At some point in that difficult period between 11 and 18 every healthy teenager clashes with their parents. I was obviously an exceptionally healthy adolescent. I didn’t just clash with mine: I wanted to kill them, especially my mother. My hatred of my mother when I was 16 had been building for years. But I was determined to get away with the crime, not least because I thought that would be even better revenge for enduring years of her mental abuse.
Only much later did I understand that she was psychologically ill for all the years I knew her. She was a chronic depressive; paranoid, emotionally manipulative, and could only be pleased – and as a child I desperately sought to please her – by following her demands to the letter.
You simply could not reason with her
So I thought I would help her on her way.
But how to do it?
She hardly ever moved out of the house – or even moved at all, beyond exchanging one armchair for another – so fabricating an accident seemed impossible. Anything violent was not only distasteful to contemplate, but would obviously mean the police would get involved, with fingerprints, DNA testing, investigations…the whole works. Would I crack? Would I be detected? All too messy, too complicated, too risky. If I was going to get away with it, there was only one option for possibly eluding detection – poison. I knew I needed to make it look like a natural death. She was morbidly obese, very high blood pressure, never any exercise – not even walking much – an ex-smoker, a valium pill-popper; surely it must be possible to induce a fatal heart attack?
If only I’d known about antifreeze I might actually be serving time now
Being a bookish person who liked libraries – one piece of grit with my parents, who not only never read, they never possessed more than a handful of books, including an abridged version of The Cruel Sea, which fell apart under my constant re-reading – my natural first step was to do some research about poisons.
It was a more trusting age. The librarian happily stamped The World’s Greatest Poisoners and I walked out into the sunshine, already feeling guilty. I can’t remember whether the book was any good: but it taught me something about poisoning.
I learned that the most effective poison is probably prussic acid, more familiarly known as hydrogen cyanide – swift and sure. The preferred choice for suicide by resistance fighters and top Nazis alike in World War Two, to evade capture or worse. You can probably get cyanide by the bucket these days on the ‘dark web’; no doubt a friendly policeman is at this minute scouring the darkest corners of the web, luring infuriated and unsuspecting teenagers into buying the stuff, then nabbing them as they click ‘buy’. But getting hold of some cyanide, strychnine, arsenic, or any other really effective poison seemed impossible. If only I’d known about antifreeze I might actually be serving time now.
But the book pointed me in promising directions, most obviously towards Conium maculatum, or poison hemlock, which can be found relatively easily, growing wild in hedgerows, ditches, field. Even after the plant has died it remains toxic, though it’s at its best in early Spring, with the new growth. Hemlock is so deadly that people have died after eating game birds that had eaten hemlock seeds. Coniine (the poisonous alkaloid in hemlock) is a volatile, colorless, oily liquid. It’s strongly alkaline, bitter and with an unpleasant, mouse-like smell. “Hemlock typically grows near fences, roadsides, ditches, abandoned construction sites, pastures, crops, and fields, where it can be confused with harmless plants. Accidental poisonings have occurred when people mistook the root for parsnip, leaves for parsley, or seeds for anise. A lethal dose of prepared hemlock is a mere 100 mg, or about 8 fresh leaves of the plant,” I read. And it did away, famously, with Socrates.
Oddly enough, hemlock can also be used to reverse strychnine poisoning.
The problem with hemlock was that I couldn’t be sure of finding it. In pre-Internet days obtaining good images of hemlock – or indeed anything – was not easy. I might happily gather what I imagined to be hemlock, only to discover that I had fed my mother Anthriscus sylvestris (‘cow parsley’, or ‘fool’s parsley’ in the US). Cow Parsley, also known as ‘wild chervil’, is entirely edible. Feeding my mother some vegetation would probably have done her a power of good; but not me.
Then I came across a chapter on nicotine. Nicotine is a lethal poison and (obviously) easily obtained, but it has rarely been used as a weapon. It’s a plant alkaloid and is difficult to detect in a dead body – but not impossible. I read the fascinating tale of the Comte and Countess de Bocarme of Belgium, who in 1850 were both deeply in debt. They decided to murder the Countess’s younger brother, Gustave Fougnies, who was about to inherit the family money and estate.
Comte de Bocarme was an amateur chemist who created perfumes. He knew about plants and their properties, and started to stock up on tobacco leaves in the summer of 1850. On 20 November 1850 they poisoned Fougnies’ food with nicotine during a dinner party, confident it couldn’t be detected. Sure enough, Fougnies dropped dead after the meal. His sister and brother-in-law said that he had died of a stroke, but suspicious servants contacted the police. Les flics found a large stash of tobacco leaves and suspected nicotine poisoning but could not prove it. Then Jean Servais Stas, an expert chemist, invented the Stas-Otto test. The Comte and his wife were subsequently charged with murder. The weasly wife claimed her husband forced her to join in with the murder, and was acquitted; the Comte de Bocarme was executed on 19 July 1851.
The fact is, nicotine is unreliable if you want to do away with a person. You need to get an awful lot of nicotine into someone – probably a gram – to be certain they will die. And it’s not easy to disguise nicotine’s bitterness. If a person did ingest a large amount of nicotine, most of it would probably be vomited up; so that’s two or three grams, just to be sure.
Yet I was still tempted. The idea of boiling up a packet of Players Navy Cut and stirring the results into a cup of strong coffee with plenty of sugar was enticing. Who would bother performing a post-mortem on someone who was bound to have had a heart attack or stroke?
I didn’t do it, of course…eventually we reached an uneasy truce, although I never forgave her
So I returned the book to the library. I stored away the knowledge that if things became completely unbearable then I would buy the 20 cigarettes and get out an old saucepan, and let the coppers catch me if they could.
As for my mother, she suffered the inevitable stroke at 75, and was paralysed all down her left (or was it her right?) side. The last time I saw her was in an NHS hospital. She said she just wanted to die, as usual, and cried, as usual, and I stood at the end of the bed, feeling embarrassed and helpless and guilty: as usual. On the grey plastic tray in front of her was a terrible joke – an unpeeled orange, which she rolled around, uselessly.
Maybe I’m callous, but I have never shed a tear since she died. I shed too many while she was alive.
Tiresias is blind but has the gift of seeing a version of the future, with a somewhat ambidextrous sex life. Tiresias says being blind is no great handicap, as “the TV is full of crap these days, and I prefer listening to CDs of Yo La Tengo and Shostakovich (though not at the same time).”