The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison

The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison

by John Emsley

With The Elements of Murder, John Emsley answers these questions and offers a fascinating account of five of the most toxic elements--arsenic, antimony, lead, mercury, and thallium--describing their lethal chemical properties and highlighting their use in some of the most famous murder cases in history.

Mary Ann Cotton, who used arsenic to murder her mother, three husbands, a lover, eight of her own children, and seven step children; Michael Swango, who may have killed as many as 60 of his patients and several of his colleagues during the 20 years he practiced as a doctor and paramedic; and even Saddam Hussein, who used thallium sulfate to poison his political rivals.

Emsley also shows which toxic elements may have been behind the madness of King George III, the delusions of Isaac Newton, and the strange death of King Charles II.

In addition, the book examines many modern day environmental catastrophes, including accidental mass poisonings from lead and arsenic, and the Minamata Bay disaster in Japan.

Written by a leading science writer, famous for his knowledge of the elements and their curious and colorful histories, The Elements of Murder offers an enticing combination of true crime tales and curious science that adds up to an addictive read.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Science
  • Rating: 3.81
  • Pages: 418
  • Publish Date: September 1st 2006 by Oxford University Press, USA
  • Isbn10: 0192806009
  • Isbn13: 9780192806000

What People Think about "The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison"

Each 'poison' gets its own section that really stands alone - Emsley never tries to tie any of them together other than the introductory chapter basically telling you that they're all bad and behind countless mysterious deaths over time - both high profile and banal. The elements Emsley describes all kill by slow accumulation that doctors almost always misdiagnosed. A weakness of the book was the Euro-centrism of the true crime stories.

It's a history of the heavy metals arsenic, antimony, thallium, lead, and mercury; the uses human societies have put them to; and the (frequently horrifying) consequences thereof. And then it is also a history of the use of these heavy metals for murder.

Living because while it explains the chemistry behind many elements known now to be poisonous, it is told not from a dry technical perspective but within the context of people that were affected by living with medical treatments that were actually poisonous dosing and other situations where they came in contact with these various elements. It is a book with real history in it, because as the author explains the chemical properties this is done in conjunction with many different "sudden deaths" in the past that can now probably be diagnosed as due to poison.

This is not your run of the mill true crime book, its a good deal more with scientific analysis of the poisonous elements and interesting chapters on other uses. One such example is Fowlers Solution a medicinal tonic and treat-all which was arsenic-based; overdoses were a reality and adding a little extra to the mix was not unheard of. See links for Marsh Test Mercury based medicine came to be used in the treatment of syphilis, but mercury and mercury vapour are toxic. This unusual element was at one time thought to be First Matter, from which all other metals derived, and alchemists used it (and were poisoned by it) in the search for transmutation. The wiki page for mercury poisoning states: Common symptoms of mercury poisoning include peripheral neuropathy, presenting as paresthesia or itching, burning, pain, or even a sensation that resembles small insects crawling on or under the skin (formication); skin discoloration (pink cheeks, fingertips and toes); swelling; and desquamation (shedding or peeling of skin). Im familiar with the case from previous books but this account was detailed and complimented the scientific accounts of this metallic poison. The great Agatha Christie used thallium as the murder element in her story The Pale Horse where she describes the effects of this poison, which was little known at the time.

The breadth of the book was perfect for the sort of scope the author wanted to achieve, trying to reach the academically competent, especially those with a knowledge of chemistry.

Perhaps focusing on one or two famous cases for each element would have been a better approach.

At times, Newton withdrew into virtual isolation and in 1693, when he was 50-years-old, his behaviour became so abnormal that his sanity was even questioned. In fact, only five (all of them metals) get serious page time: Mercury, Lead, Antimony, Arsenic, and Thallium. 2. Arsenic, Thallium, and Antimony are covered in other books (such as the fabulous A is for Arsenic), which made much of the information in this books seem like old news. is why I still enjoyed the book: The introduction about the history of alchemy and that first chapter on mercury were fabulous! However, in parts, it seemed like the author wanted to write a book about mercury only, and then felt compelled to add more chapters.