Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A Cozy Poison ~ Monkshood

In my last article for Cozy Mystery Magazine, I wrote about Agatha Christie, one of our most beloved cozy mystery authors. For today's article I had planned to write about another classic cozy author, but then I awoke this morning with a different topic on my mind. Poison.

Clearly that isn’t a normal thought to have first thing in the morning, but as a cozy author, I’m always looking for interesting ways to dispatch the victims in my books. So far, I haven’t used poison as a weapon, but at the moment I’m looking for a way to kill a second victim in my current story. I explain all that so you understand why a middle-aged, Christian wife and mother woke up thinking about poison.

I don’t have a medical background, so any knowledge I have is dependent on research. However, Agatha Christie was trained as a pharmacy dispenser, and she had a vast in-depth knowledge of poisons. While considering my own book, I was looking over the uses of poisons in her books and found an interesting one—Monkshood. Even the name of the plant sounds shrouded in mystery. Christie used it in her book 4:50 From Paddington. I probably won’t be using it in mine, but the research was interesting, and I thought I’d share what I learned with our readers.

Monkshood has many varieties, including:  Aconitum napellus (wild monkshood), A. columbianum (western monkshood), or A. vulparia (wolfbane). The active component in Monkshood is aconitine, which can be ingested or absorbed through the open wounds or broken skin. There have been unsubstantiated cases of florists becoming unwell after simply handling the flowers.

Monkshood poisoning is horrific. Symptoms start rapidly and death occurs in ten minutes to a few hours. There is no specific antidote, although stomach pumping, forced oxygen, and heart stimulants can be used, sometimes successfully.

The first signs of aconite poisoning are almost immediate. Numbness of the tongue, throat, and face. Burning and tingling. These symptoms are followed by nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, prickling of skin, dimness of vision, weak pulse, low blood pressure, chest pain, giddiness, sweating, paralysis of the respiratory system, and convulsions.

The aconite creates an anesthesia that gradually spreads over the whole body, creating the feeling of ice in the veins. Although the effect is anesthetic in the body, aconite causes extreme pain associated with paralysis of the facial muscles. Paralysis of the heart muscle causes death. Unfortunately, the victim is conscious to the end of life.

Dr. G.H. Lamson
Plinius, a Roman naturalist, described Monkshood as a “plant arsenic.” It was once used to coat spears prior to hunting. It was supposedly a good way to kill a werewolf—if that sort of thing was needed. And, of course, it’s been used for murder. One well established case of murder with aconitine was in 1881 when Dr. George Henry Lamson used it to poison his brother-in-law. (Read more here.)

Monkshood can be mistaken for lettuce in a salad or radishes, but fortunately, it has such a distinctive and unpleasant taste, that rarely happens. That makes it a little harder to use in a cozy mystery.

Monkshood is a beautiful plant with foliage that’s as pretty as its flowers. It’s a perennial in zones 1 through 8 and blooms in late summer to fall. It dislikes heat, so does best planted in part shade. Yes, this gorgeous plant can be deadly, but so can many of the plants we use in our gardens.

Hmmm. Poisonous Beauty. . .that could be the name of a book, could it not?


  1. I got the shivers just reading about such a horrible way to die! Good job, Candice.

    ~Nancy Jill

  2. The results of monkshood poisoning are really disturbing, aren't they? My daughter is studying to be an herbalist, so plants are often a part of our conversations. I'm amazed at the number of good and bad plants. Some have such healing power and some are so deadly.

  3. It's also called Wolfsbane which I used in A Book to Die For.

    Richard Houston, mystery writer.

  4. Fascinating. I didn't know Agatha Christie was trained as a pharmacy dispenser. Some plants, like people, are so benignly beautiful, one would never imagine them to be so deadly. (I also read the account of Dr. Lamson, who murdered his handicapped brother-in-law).

  5. Good research. I have a beautiful clump of monkshood growing in my shady back yard in Anchorage. I knew it was poison, but not all the symptoms. I plan to use a poison wildflower to kill off a character in my current book. Thanks for sharing.


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