Veronal Poisoning

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In my third book (I call it Renting Silence, but the publisher has yet to weigh in on that), I use Veronal to, ahem, rid myself of some shady characters. Veronal was an over-the-counter sleeping potion that was occasionally misused for suicide. I needed to know how much it would take to kill someone and how long it would take to work, so I asked my favorite pharmacist, Dr. Mark Pugh, and found this information (red highlights are mine): 

This from JAMA, 1925, an abstract of a longer article.

The use of barbital (veronal), or diethylbarbituric acid, as a hypnotic has constantly increased since its discovery in 1903. It is an effective drug with a considerable margin of safety, may be obtained in most localities without a physician’s prescription, and the possibility of its producing a habit is not generally appreciated. These reasons have been partly responsible for its popularity with both the laity and the profession. Medical literature, however, particularly in Germany and England, contains many reports of severe poisoning and fatal results from its use in excessive doses or in long continued administration. Its action is quite rapid, ordinarily producing sleep in from one-half to one hour, and in moderate doses is seldom followed by distressing after-effects. From 70 to 90 per cent, of the ingested drug is eventually eliminated in the urine; but its excretion is slow and is often extended over a period of from

This from the British Medical Journal of March 28, 1925.

SIR,-As surmised in an annotation in tlle BRITISH

MEDICAL JOURNAL of March 21st (p. 570),  it is likelv  that

death from veronal poisoning  is more common than statistics

indicate. May I suggest  a probable cause for the mortality,

and  a possible remedy? We have four salient facts-at

least, judging from my own experience, they seem facts to

me. (1) The drug is  so potent that, given properly and  in

ordinary insomnia, it is rarely necessary to prescribe more

than 5 grains, and usually  21 grains is sufficient. (2) There

is  no clear evidenoe of habituation; its victims merely

desire drowsiness, not other sensations as well (as in the

case of alcohol, opium, and cocaine); given natural sleep it

is not desired;  no more, and no less, than  procures sleep is

desired;  as time passes there is  no augmented craving, and

the  same dose continues to produce the  same effect. (3) The

action is delayed-four, five, or six hours. (4) Apart from

deliberate suicide, in every  case of death the victim has

tried  to procure immediate sleep.

The  case of  a London clubman is instructive and typical.

During  an attack of insomnia he  took 10 grains at bedtime,

which in his  case was late. He  was wakeful that

night, but  ” deadly drowsy ”  next day,  a circumstance

which he attributed  to lack of sleep. The following niight

he took 15 grains. Again he  was wakeful; but in the after noon

slumbered  so profoundly  at his club that the attendants

had difficulty in rousing him. Manifestly heavy and stupid,

MARCH – 8, I9251 CORRESPONDENCE. TEEBRmsw 631

he went home, anld  subsequently had  difficulty in clearing

himself from  a charge  of drunikenness before  the club committee.

” Veronal is no good;  it has not  the smallest  effect

on me,” he declared. On  a later occasion, when ignorant

of thc remedy applied,  he was given  5 grains in the early

evening. He described himself as, getting  ” a heavenly

niight,”  but as being  too sleepy  in the morning.  Thereupon

he  was given 21 grains, also  in the evening.  Now he had

perfectly natural sleep ”  with no apparent drowsiness till

he  went to bed,  and none after he  rose. He was then  told

the facts  and informied that  the fit  of insomnia  was probably

broken, which proved  to be the case. He still takes veronal,

but rarely, and never in more than 21-grain doses.  I could

quote many similar instances. But doubtless individuals

vary.

It seems evident that,  apart from deliberate suicide,

excessive doses  are taken only because the victim, ignorant

of the delayed action, makes more and more  strenuous

efforts  to procure immediate sleep.  I suggest that  patients

shall always  be informed  of the delay, anid  that a label

shall be affixed  to every packet affirming  the uselessness of

veronal  as a quick remedy  for wakefulness. I  am, etc.,

Soutlisea, March 23rd. G. ARCHDALL REID.

This from the California State Journal of Medicine, March 1914:

A CASE  OF VERONAL POISONING.*

By EDWARD SWIFT, M. D., Los Angeles.

The patient was a woman of 42 years. She had

always  been in good health, but was of a highly

neurotic temperament.  At 11 a. m. I was called  to

sef her, though  I had seen her the night before

when she was apparently  in perfect health  but

somewhat  worried over some domestic troubles.

I received  the telephonie  call from her brother,  who

informed  me that though  his sister had gone to  bed

the previous night  at 10 o’clock, she had as  yet

shown no evidence  of awakening.

On examination  I found the patient  in coma from

which it  was impossible  to awaken her;  no response

from pressure  over supraorbital nerve.  There was

no cyanosis; pulse 60 and of good quality; tempera ture

normal; respirations  22. I immediately washed

out her stomach with  warm water,  after which six

ounces of black coffee and  one egg was administered

through the tube. Normal  salt was given  per

rectum by the drop  method (two quarts at this

time). When I  saw her a few hours later she was

in  the same condition, though  her respirations  were

slightly deeper. About 4  a. m. the following morning

she became cyanotic, her breathing, which had

gradually been getting deeper,  became stertorous,

her pulse weak and irregular, being intermittent at

times. Her temperature still remained normal.

Caffeine sodium benzoate in doses  of gr.  i and camphor

and ether in doses of  m. x were given  for cardiac

stimulation. This treatment only improved the

pulse temporarily. Her respirations gradually be came

more and  more stertorous,  and by  three in the

afternoon  she developed signs of pulmonary congestion.

This gradually increased  until there were

signs of well marked edema of the lungs.

Her cyanosis gradually increased in spite  of oxygen

inhalations and hypodermic injections  of atropine.

Adrenalin  was given without  benefit. At 4-

p. m. her stomach  was washed  out and the return

consisted of brown fluid with  a decided  fecal odor,.

and containing  some particles of  fecal matter.

There seemed to be a loss of  tone of the intestinal

tract, for enemas given were not expelled.

The patient died at 5  p. m. Just  before death hertemperature

gradually increased  to 105°, respirations

developed into the Cheyne-Stokes  type. Her

pulse became weaker and weaker until it  was im–

perceptible at the wrist. The function  of the kid neys

was lessened and  in the last twenty-four hours.

of her life only two ounces of urine  were to be obtained

by catheter. Altogether she received  one

gallon of normal salt by the drop method, but this

seemed to  have no effect  upon the secretion of

urine.  Hot packs and dry  cups over the lungs  w’ereused,

but nothing seemed to be of  any avail.

On investigation  it was found that she had taken

one hundred (100) grains of veronal just prior  to.

retiring for the night.

The following references  may be of interest:

Sterling in the Australian Medical Journal, May-

17, 1913, reports a case in which  one hundred  and

twenty-five (125) grains were taken  with recovery.

Patient was found a few hours after taking.

* Read before the Los Angeles County Medical Society.

January 15, 1914.

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Published in: on November 16, 2013 at 8:45 am  Comments (7)  
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  1. The narrator of the 2011 novel “Gillespie and I”, by Jane Harris, admits to taking veronal – and appears to suffer from its effects, with devastating consequences!

    • Used as directed (as the phrase goes), it merely put you to sleep. In my novel, I use it for more nefarious purposes!

  2. I have had my students read Schnitzler’s Fräulein Else (in translation) and at the end of the story, Else attempts suicide by taking Veronal. Students always wonder if she dies – since it is written in the stream-of-consciousness style, we only read her thoughts as she is drifting into dream. Else earlier is trying to figure out the dosage needed for suicide, and first thought 6 packets (whatever that is) and then decided 10 were necessary – but in the end, she seems to have only used six.
    The logic of the plot seems to suggest that she was successful, but students always wonder…

    • This is PERFECT for my book! Talk about primary research! I need to bump off some bad guys and was guessing about lethal dosages. Thanks so much Raymond.

  3. Marthe Haneau committed suicide with Veronal, while imprisoned. This was 1935. Her life story is very interesting. A French film, starring Romy Schneider and titled “La Banquière”, was released in 1980.

  4. Under “Barbital” (Veronal’s generic English name) in Wikipedia:

    “The therapeutic dose was ten to fifteen grains (0.65-0.97 grams). 3.5 to 4.4 grams is the deadly dose but sleep has also been prolonged up to ten days with recovery.”

    • I’mm goad to know that!! If I kill anyone else with Veronal, I’ll make sure to use the correct dose. Thanks.


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