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 nicotine.
Although the dangers of smoking and using chewing tobacco are well known in their own right, what is less well-known are the dangers of pure nicotine. As such, Harkup tells us, there have been relatively few murders involving nicotine and most nicotine poisonings are either accidental or self-inflicted:
“People have attempted suicide with nicotine patches, and several of them have required hospital treatment. An additional factor to consider is that the skin acts as a reservoir for nicotine, and it can continue to release it into the bloodstream hours after the patches have been removed. Serious poisoning incidents have occurred from the combined use of tobacco, nicotine gum and nicotine patches” (164).
There is, however, “one famous case of murder by nicotine, dating from 1850. It is important, not only because it is an unusual choice of murder method, but also because it is the first case where scientific evidence was used to prove the presence of a plant-based poison in a corpse.
“In a courtroom in France a few years before the murder in question, a prosecuting lawyer who was unsuccessfully trying to prove a case of murder by morphine declared thus: ‘Henceforth, let us tell would-be poisoners . . . use plant poisons. Fear nothing; your crime will go unpunished. There is no corpus delecti [physical evidence], for it cannot be found.’
“The fact that at that time nicotine was undetectable in a corpse may have been the reason why Count Hippolyte Visart de Bocarme chose it as his poison, but it was probably his arrogance that made him believe he would never be convicted.
“Count Bocarme had an extraordinary life to match his extraordinary name. He was born during a thunderstorm in 1818 on board a ship bound for Java, where his father had been appointed Governor. The Count spent his early years in Java before returning to Europe with his family. He was a badly behaved young man, known to be a swindler and womaniser. When he was 24 his father died, and Hippolyte inherited his father’s title and the family estate, Chateau de Bitremount near Bury, Belgium.
“The inheritance was soon gone and, desperately short of money, the Count married Lydie Fougnies, the daughter of a retired grocer, believing her to be rich. Although she brought with her a small annual income, which more than doubled a few years later when her father died, it was nowhere near enough to support the excessive lifestyle the couple were leading. In order to fund the wild parties, extravagant hunts and their family of four children as well as a large household staff, they started selling off land.
“When this supply of cash ran out they started to look at Lydie’s brother, Gustave Fougnies, in a new light. Gustave was unmarried, and had inherited the bulk of his father’s fortune. He also suffered from poor health. In his will Gustave considerately left everything to his sister upon his death. The Count and his wife assumed that they wouldn’t have long to wait until they inherited the cash, so they continued with their expensive lifestyle, and mortgaged everything they could to fund it.
“When Gustave announced he was getting married, the Count feared that his brother-in-law would change his will in favour of his new wife. He decided action was required before he lost the inheritance he felt he was due. By the beginning of 1850 Count Bocarme had developed an intense interest in chemistry, and started a correspondence with a professor of chemistry, using a false name. With the knowledge he gained from the professor the Count was successfully able to distil a quantity of pure nicotine from a large amount of tobacco leaves that he had purchased during the summer of 1850.
“On 20 November 1850, Gustave accepted an invitation to dinner at Chateau de Bitremont, during which he died. Only three people were present in the room at the time – Gustave, the Count and the Countess. The Count and Countess asserted the cause of death was ‘apoplexy’ (i.e. a haemorrhage) but the presence of bruising and scratches on Gustave’s face indicated otherwise. Something had been forced into Gustave’s mouth, and whatever it was had run down from the corner of his mouth, causing blistering to the skin” (166-67).
The behavior of the Count and Countess immediately after Gustave’s death did nothing to reassure police that he had actually died of apoplexy.
“The Count tipped glass after glass of vinegar into Gustave’s mouth. The body was also washed with vinegar, and Gustave’s clothes were removed and taken to the laundry along with those of the Count and Countess from that evening. The Countess then busied herself with washing the floor in the dining room. Later, the Count applied himself to scraping the wooden floor of the dining room with a knife. The cleansing and tidying up continued until the afternoon of the following day, when the Count and Countess went to bed exhausted. Not surprisingly, the servants were very suspicious, and decided to call the authorities” (168).
NOTHING TO SEE HERE
LET ME GET BACK TO SCRAPING THE FLOOR WITH A KNIFE
THIS IS MY CASUAL HOBBY AFTER DINNER PARTIES
“When a magistrate arrived the Count was reluctant to show him Gustave’s body, and refused to pull the curtains back to allow him to see properly. He tried to shield Gustave’s face with his hand but to no avail. It was apparent from the cuts and bruises that Gustave had not died a natural death.
“Further investigations revealed inflammation in Gustave’s throat and stomach, and it was concluded that he had been forced to drink some kind of corrosive substance, such as sulfuric acid, and that had been what killed him. Tissue samples from Gustave’s body were bottled in alcohol and hastily taken to the laboratory of Jean Stas (1813-1891), with the request that he try to identify what had been used to kill Gustave. Stas was the most famous chemist in Belgium, and world-renowned for his work on atomic weights; he had converted his whole house into a working laboratory for his experiments.
“A quick examination of the inflamed tissues in Gustave’s mouth and throat convinced Stas that sulfuric acid had not been used. The damage from an acid would have been quite different. Like many other chemists at the time Stas made use of his sense of taste and smell in his experiments. He noted a taste of acetic acid in the remains, and the police explained how Bocarme had doused the body in vinegar (the principal component of which is acetic acid), and poured many glasses of the stuff down Gustave’s throat. Acetic acid alone would not kill a man, so Stas suspected the vinegar had been used to disguise the presence of another poison.
“The eminent chemist worked night and day to extract whatever it might have been that killed Gustave. He added more alcohol to a portion of the remains, filtered it, added water and filtered it again. After evaporation off all the alcohol and water Stas was left wit ha sticky residue, to which he added caustic potash (potassium hydroxide, KOH). For the briefest moment, Stas smelled the distinctive aroma of nicotine.
“Stas then spent three months developing a reliable method of extracting plant alkaloids from human tissue. The first step was to digest the tissues to release the alkaloid. This was done using acetic acid and alcohol. Gustave’s murderer had already helped this process along by washing the body with vinegar, and the investigating authorities had helped Stas further by preserving the tissue samples in alcohol. The poison, now released from the tissues, would be dissolved in the alcohol.
“Stas reasoned that compounds within the body might be soluble in water or alcohol or neither, but not both. Nicotine (and other plant alkaloids), on the other hand, was soluble in both water and alcohol. By using a series of extractions with both these liquids, nicotine could be separated from the compounds normally found in the body. The final step was to wash the alcohol layer with portions of ether, and allow the ether to evaporate in a dish. What was left in the dish was a brownish residue with the unmistakable smell of nicotine.
“Next, Stas carried out an extensive series of chemical tests to prove beyond doubt that the substance he had isolated was nicotine. He then contacted the police and suggested they look for evidence that Bocarme had extracted nicotine from tobacco leaves. A thorough search was conducted at Chateau de Bitremont, and the chemical glassware that the Count had used was found hidden behind some wooden panelling, while in the garden they found the bodies of cats and other animals that Bocarme had tested his tobacco extracts on. The gardener also remembered that the Count had purchased a large quantity of tobacco leaves the previous summer; he had told the gardener he was making perfume.
“While the search of the chateau was going on Stas had continued his experiments, and he had extracted enough nicotine from Gustave’s liver and tongue ‘to kill several persons’. He also analysed clothing and wood shavings from the floor at Chateau de Bitremont to determine the presence of nicotine. In another experiment, Stas killed two dogs by administering nicotine by mouth. One dog then had quantities of vinegar poured down its throat, while the other dog received no treatment. Blackish burns appeared in the mouth of the dog that received no treatment but the acetic acid in the vinegar successfully neutralised the corrosive effects of nicotine in the other, and no signs of chemical injury appeared. Clearly the Count had learnt a lot about the chemistry of nicotine, and when Gustave put up a struggle, causing the nicotine to be splashed around, the Count did his best to conceal the evidence using vinegar.
“The case went to trial. The Count and Countess did their best to accuse each other of the crime, but the evidence was damning. Somewhat inexplicably, Countess Lydie Bocarme was found not guilty. Count Bocarme was sentenced to death by guillotine” (168-70).