Chemical Assassinations: A Sordid History

17 Apr

Using chemicals for murder is not a new concept. It’s been around for many centuries. Socrates was killed with hemlock, and arsenic became so popular that it was known as “inheritance powder,” for obvious reasons. Chemicals have also been used in political assassinations.

Recently Kim Yong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was apparently assassinated using Sarin. It seems that a pair of young ladies had the toxin on their hands and made contact with the victim, transferring the toxin, causing his death. The details of exactly how they pulled this off are unclear. One of the big questions is how did they avoid poisoning themselves? The first thought of course is that they wore latex surgical gloves or something similar but that doesn’t appear to be the case. The second thing that came to my mind is that maybe they placed a barrier such as petroleum jelly on their hands before applying the Sarin or VX but this doesn’t appear to be the case either – – and this would be a risky move. Many have speculated that they took the antidote for this poison ahead of time. This makes sense and is definitely possible.

Sarin and VX are organophosphates similar to many insecticides. They are also classified as anti-cholinesterases in that they bind with the enzyme cholinesterase and block its actions. Cholinesterase is essential for nerve transmission throughout the human body. It’s complex biochemistry but in the end this chemical causes widespread derangements in normal bodily functions.

The symptoms that result are numerous and include chest pain, shortness of breath, headache, nasal congestion, constricted pupils, nausea, anxiety, seizures, and ultimately death. The treatment for Sarin exposure is to employ chemicals that counteract or override this derangement. The most common ones are atropine, Pralidoxime, and lastly the sedative and anti-seizure drug diazepam.

It is entirely possible that the young ladies involved in this assassination had pretreated themselves with atropine and possibly Pralidoxime. In fact the US military has such antidotes prepackaged in an autoinjector that is known as Mark I NAAK – –NAAK stands for Nerve Agent Antidote Kit. This is the most likely explanation for how they pulled this off.

Political assassinations using chemicals are not new. In 2006 Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium 210 that had apparently been placed in his iced tea.


Dioxin was the culprit in the damage to Viktor Yushchenko.


Perhaps the most famous chemical assassination took place in 1978 when Georgi Markov was jabbed in the leg with a point of an umbrella. At first it seemed to be an accident, no big deal, a mere pin prick, but Markov’s health quickly declined and he ultimately died. It was later found that a tiny pellet containing ricin had been injected into his leg, supposedly by the KGB.

Markov and Pellet

Deadly chemicals have been around for many millennia and have been used many times to bring about the death of others, political or otherwise.


7 responses to “Chemical Assassinations: A Sordid History


    April 17, 2017 at 6:42 pm

    A fascinating book about this history is The Poison King: the LIfe and Times of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy. Mithradates Eupator (135-63 B.C.) was the most potent foe of the Roman Empire, and, given family history, made a study of poisons, developed a famous “universal” antidote, and creted the strategy of taking small doses over time to ameliorate the effects of a big dose. His use of poisons was wide-ranging. There was a lake in his domain where the ducks fed on a poisonous plant. At a banquet of his foes, he served the duck and, you guessed it . . . Many plants today still carry Mithradates’s name. Eupatorium is the botanical name for a number of common plants, including Joe-pye weed. Said poet A.E. Housman:
    They put arsenic in his meat
    And stared aghast to watch him eat;
    They poured strychnine in his cup
    And shook to see him drink it up:
    They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
    Them it was their poison hurt.
    –I tell the tale that I heard told.
    Mithridates, he died old.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      April 18, 2017 at 7:30 am

      Great stuff. Thanks.



        April 18, 2017 at 4:32 pm

        Perhaps your readers would be interested in the fascinating PBS American Experience documentary “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” which describes why in the 1920’s poisoning (accidental or not) was so much more common than today, and how the rise in forensic science and poison identification aided that decline. A nice science detective story. I reviewed it a couple of years ago:


      • D.P. Lyle, MD

        April 18, 2017 at 4:57 pm

        The book this was based on is fantastic. One of my favorite. Jan Burke and I interviewed Deborah Blum, the author, on Crime and Science Radio. Listen in. It’s excellent.

        Liked by 1 person


        April 18, 2017 at 6:14 pm

        I recall it was a great story! Did you love the Cleopatra painting . . . wow!


  2. Susan Alice Bickford

    April 18, 2017 at 1:33 pm

    Viktor Yuchenko is still alive according to all the sources I can find. The dioxin didn’t kill him at the time (he went on to win the presidency of the Ukraine despite that).


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      April 18, 2017 at 2:15 pm

      True but he was never really the same. But lucky to have survived it—and even luckier they didn’t used ricin.



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