Popular Poisons Part II: Mercury Bichloride

In the days before antibiotics, physicians used mercury bichloride (also called mercury chloride without the “bi”) to treat a variety of diseases, notably syphillis. Highly toxic, odorless, and colorless, it was meant to be applied topically to the sores that developed as this disease progressed. It was also used in very diluted form (1 part to 1000) for tonsillitis.
Several deaths during the Roaring Twenties brought this poison to the attention of the entire country. The first was the death in Paris of silent film star Olive Thomas, wife of leading man Jack Pickford whose sister, Mary Pickford, was the foremost actress of her day. Whether Olive’s death was accidental, as Jack always claimed, suicide, or murder was never determined. The French were quick to ship the body, Jack, and the scandal home to America where the controversy raged for months. No definitive cause of death was ever established. To read more, check wikipedia or http://www.silentsaregolden.com/articles/lpolivethomasdeath.html
Another highly publicized death occurred in 1925 when a young woman named Madge Oberholtzer was kidnapped, tortured, and raped by the head of Indiana’s powerful Ku Klux Klan. She managed to get hold of some mercury bichloride pills and swallowed them. She died a few days later after having had the presence of mind to accuse the Grand Dragon in signed testimony. Her written words were instrumental in convicting the man of murder, and the resulting publicity destroyed the KKK in Indiana. Details at wikipedia or http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=8390
Mercury bichloride was available at drug stores, sometimes by prescription only, sometimes not. Depending upon the state, a person who purchased poison of any sort was supposed to sign a register so there would be a record of the transaction. (We still have to do that for some drugs today.)

Imercury bichloride use mercury bichloride and the poison registries in my second novel (yet to be published). If anyone has access to drug store “poison books” from the 1920s, I’d sure like to see a genuine example!

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Published in: on August 15, 2009 at 11:01 pm  Comments (32)  
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  1. Funny you should mention senior theses… I came across your blog while doing research for my dissertation. I’m researching and writing (in French) about the historic uses of arsenic poison with a focus on the court of Louis XIV at Versailles, where there was a fantastic poisoning/witchcraft scandal involving Louis’ official mistress Madame de Montespan, who seems to have been dabbling in black magic, poison, and love potions, even going so far as to slip these toxic (urine, frog spawn, menstrual blood, even low doses of poison) love potions into the food and drink of the king and causing him to become quite ill. Poison and witchcraft were popular hobbies for all class of Parisian women during that period and many people, mostly women, were jailed or executed (burned) after the authorities caught on. This particular scandal was never allowed to be investigated to its very end because it touched people too close to the king’s inner circle. Louis’ mistress was never formally charged, merely replaced. There’s a quick overview of the scandal on Wikipedia, if you’re interested. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affair_of_the_Poisons

    Your articles talk about arsenic and about the use of mercury bichloride as a treatment for syphilis. In my research I came across a different “treatment” for syphilis. A bitter wife might volunteer to help her husband treat himself, and then use a bar of soap laced with arsenic to wash his sores. The arsenic would enter his body through the sores, but in low doses so that his death would appear prolonged and natural. In the meantime, the only evidence of the poison was that the sores worsened, which the husband either ascribed to a worsening of the disease, or which he was too embarrassed to report to his doctor.

    At the time poisons were conveniently available from the local abortionist, who was likely a “witch,” dabbling in black magic, potions, love phials, and poisons. It was a natural extension of her abortionist duties, since the small fetuses were often used in powerful charms and because she was already using toxic substances to provide the abortions.

    Maybe sometime you could use arsenic soap in one of your books! When are they going to be published? Do they have titles yet?

  2. Hmmmmm . . . arsenic soap? An interesting idea for a murder plot. I doubt that was sold in stores, so I guess you had to make your own. Mixing a little Rough on Rats with soap might work. I suppose the victim would need to have cuts or sores for absorbtion, or is arsenic absorbed through healthy skin? (I guess I’ll ask my pharmacist friend.)

  3. Actually when diluted it was used as a cleaning solution (ala bathroom cleaner). Topically it was used to treat syphilis. Ollie and Jack had been drinking all night and probably had coke as well. 3am high off your butt and a label in French in the cabinet is going to help. While neither Jack or Olive were saints I do believe the essence of the story: her death was accidental.

  4. Seems mercury bichloride had a number of innocent uses, including developing photographs. I think most people subscribe to your theory–that in their drunken and drugged state, Olive and Jack were capable of just about anything–and that the poisoning was accidental.

  5. Well think about it: if Jack wanted to do Ollie in there were so many other easier ways: too much cocaine, push her off a tall building (a common suicide tactic of the time), etc.

    Poisoning was a way to off yourself but most women chose something less painful. When Ollie swallowed the bichloride her vocal chords burned clean through and so did her I want to say retinas (she couldnt see anyways).

    To make it worse she lingered on for a few days. So…that wasnt a pleasant way to go. Another reason I feel the way I do: had Jack done something to her or had she killed herself the investigators could have gotten this info from her…she was still coherent and they did interview her (somehow…obviously she couldnt talk). Whatever Olive communicated to them seemed good enough…and that was the accidental poisoning.

    Also think: back then most meds came in powder form. Take a little and mix with water/booze and voila. In such a state the wrong bottle with a powder isnt an outrageous scenario.

    • You seem very knowledgeable, Miss Pickford. (And I checked out your blog). I’m happy to meet you. I need knowledgeable friends as I write this mystery series and I was hopping my blog would be one way to find them. I’m wondering how your Valentino novel is progressing? In my second novel, I use Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks as side characters, so I’ve read quite a few biographies. My agent thinks it’s saleable. She’s submitted the book to publishers and we hope to hear something positive within 6-8 weeks. Although in this economic climate, I’d be stunned if it actually sells for real money! And why is your site called FORGET the talkies?? Surely you want to remember them. Mary

      • Thanks! I had a very discouraging trial trying to get a biography on Mabel Normand published (a friend is helping me resubmit it this week but trust me looong horrible story) so I wasnt aiming for a publisher.

        Publishers are weird with that sort of thing…I just wrote about two silent film novels and Sunnyside is another one that just came out. But then I know people who wrote wonderfully silent tinged novels and were told they would never sell so who knows?

        Conversations with Rodolfo will come out on my own publisher for The Rudolph Valentino Society. I figure I’d probably make just as much selling a few $20 copies as I would getting $2 off a publisher. Mary and Doug are in mine too…I was extremely faithful to everything that REALLY happened in Rudy’s life; but the part after 1926 is all imagination of course.

        Bah talkies are boring! My site is all silent film thus why to ‘forget’ the talkies.

      • I know about Mabel. She was an interesting person; I’ll bet your book was fun to write. Are you sure it isn’t publishable? Have you tried to interest an agent? And when are you publishing your Valentino novel? (I use him briefly in one of my stories too.) I didn’t know there was a R. Valentino Society–cool. I’ve really enjoyed the biographies of these silent film people. The times were so very different. . . . and so much the same, it’s shocking. Hard to believe the Roaring Twenties were almost a hundred years ago!

  6. Well I’m gonna resubmit ‘this week’ (probably next at this point LOL!) We’ll see…I think I hit the wrong publishers. If you ever do a biography avoid McFarland like the plague!

    The Valentino novel I think will be out early next year, definitely before the festival (http://therudolphvalentinofilmfestival.com) It actually originated FOR the festival as we’re going to publish a silent film story anthology and I thought it’d be a neat submission; but its too big now. Frankly I wish I could make it a movie because I hate ‘novel-ing’ up a story. The way I first wrote it he was being interviewed and the story comes out that way. But I have to kind of put SOME explanation into it ya know?

    The Society launched in June to help with the festival and other Rudy stuff Im up to. He is my favorite and well…with the death festival still raging he really needed something new. I have a post somewhere on FTT about good silent fil biographies…I think its linked in the novel post.

    I think the roaring 20s were very similar to now. Things never change: they photoshopped, they had plastic surgery, the killed themselves (in way grander fashion then people do now btw), they had the most spectacular love affairs, and they even had rehab (though it wasnt as fun as it is now; read Ala Rubens biography).

    If you pick up a movie magazine from the 20s replace the names and it could be a modern one. Same stupid stories, new names. Hell they even had bump watches to a small degree!

    • That is so cool! I am actually thinking of buying it as a prop, to use when I do book signings (next year, when my novel is published).

  7. Regarding Olive Thomas, I have read countless articles regarding her death including interviews conducted with those present with her in the American Hospital in Paris. It is a consensus that Olive swallowed the Bichloride of Mercury in liquid form, not tablets. Even if her husband was using it for Syphilis it was used in liquid form to treat the painful sores and having tablets served no purpose for that.

    Corrosive Sublimate was kept in virtually all medicine cabinets of the day and was used for a whole host of things but mainly as a disinfectant. it was only later that it was replaced for that purpose by Mercurochrome which was also a product of Mercury.

    Olive had a prescription for a sleeping draught or liquid and this was assumed to be what she thought she was drinking,

  8. I found an entire bottle, never opened with all the contents, in perfect form. Still has the cotton wad, never opened. Email me if interested. Bottle still has he pills. They look like Viagra!

  9. RE: Mixing poison into soap – would’ve been pretty easy in most rural communities during in the early 20th century because you made your own soap. The general feeling was that “store soaps” were too expensive so most farm wives made their own. I don’t know the exact formula (I was told it was just “bacon grease or lard and lye”) but while my grandmother was still living, we always used to have a bar of her hand made soap somewhere around the house. It was a light mustard color.. not a bright yellow like Fleischman’s mustard, more of the yellow-tan like spiced mustard but a few shades lighter. We usually used it only on laundry and only when necessary. My mom used to swear grandmom’s soap did a better job at getting out stains than the commercial soaps. We still had one tiny sliver of a bar left in the 1980’s. I’ve a vague memory that you didn’t want to work with it too long as it tended leave your skin dried out. (That was probably the lye’s doing.) Also, if I remember correctly, it never made bubbly suds when you used it. And it left the water an opaque white, as if you dumped milk into it. Wish I could recall for you how it felt when using it. I think it basically felt the same as any soap: slippery.

  10. Are you familiar with the infamous poison cocktail murder of Dr Preston Kennedy by Dr Sarah Ruth Dean in Greenwood Mississippi in 1933. She was convicted of murder on the basis of a death bed deposition accusing her of serving him a drink laced with bichloride of mercury.

    • No! How delightful to hear about it!! It must have taken a while to kill him, though. It took several days for Olive Pickford to die in Paris and she drank a ton of the stuff.

      • It took one week for him to die. There is a chapter in a book titled The Gentle Art of Murder 1934 that details the trial as well as several old detective magazines of that era. Dr Dean was found guilty but was pardoned by the governor when all her appeals were exhausted. The town of Greenwood Mississipi has a web site that has considerable info also. Dr. Kennedy did not admit to the encounter with his former lover, Dr Dean, till 2 days before he died. This is when his brothers obtained the “deathbed deposition” that led to her conviction. The town was evenly divided on her guilt or innocence. Many felt that the Kennedy family had her railroaded to punish her for the affair that broke up his marriage and the doubly indemnity on his life insurance.

  11. There is an author who has done alot of research on this case and has a facebook posting. Her name is Melanie Topps Cleveland. You might find this more informative

    • googled the name and came up empty. Can you give me more information?

  12. It’s Melanie Topp Cleveland. I just googled it and it comes up. She has been researching this for several years and I believe is getting ready to publish a book.

    • Yes, I see it now. Can’t imagine why nothing turned up the first time . . . SOunds like a good book–I’ll have to get a copy. Thanks for the tip.

  13. see also Baltimore Sun, 21 & 27 Nov 1917. mother Roberta Skinner poisoned her 2 sons & self with bichloride mercury. I have copies of articles.

  14. Mercury bichloride was widely used in the early nineteen hundreds. Nurses used it to disinfect their hands after taking care of their patients. Home health nurses carried it in their nursing bags as part of their supplies.

    • A disinfectant? I didn’t know that.

  15. there is an article out today on a famous model Audrey something in NYC in early 1900s. She was on this stuff and committed to an asylum where she never got out. WOnder if it caused brain damage? I know lead poisoning causes schizophrenia so ?

  16. I stumbled across a story from 1921 about a mother and daughter in New York who committed suicide by drinking mercury bichloride tablets dissolved in water. They were in agony for two days before they called for help and it took them another week to die in the hospital. Definitely doesn’t sound like a pleasant way to go. Their names were Frances and Henrietta Weiss.

  17. […] here to learn more about bichloride of […]

  18. Found this while searching for information on the cause of death listed for a young woman who had lived with some family members as a boarder as a child. She died in 1920 of “Accidental bichloride of mercury poisoning”.

    • Wow. How sad. But ‘accidental?” I can’t imagine that anyone could accidentally drink such foul-tasting stuff.

  19. My grandmother died of bichloride of mercury poisoning in 1950 in FL – supposedly suicide, but I have my doubts. She was 29 years old. The story passed down was that she overdosed on sleeping pills, so I was shocked to see bichloride of mercury on the death certificate. I heard she was in the hospital for several days before she died. I’m researching to try to find more information on this, to see if this was a likely method for suicide. I saw statistics on European suicides and murders by various metals, and suicide by mercury was extremely low.

    • Oh dear, I’m so sorry to hear about your grandmother. That’s very sad. The story does fit the usual facts about mercury bichloride–it took several days to kill. I don’t know about the 1950s, but in the 1920s, mercury bicolored was well-known as a suicide drug.


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