration from Cassell’s Illustrated Universal History by Edward Ollier (1890).

“The death proceeded as the jailer predicted. Socrates walked until his legs began to fail. Numbness spread from his feet to his legs and through the rest of his body. He explained to his friends and pupils, who had gathered around him, that when the poison reached his heart he would die. Socrates was conscious and coherent to the very end. He talked to his pupils and requested that they settle his debts after he had died.  There was a slight movement, then his eyes became fixed. His friend Crito then closed his eyes and his mouth.

John Hughes Bennett

John Hughes Bennett

“Confusion over the naming of hemlock plants led many to believe that Socrates had been given a concoction made from Cicuta plants, which contain cicutoxin, a stimulant of the central nervous system that causes choking and violent convulsions. However, the symptoms of Socrates’ poisoning are inconsistent with this; they simply do not tally with the peaceful death described in Phaedo, and many doubted Plato’s account.

Only in the nineteenth century was the matter cleared up by Scottish pathologist John Hughes Bennett (1812-1875), after a terrible mistake. In 1845 Duncan Gow, a poor tailor living in Edinburgh, was brought a parsley sandwich by his children. Unfortunately the children had picked hemlock instead of parsley, and Gow was poisoned. Gow’s symptoms were a slow, progressive paralysis followed by death. There was no choking and no convulsions, with Gow remaining lucid almost to the end. Bennett performed the post-mortem examination, and had the plant material identified. Gow, and Socrates, had been poisoned with Conium maculatum, the spotted hemlock” (129-30).

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One Response to H is for Hemlock

  1. Pingback: BizarreVictoria: Celebrating 4 Years | BizarreVictoria

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