Veronal Poisoning


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,


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


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:


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.

Published in: on November 16, 2013 at 8:45 am  Comments (8)  

Mickey Finns

prohibitionbarA few weeks ago, I wrote about my discovery of Veronal, an over-the-counter sleeping medicine popular in the Twenties. In #3 of my Roaring Twenties mystery series, which I am writing now, I use a very large dose of Veronal (many packets) to knock out some bad guys. I wanted one of the characters to call it a Mickey Finn, so I had to make sure I knew exactly what a Mickey Finn was and whether the term was used in the Twenties. What I found was very interesting, so I thought I’d share.

il_570xN.454371526_lqhcA Mickey Finn, or a “Mickey” for short, is a drink laced with knock-out drug, usually chloral hydrate, which is what was in Veronal. The practice may have gotten its name from a Chicago bartender who would knock out his customers and rob them. That could be legend; what isn’t legend is the 1918 arrest of many Chicago waiters for taking revenge on poor-tipping customers by putting a poison in their food or beverage. (Remember that the next time you’re at a restaurant!) The Oxford English Dictionary (the gold standard of word origins) dates the first written use of the term to 1915. That was good enough for me–I have one of the deputies say, “Damn. Nine packets of Veronal? That’s a helluva Mickey Finn.” 

Published in: on June 29, 2013 at 8:25 am  Leave a Comment  
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Roaring Twenties Drugs and Poisons

hommedia.ashxI‘ve come across another great drug that I can use in my stories. Thanks to my official poison advisor, Dr. Mark Pugh (a pharmacist), I’ve learned about the properties of Veronal. This was a popular sleeping powder in the 1920s, but like all sleep medicine, it could be dangerous. Many people were poisoned with it accidentally or committed suicide with it or were murdered. Great drug for a mystery writer, huh??

The normal dose was between 5 and 10 grains. My main character, Jessie, is small and female, so she takes the single dose of 5 grains to help her sleep on a long, cross-country train ride. A lethal dose has been reported to be around 50 grains. Veronal came in powdered form in a folded paper called a powder paper. The paper would be unfolded and the powder dropped into a beverage and drunk. It was also made in cachets which are like small ravioli. The powder would be measured out and placed on a wafer made of a flour/water type dough or rice paper. Another wafer was placed on top and the edges sealed with water and pressure. The cachet was placed on the tongue and chased with a beverage or dissolved into a beverage and drunk.

For my story, RENTING SILENCE, I am using Veronal in powder papers. The powder would dissolve more quickly than a cachet when placed surreptitiously into a drink. A good knock-out dose would be around 15-20 grains (3 or 4 powder papers) depending on the size of the person. This dose would not be fatal, but it would put someone to sleep in 30 minutes, and they would remain asleep for 6-8 hours. 

I have Jessie buying Veronal in papers at the drug store for her own use, as she boards the train. The trip between the west coast and Chicago lasted 3 nights, and one paper of 5 grains helps her sleep. Later, when she tangles with some Bad Guys, she thinks to slip her Veronal into their glasses to knock them out. I am half finished with this book, so I haven’t reached the Bad Guy scene yet, but at least I know how Jessie will knock them out!

Published in: on April 20, 2013 at 7:54 am  Comments (3)  

Government-Poisoned Booze

Who knew? I certainly didn’t realize that it was official government policy during the Roaring Twenties to poison alcohol so as to deter illegal drinking.


Of course I knew that thousands of people died or were blinded by poisoned alcohol–that’s fairly common knowledge. It was, I thought, nearly all due to illegally made “bathtub gin” and liquor made in makeshift stills, where people would incorporate all kinds of poisonous ingredients to give their brew extra kick. Or sometimes they didn’t realize how tainted their product was. (Examples included kerosene, carbolic acid, mercury, and carbolic acid; sometimes the alcohol was actually industrial alcohol.)  This is all true, but it was only a part of the story.

5271316According to Deborah Blum, “Frustrated that people continued to consume so much alcohol even after it was banned, federal officials had decided to try a different kind of enforcement. They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States, products regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits. The idea was to scare people into giving up illicit drinking. Instead, by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people.”

Shocked? So was I.

I’ll be incorporating some of this in my third novel in the Roaring Twenties series. My bootlegger character schemes to sidestep government prohibition by selling legal alcohol for medicinal purposes and then abusing the loophole. I’ll work in something about this purposeful poisoning.

For more of Blum’s findings, see

Another good link is:

Published in: on December 29, 2012 at 4:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

Antique Poison for Sale!

An alert reader pointed out this item for sale on eBay–an unopened bottle of mercury bichloride in tablet form. (Can you read the label, I hope?) This was the poison that killed Olive Thomas (Jack Pickford’s wife) in Paris, although her case involved a liquid version. It was used all too often in the Roaring Twenties for suicides. Note that it says For External Use Only. How do you use a pill for external use only? Dissolve in water. This drug was commonly used as treatment for syphilis. 

I wanted to buy the bottle for my collection of Twenties memorabilia that I’m planning to take with me when I do book signings for THE IMPERSONATOR, but I didn’t handle the eBay bidding correctly and missed my chance. Someone else got it for $10! I’d have paid more than that. Oh well, maybe another bottle will surface before I need it. The mystery doesn’t come out until fall of next year, 2013, so I have plenty of time to add to my collection. 

Published in: on August 25, 2012 at 8:11 am  Comments (2)  
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Prohibition: Disaster or Success?

Prohibition is widely thought to have been a disaster. It was supposed to make the population healthier, but it did the opposite.

1. Arrests for drunken driving increased.

2. Cirrhosis of the liver cases increased.

3. Poisonings, death, and paralysis from bad alcohol skyrocketed.

But  contrary to what is widely believed, Prohibition did lower the amount of drinking, at first by a whopping 70%. But as the months went by and illegal booze became ever more available, alcohol consumption increased. Nonetheless, at the end of Prohibition in 1933, it was still 30% lower than at the start in 1920. And it wasn’t until after World War II that consumption equaled the 1920 amount. So perhaps Prohibition succeeded, a little, after all. But the cost was huge. 

Published in: on June 23, 2012 at 7:23 pm  Comments (1)  

The Lure of Absinthe

This green alcoholic beverage has had a colorful career since its debut in the late 18th century. Flavored with wormwood, fennel, anise, and other herbs, the beverage has a bitter, licorice flavor and a high alcoholic content. Drinking it was supposed to bring on hallucinations. 


Absinthe reached the pinnacle of its popularity in the Roaring Twenties in Paris, where the bohemian population of writers and artists made it their trademark beverage in spite of it being illegal. Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, and Ernest Hemingway are associated with absinthe. 

There were several ways to consume the drink, but the most famous one involves placing a sugar lump on a slotted spoon held over a glass of absinthe, then pouring ice water over the sugar cube. The beverage turns milky. 

Many countries banned the production of absinthe in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries because it was believed to be more dangerous than other alcoholic beverages. After this was disproved–it has no hallucinogenic effects after all–it gradually became legal. In 2007, it became legal in the United States, so you can buy it if you like. Personally, I can’t stand licorice-flavored drinks like pastis, ouzo, pernod, or anisette, so I’ll pass. 

Poison Booze

The trouble with Prohibition is that it made liquor illegal . . . which made it impossible to regulate. Historians estimate that by the time Prohibition was rescinded in 1933, about 98% of all liquor contained poisons of some sort. Scary, huh?

Part of the problem was greed, part was amateur manufacturing. Adding embalming fluid gave bathtub gin an extra kick, so that was not uncommon. Some say this was the introduction of fruity mixed drinks, which were invented by bartenders to cover up the bad taste of the illegal hooch. Adulterated booze was known as money rum, sometimes bathtub gin. It was seldom real rum or gin, just moonshine, and it was often deadly.

Seems everyone knew someone who had died or gone blind after drinking bad booze. It probably happened far more often than anyone today appreciates–without any reliable statistics (it was illegal, after all) we can’t really know the extent of the devastation. Estimates by historians today suggest that during the first year of Prohibition, one thousand people died from adulterated liquor. By the fifth year, the annual toll had risen to four thousand. Why didn’t this cause more of a scandal? Remember, communications in that era were weak. People didn’t know much about what was going on in other states or even other parts of their own state. It’s a very sad side of the madcap “Roaring Twenties.” 

Published in: on September 11, 2011 at 6:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Jack Pickford Scandals #2

     In 1916, Mary Pickford’s little brother Jack married Olive Thomas, a beautiful Ziegfield girl who had transitioned successfully from stage to silent film. Here is Olive in her famous Vargas calendar pose.  And here’s how a contemporary described them: “Two innocent-looking children, they were the gayest, wildest brats who ever stirred the stardust on Broadway,” wrote Frances Marion, a prominent Hollywood scriptwriter who knew them well. “Both were talented, but they were much more interested in playing the roulette of life than in concentrating on their careers.” Both were also alcoholics, cocaine addicts, promiscuous, and infected with syphilis.

     Though publicists sketched lives of blissful love and devotion, Olive and Jack had way too many issues for a successful marriage. In Paris in 1920 for what was billed as a second honeymoon, the couple stayed at the Ritz and frequented the popular nightspots. Back at the hotel after a wild night that was rumored to have included plenty of cocaine and alcohol (remember—no Prohibition in France), Olive drank a large amount of bichloride of mercury, something often prescribed for syphilis and meant to be applied topically. She died a gruesome death a couple days later in a French hospital.

     Contradicting stories abound. A police investigation and autopsy ruled the death accidental and Jack and the body were quickly shipped back to America. But some thought Olive had committed suicide, others thought Jack had poisoned her, still others believed she had intended to poison Jack but made a mistake.  

     Here’s the New York Times headlines from that day.


 Police Seek Evidence on Rumors of Drug and Champagne Orgies


Former American Officer, Sentenced for Selling Cocaine, One of Those Questioned


Police Have Not Yet Obtained His Story of How the Actress Drank Poison

     Read the whole article at

     Jack married two more times, each time to a pretty Ziegfield showgirl, and each time, the marriage ended in divorce or separation with rumors of infidelity, physical abuse, and substance abuse. Like Olive, Jack died young and in a hospital, a victim of his lifestyle and various addictions.

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
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
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!

Published in: on August 15, 2009 at 11:01 pm  Comments (37)  
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