Inheritance Powder

One of the murder “weapons” I use in my mysteries is arsenic. This popular poison has been used for centuries (remember the Borgias?) and before the development of forensic science, it was hard, or impossible, to detect, especially when it was administered gradually. Death from arsenic poisoning could look like flu, cholera, or heart disease. One thing helped detectives: arsenic slows down natural decomposition of the corpse so digging up a body and finding it well preserved was a good indication of arsenic poisoning. I use that one in my as yet unpublished mysteries, THE SHILL, when an over-eager nephew bumps off his rich uncle. No wonder the substance was nicknamed inheritance powder!

Lab Bottle & Watchglass of Powder.
As2O3 , Arsenic (III) Oxide, Reagent & Powder. The compound is a highly toxic, known carcinogen which, as the drug Trisenox, was FDA approved in 2000 for treatment of acute promyelocytic leukemia.

White arsenic was the preferred form; it was difficult to taste when mixed with food or beverages, particularly alcoholic ones, which plays into my plots in the Roaring Twenties when cocktails came of age.

But not all arsenic deaths were murder–some were suicide and others were purely accidental. Women used it cosmetically–advertisements assured people that the stuff was perfectly safe. Can’t imagine why anyone believed that, since every household would have had arsenic around for mice/rat control.  

Published in: on July 25, 2019 at 11:54 am  Leave a Comment  

Blind Drunk

Where does the phrase “blind drunk” come from?


Wood alcohol (methanol) attacks the optic nerve and destroys retinal cells, rendering the drinker blind. During Prohibition, all alcohol was illegal as a beverage, so it was impossible to distinguish between legitimate alcohol and the poisoned version. People who drank in speakeasies–especially the cheap ones in poor parts of the city, in places like New York, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, etc.–might be buying wood alcohol. Who could tell the difference? No one, at least not until the side effects set in.

Here’s what wikipedia says: Methanol ingested in large quantities is metabolized first to formaldehyde and then to formic acid or formate salts, which are poisonous to the central nervous system and may cause blindness, coma, and death. It is used to denature alcohol which is intended for industrial uses. This addition of methanol exempts industrial ethanol from liquor excise taxation.

Did it always kill? No. It depended on how much you drank and the individual’s health. But it made drinkers sick and could kill. I use it in my books when I need something poisonous.

Published in: on July 24, 2016 at 6:50 pm  Comments (2)  
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Poisons Galore!!

SONY DSCsmilingskullI’ve had the remarkable good luck to find some authentic bottles of Twenties poisons–one that I use in book #2–mercury bichloride. This is so cool! I bring them with me to book signings and talks as a show-and-tell kind of prop. Now that I own some mercury bichloride, my next goal is to find some Veronal, the sleeping powder I use in book #3 that, like most sleeping medicine, becomes fatal if taken to excess. It was made by Bayer, introduced in 1904, and used during the first half of the twentieth century. Where do I find these treasures? Mostly on eBay. hommedia.ashx

Published in: on July 2, 2016 at 8:19 am  Leave a Comment  

The sad life of famous Twenties model Audrey Munson


Audrey Munson was fifteen when she was began her modeling career as a nude model for sculptors and painters. From 1906 until 1921, she was the preferred model for so many artists she became famous. She starred in several silent films and has the dubious distinction of being the first woman to appeal fully nude in an American film. 220px-Audrey_Munson1(Inspiration, 1915–a lost silent film; Purity 1916 is her only film that still exists) Both films were semi-autobiographical, about a model who poses for artists. 

Star,_for_the_%22Colonnade_of_Stars,%22_Court_of_the_Universe_building,_1915_Panama_Pacific_International_Exposition,_San_FranciscoA scandal involving a lover and murder brought her negative publicity and ruined her film and modeling career, and she tried to kill herself with mercury bichloride, a poison used by other famous people in the film world. Her attempt failed, but she declined into mental illness. In 1931, a judge sentenced her to a psychiatric facility where she remained until 1996–she died at the St. Lawrence State Hospital for the Insane at the age of 104.

$(KGrHqZ,!owF!F0PPH!IBQI+UncFng~~60_3Mourning_VictoryI became interested in this sad story because it was yet another example of a famous silent movie actor using mercury bichloride to kill themselves. I use that poison in several of my books. Sunset-FC-October-1915




Published in: on April 24, 2016 at 6:41 pm  Comments (7)  
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Arsenic: the Easiest Poison

arsenic-powderArsenic seems to have been the easiest poison for a would-be murderer to use–at least until the scientific work of Alexander Gettler and Charles Norris in the 1920s in New York that took the anonymity out of poisoning. I am planning to use arsenic to kill someone in an upcoming mystery, and so I need to learn all about it. Interesting facts: arsenic was nicknamed “inheritance powder” for its common use as a way to speed up one’s inheritance. That’s the story I’m going to tell, in a nutshell. 

White arsenic seems to be the easiest poison to administer. Stirred into soup, coffee, or an alcoholic beverage, it is almost undetectable. (I plan to use coffee.) People who survived arsenic poisoning almost never reported tasting anything odd about their food or beverages. One scientist who studied arsenic use concluded that, of 820 arsenic deaths between 1752 and 1889, half were homicides. Others were suicides and accidents. In France in the 1800s, arsenic poisonings accounted for an estimated 40% of all murders. So it was common and undetectable . . . meaning the poisoner could almost certainly avoid discovery. 

article-0-19F9352A000005DC-522_634x403Symptoms include headaches, confusion, diarrhea, and drowsiness. But so many illnesses share those symptoms! Vomiting, cramping, stomach pain, and convulsions come next, but those symptoms could also be diagnosed as food poisoning, gastritis, or gastroenteritis. Arsenic wouldn’t normally spring to mind unless you knew your nephew was eager to inherit your fortune.  And then, as in the famous case of George Wythe (Thomas Jefferson’s and John Marshall’s law professor), who was poisoned by his nephew for the inheritance, it is too late. 

Published in: on January 17, 2016 at 5:30 pm  Comments (5)  
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Putting Those Grade-School Show & Tell Skills to Good Use!

In first grade I found my calling: Show and Tell. It was my best subject. And while my career goals morphed over the years from spy to teacher to curator to historian to writer, my fondness for Show and Tell never wavered. Today, whenever I give talks at libraries or museums, visit with book clubs, or attend author conferences, I bring along Stuff to augment my presentations. 

Stuff helps me connect to readers. It draws them to my table at a book fair or brings them up to the podium for a closer look after my lecture. Stuff sparks conversations and leads to unexpected interactions. Stuff helps paint a picture of my subject or characters or era.

Because I’m a historian and my mysteries are set in the past, most of my Stuff is historical. To illustrate my Roaring Twenties series, I’ve collected inexpensive items that relate to both period and plot: a dozen vaudeville programs, two 1925 beaded flapper dresses, several silent movie magazines and advertisements, a blown-glass fisherman’s float, a Prohibition-era prescription for “medicinal” alcohol, and most recently, an antique bottle of mercury bichloride (empty!), the poison that figures in my second book. Every time I prepare for a presentation, I choose two or three items that seem most relevant to the occasion. $(KGrHqZ,!owF!F0PPH!IBQI+UncFng~~60_3

Last weekend, I drove 500 miles to attend two events in Pennsylvania: a book club and a mystery author conference. The book club ladies loved my two beaded flapper gowns and vaudeville programs; mystery lovers at the conference got a kick out of the 1924 bottle of poison and the prescription for alcohol (which happened to be issued by a Pennsylvania physician in 1929, so it was particularly relevant). Scan 152760004 copy

If you’re an author, consider whether Stuff could help you reach more readers. Are there items that relate to your plot or time period that you can carry along to your next bookstore signing? Admittedly, this is easier for authors of historicals but even if your tale is set in the present or the future, consider what sort of Stuff you might bring to illustrate it. A paperweight? A wine glass? A piece of jewelry? A reproduction of the Rembrandt that the thieves stole? What about a model of a particular car, boat, or airplane that figures importantly in your story? Anything that would launch a conversation will help you connect. Many authors set a bowl of candy on the table to encourage people to pause . . . is there a particular consumable—candy, gum, teabags—that relates to one of your characters? I usually bring individually wrapped Charleston Chews because the name evokes the iconic dance fad and they were introduced in 1922. 

250px-CharlestonChewIt won’t work for every mystery author, but if Stuff works for you, it can set you apart from the others at the book fair and give you a smooth way to interact with potential readers.

Published in: on October 3, 2015 at 2:53 pm  Comments (2)  

What’s “Smoke”?

Did "smoke" look like this?

Did “smoke” look like this?

“Smoke” was slang for a deadly drink served in the poorer parts of town, like the Bowery in New York, and in speakeasies that catered to the lowest segment of the population. It consisted largely of methyl alcohol (fuel alcohol0, which is poison, and water. It was cloudy, hence the name. Deaths from drinking methyl alcohol were common; in some places like New York, averaging one a day. If you’re wondering why on earth anyone would drink this stuff, so was I.

Evidently, drinking smoke didn’t always kill you. It might just make you really sick. Some people drank it without knowing what they were drinking. Others were too drunk to know or care. The most desperate must have figured they’d just drink it and hope it didn’t kill them this time. 

I’ve used smoke in the book I’m writing now. (I haven’t thought of a title yet so I just call it #4.) I’ve killed off someone, a minor character is in the story because her death sets off a chain reaction that bears directly on the plot. Her body is found in the dockside area of a port city where sleazy speakeasies abound, and the police can’t identify her at first. The medical examiner–and there were medical examiners in some cities in 1925, although it was a fairly new concept–finds that methyl alcohol killed her, and it is assumed she was a prostitute working the bars along the docks. Not so. A few days later she is identified, and it comes out that she was murdered, forced to drink the stuff in order to make her death look like accidental poisoning from drinking smoke. 


Published in: on February 22, 2014 at 9:15 am  Comments (2)  

Instant Death in the Twenties

imagesWhat brought near instant death in the Roaring Twenties? Methyl alcohol, better known as wood alcohol. Not a new invention, it had been used back in the days of ancient Egypt to embalm the deceased–the wealthy deceased, that is. Anyone can make it with wood and a heat source, and the result is clear as water. But with the advent of Prohibition and the difficulty in getting hold of decent spirits, wood alcohol began to make its way into the lower-class speakeasies. 

images-1According to Deborah Blum in Poisoner’s Handbook, two tablespoons could kill a child, a quarter cup could kill a man, or at the very least, blind him. So why, or why, would anyone drink this? Either because they didn’t know it was wood alcohol (it took a couple of hours to act) or because they were so drunk already, they didn’t care. The gallows humor of the day was that, after a night in a New York speakeasy, you called your friends to see if they were still alive. 

Wood alcohol became more of a problem later in the Twenties, especially in New York, the “wettest” city in America. And what was the second wettest city? My guess would have been Detroit or maybe Chicago. Nope. It’s that bastion of political hypocrisy, Washington D.C. 

I’m half-way through writing the 4th in the Roaring Twenties series–no title yet, although I’m keeping track of ideas–and have just killed off a minor character with wood alcohol. In this case, it’s murder. She was forced to drink it. In real life, while murder and suicide were not unusual, accidental death by wood alcohol was far more likely. 

Published in: on February 15, 2014 at 8:17 am  Comments (3)  
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Rough on Rats

Rough on Rats #2

My favorite Twenties poison! I use Rough on Rats in SILENT MURDERS (due out in September), but not to kill anyone. No . . . another poison kills my victims. Still, I have a special place in my heart for Rough on Rats ever since I found some of the advertisements for the product. Aren’t they great? I bought them on eBay, and I bring them to book club meetings whenever I’m invited to visit. 

I’ve been reading the POISONER’S HANDBOOK by Deborah Blum and was delighted to see her discuss Rough on Rats. I learned a good deal about the stuff: it was a grayish powder made of 10 % soot and 90 % arsenic. Arsenic was a much-used ingredient in dyes to color wallpaper, fabric, boxes, greeting cards, candles, toys, paints, Venetian blinds, carpets soap, and jewelry. In other words, it was everywhere. Even wallpaper untainted by arsenic (it made a lovely green) could be poisonous because paperhangers mixed arsenic in their paste in the belief that it would keep rats from gnawing into the walls. 

Rough on Rats

The author makes the point that it was hard to pin arsenic murder on a particular person because anyone could buy arsenic easily (in drugstores, grocery stores, or garden supply stores) and virtually everyone had it at home, whether they knew it or not, because it was an ingredient in medicines and creams prescribed by doctors  as well as used for weed killers, bug killers, and rat killers. So arsenic was a foolproof way to kill someone–until the advent of forensic science in the Twenties.

Published in: on February 2, 2014 at 5:25 pm  Comments (5)  

The Poisoner’s Handbook: a PBS Special

poisoners_film_landing_datedIf you didn’t catch The Poisoner’s Handbook on your local PBS channel last week, consider hunting for it in On Demand or Netflix. It was an excellent, two-hour documentary that told the story of forensic medicine in the 1920s, complete with actors playing the parts of the main characters. images

“In the early 20th century, the average American medicine cabinet was a would-be poisoner’s treasure chest, with radioactive radium, thallium, and morphine in everyday products. The pace of industrial innovation increased, but the scientific knowledge to detect and prevent crimes committed with these materials lagged behind until 1918. New York City’s first scientifically trained medical examiner, Charles Norris, and his chief toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, turned forensic chemistry into a formidable science and set the standards for the rest of the country.”07HANDBOOK2-master675

Published in: on January 11, 2014 at 8:30 am  Leave a Comment