Category Archives: Cause & Manner of Death

Beware: Health Food Can Kill You

aconitum_napellus (1)

Aconite, also known as monkshood or wolfsbane, is beautiful and looks harmless. Not true. It’s a deadly poison. When ingested, it has potentially deadly cardiotoxic and neurotoxic effects. Its most often kills through the generation of deadly changes in the cardiac rhythm. Victims suffer shortness of breath, palpitations, chest pain, numbness and tingling of the face and other body parts, nausea, and ultimately paralysis, cardiac arrest, and sudden death. Pleasant, huh?

Aconite is easily available, not only at your local nursery but also at various health food stores where it comes in many varieties, including herbal teas. Several recent poisonings related to an aconite-containing herbal tea sold by a San Francisco company show how dangerous this chemical can be. Of course, other health food stores sell aconite and you can easily buy it on the Internet.

I always tell my patients that the second most dangerous place on earth, after a aircraft carrier deck during flight operations, is a health food store. Though most of the products they sell are mostly harmless, and mostly not helpful, some are downright deadly. Many years ago there was a Ma Huang crisis in that several people died from taking supplements laced with this material. Ma Huang is basically an amphetamine and, like aconite can cause deadly cardiac arrhythmias as well as a marked elevation of blood pressure and strokes.

The point is, none of these are regulated. The FDA, for all its warts, does indeed protect consumers. It’s very difficult to create, test, and bring a new drug to market. It cost billions and takes many years, sometimes more than a decade. The FDA requires strict proof that the medicine actually does what it’s designed to do and that its side effects and toxic potential are acceptable and well understood. This is not the case in products you buy at your local health food store. Many are mixed up by a guy named Joe in his garage in a cat box. Trust me, Joe is not a chemist, or a pharmacist, and he possesses no medical training. He might not even have a GED. But he can mix up some cool stuff and put it in fancy packaging and make it look real. And safe. And it might be. But of course, it might not.

The take-home message here is that do not accept the packaging, the product description, or its prime location at eye level on the display rack. Do your research. Find out what’s really inside and what its toxic potential is. And do not buy anything from a guy named Joe.


DNA Solves the 80-Year-Old Death of Belgium’s King Albert I



Belgium’s King Albert I was found dead on February 17, 1934. The experienced rock climber was found at the base of a large formation with a gash to his head. Speculation that he was murdered ran rampant. During World War I, he had resisted Germany and attempted to block German troops from entering his country. They eventually did, but he fought them every step of the way. Was Germany somehow complicit in his untimely death?

Many felt that he had been killed elsewhere and his body dumped where it was found. The evidence suggested otherwise. His glasses were found nearly 40 feet above him – – he was very far-sighted – – and his climbing rope was still attached to his body. But, the most important evidence that suggested a fall rather than a murder was blood on the leaves near the King. If this blood was indeed Albert’s, then he must have shed it at that location, meaning he was at least briefly alive when he reached the ground at the base of the rock formation. If he had been killed elsewhere and dumped, there would have been no blood around the body. Dead folks don’t bleed. The leaves were apparently collected and preserved.

Flash forward to 2014. The blood of the leaves was tested. Not only was it human blood and but also it was matched against two relatives of the King. These results suggested that the blood was indeed the King’s blood and it had likely been shed from a head injury he received from his fall. This 80-year-old “murder” case seems to be a tragic accident.


Peanut Butter Can Kill You


Peanut butter can be deadly. If you’re allergic to peanuts.

Our immune system protects us from all sorts of bad things – – bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Our bodies recognize these foreign invaders and the immune system immediately goes to work manufacturing antibodies against the intruders. These antibody signal for help and pretty soon white blood cells show up along with their buddies known as mast cells. These cells release an array of chemicals that help damage the invaders, which are then consumed by the white blood cells. And life goes on.

But sometimes the immune system overreacts. It produces a massive amount of chemicals that can cause a drop in blood pressure, a tightening of the bronchial tubes, a leaking of fluids within the tissues and, most deadly, the lungs. We call this overwhelming reaction anaphylaxis. It is typically immediate and severe.

Such a reaction happened to Miriam Ducre-Lemay. She was allergic to peanuts. Her boyfriend had apparently eaten a peanut butter sandwich and had given her a good night kiss. Then everything went off the rails. She suffered an acute anaphylactic reaction and by the time paramedics arrived it was too late. This illustrates that it only takes a very small amount of an antigen (in this case the peanut oils in the peanut butter) to initiate a severe anaphylactic reaction.


In the 1800s, Wagon Train Travel Could Be Deadly

Wagon Train

Many brave souls headed West during the 1800’s, often by wagon train. They fought weather, disease, starvation, hostile folks of all types, and potentially deadly injuries. Medicine was crude, basically non-existent, and many died along the way.

Check out my latest Q&A on the Suspense Magazine Blog:

Could Death From Bleeding Be Delayed For Several Days After a Frontier Wagon Wheel Accident?

Read the answer and listen to the expanded audio information here:

This was one of the many clever questions included in my first Q&A book—MURDER & MAYHEM

M&M 200X300


The Queen of Poisons and The Marsh Test


Arsenic has, over the centuries, garnered many colorful names. It was called the “queen of poisons” because it was so readily available, easy to use, highly effective, and untraceable. Thus, it was used by many famous historical poisoners. Some called it the “king of poisons” but since over the years,  female killers have favored poisons, “queen” seems more apt. It was also called “inheritance powder,” for obvious reasons—-once the estate holder is dead and gone, the heirs can party down.

Arsenic is the nearly perfect poison. This was definitely true centuries ago when there was no way to trace it. But what about today, with modern toxicological techniques? Unfortunately, arsenic is still a pretty good choice for the poisoner. It’s not often looked for in unexplained deaths and its effects mimic many medical conditions, particularly neurological and gastrointestinal.

Back a couple of centuries ago, because of its common use, a method for finding arsenic in the dead or ill became an imperative. There were many steps along this path. This search for arsenic was essentially the beginning of forensic toxicology.


Arsenic had been a common poison for centuries, but there was no way to prove that arsenic was the culprit in a suspicious death. Scientists had to isolate and then identify arsenic trioxide—the most common toxic form of arsenic— in the human body before arsenic poisoning became a provable cause of death. The steps that led to a reliable test for arsenic are indicative of how many toxicological procedures developed.

1775: Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742–1786) showed that chlorine water would convert arsenic into arsenic acid. He then added metallic zinc and heated the mixture to release arsine gas. When this gas contacted a cold vessel, arsenic would collect on the vessel’s surface.

1787: Johann Metzger (1739–1805) showed that if arsenic were heated with char- coal, a shiny, black “arsenic mirror” would form on the charcoal’s surface.

1806: Valentine Rose discovered that arsenic could be uncovered in the human body. If the stomach contents of victims of arsenic poisoning are treated with potassium carbonate, calcium oxide, and nitric acid, arsenic trioxide results. This could then be tested and confirmed by Metzger’s test.

1813: French chemist Mathieu Joseph Bonaventure Orfila (1787–1853) devel- oped a method for isolating arsenic from dog tissues. He also published the first toxicological text, Traité des poisons (Treatise on Poison), which helped establish toxicology as a true science.

1821: Sevillas used similar techniques to find arsenic in the stomach and urine of individuals who had been poisoned. This is marked as the beginning of the field of forensic toxicology.

1836: Dr. Alfred Swaine Taylor (1806–1880) developed the first test for arsenic in human tissue. He taught chemistry at Grey’s Medical School in England and is credited with establishing the field of forensic toxicology as a medical specialty.

1836: James Marsh (1794–1846) developed an easier and more sensitive version of Metzger’s original test, in which the “arsenic mirror” was collected on a plate of glass or porcelain. The Marsh test became the standard, and its principles were the basis of the more modern method known as the Reinsch test, which we will look at later in this chapter.

As you can see, each step in developing a useful testing procedure for arsenic stands on what discoveries came before. That’s the way science works. Step by step, investigators use what others have discovered to discover even more.

I ran across an excellent article on the Marsh Test and it’s definitely worth a read. I can imagine when this was performed in the courtroom it did elicit a few gasps.

A few useful links:


Howdunnit Forensics Cover


The World’s First Homicide?

No one knows for sure when the world’s first homicide took place – – other than Cain and Abel, that is. But it just might have happened 43,000 years ago in northern Spain. A skull retrieved from the Sima de los Huesos (Pit of Bones) in the Atapuerca Mountains showed two circular puncture wounds in the forehead of the skull. The skull had been found shattered into 52 fragments but miraculously was nearly complete. Once it had been reassembled the two wounds were easily identified. Researchers believe they were made by the same instrument and that they were not consistent with a simple fall into the cave shaft.

When you examine the skull it definitely looks as though some pointed instrument, most likely a stone tool or weapon, had delivered the blows. Of course, the assailant could claim self-defense, but this looks like a homicide.


Chemical Assassinations: A Sordid History

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.

%d bloggers like this: