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Murder by Poisoning And Lethal Poisons

The act of killing someone through the use of toxic substances is a despicable offense that has a lengthy and ominous past, spanning across different eras and societies. This means of murder involves deliberately administering poisonous substances to induce the death of another person. Poisoning can be carried out for various reasons, such as personal gain, retribution, or getting rid of political adversaries. Throughout history, poison has been utilized as a clandestine and inconspicuous means of homicide, often leaving minimal evidence and presenting significant difficulties for investigators and forensic specialists.

The utilization of poison for malicious purposes can be traced back to ancient times, where it was often linked to power struggles, political scheming, and plots of assassination. In ancient Rome, poisonings were not uncommon among the upper class who aimed to eliminate their rivals or gain political advantages. One of the most well-known cases of poisoning in antiquity is the death of Cleopatra, the final ruler of Egypt, who is believed to have been killed by an asp snake, although some historians speculate that poison may have been involved.

Throughout the medieval era, poison continued to be a preferred method of murder, particularly among royal courts and noble families involved in dynastic conflicts. Poisoning became a weapon for ambitious individuals seeking to manipulate the line of succession or eliminate inconvenient heirs to the throne. The notorious case of Agrippina the Younger, who allegedly poisoned her husband, Emperor Claudius, to secure the throne for her son, Nero, showcases the ruthlessness and plotting associated with poison in ancient Rome.

During the Renaissance, the practice of poisoning became increasingly sophisticated as alchemists and apothecaries developed potent and subtle toxins. This method of assassination was favoured by European monarchs and aristocrats, with poisoners often working covertly as hired agents or clandestine operatives. One infamous figure from this time was Giulia Tofana, an Italian woman known as 'The Poison Lady' for allegedly supplying poison to women seeking to escape abusive husbands.

In the 19th century, the emergence of modern chemistry brought significant advancements in toxicology and forensic science, making it easier to detect and identify a wider range of poisons. However, poison remained a popular choice for murderers due to its undetectable nature and the difficulty of tracing toxic substances in the body. One notable case from this era is that of Dr Thomas Neill Cream, a Scottish-born doctor and serial killer known as the 'Lambeth Poisoner' for his involvement in several poisonings in London during the 1890s.

In the 20th century, poison continued to be used as a means of murder, although with increased scrutiny from law enforcement and advancements in forensic science making it more challenging for perpetrators to escape justice. Notable examples of poisoning during this time include the assassination of Grigori Rasputin, the Russian mystic and advisor to the royal family, who was allegedly poisoned with cyanide-laced cakes and wine before being shot and drowned in 1916.

In recent years, prominent instances of poisoning have garnered global attention and sparked diplomatic tension between countries.

Alexander Litvinenko's case serves as a striking example of the extreme measures individuals are willing to take in order to suppress dissent. Litvinenko, a former Russian FSB officer turned vocal critic of the Kremlin, met a gruesome end in 2006 when he was poisoned with polonium-210, a highly radioactive substance, in London. The subsequent international outcry and strained relations between Russia and the UK highlighted the gravity of the situation. In a later British inquiry, it was determined that Litvinenko's assassination was most likely approved by the Russian Government, casting suspicion on the Kremlin's involvement.

The poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and double agent for the UK's intelligence services, and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, UK in 2018 had a similar impact. The use of the nerve agent Novichok in the attack caused a major diplomatic crisis between Russia and Western countries, resulting in the expulsion of Russian diplomats by many nations in solidarity with the UK. Despite the UK government's accusations against Russian intelligence agencies, Russia vehemently denied any involvement, further exacerbating tensions between the two sides.

More recently, the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, a prominent Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist, with Novichok in Siberia in 2020 reignited concerns about state-sanctioned assassinations and human rights abuses in Russia. Navalny's accusation that Russian President ordered the poisoning, coupled with the conclusion of German authorities that a military-grade nerve agent was used, highlighted the severity of the situation.

The incident further strained Russia's already fragile relations with Western countries and sparked renewed calls for sanctions against Russian officials involved in human rights violations. He ultimately died on 16 February 2023 in a Russian penal colony where he was being held since 2021 on allegedly politically motivated charges.

According to Olga Mikhailova, who served as Navalny's legal counsel for 16 years, in an interview with Russian publication Meduza, she revealed that during her visit to him in April 2023, he expressed his concerns by saying, 'I don't want to sound paranoid, but I believe they are attempting to poison me.'

Together, these instances reveal a concerning trend of purported state-sanctioned killings or attempted killings of individuals who speak out against the administration. The utilization of advanced chemical substances in these assaults highlights the merciless methods employed by the people in power to suppress dissenting opinions and harass those who criticize them. Furthermore, these incidents have exacerbated the already strained relations between Russia and Western nations, intensifying diplomatic strain and demands for responsibility on an international level.

Throughout the ages, a multitude of lethal substances have been employed for malicious purposes, encompassing both natural poisons and man-made chemicals.
  • Arsenic: A toxic metalloid with a notorious reputation as a poison. Due to its wide availability and ease of use, arsenic was a favoured choice among murderers in previous centuries. Its effects include abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhoea, and ultimately death. The slow and gradual administration of small doses was a common tactic to avoid detection.
  • Cyanide: A fast-acting poison that disrupts the body's ability to use oxygen, leading to swift demise. It can be found in several forms, including hydrogen cyanide gas and potassium cyanide powder. Cyanide poisoning triggers symptoms such as rapid breathing, confusion, seizures, and cardiac arrest. Its extreme potency and lethality have made it a popular choice in numerous high-profile assassinations and murder plots throughout history.
  • Belladonna: Also known as deadly nightshade, this highly toxic plant contains tropane alkaloids like atropine and scopolamine. Even small amounts of belladonna can have serious consequences, including dilated pupils, blurred vision, dry mouth, hallucinations, and death. Belladonna has been used as a poison in various historical contexts, such as ancient Rome, where it was reportedly employed by assassins to eliminate political rivals.
  • Hemlock: A poisonous plant containing the toxin coniine, which affects the nervous system and can lead to paralysis and death. In ancient Greece, hemlock was infamously used as a means of execution, notably in the case of philosopher Socrates. Hemlock poisoning causes symptoms such as muscle weakness, respiratory failure, and death by asphyxiation.
  • Digitalis: Digitalis, also known as foxglove, is a plant containing cardiac glycosides which can lead to irregular heart rhythms and cardiac arrest when consumed in large quantities. Symptoms of digitalis poisoning include nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, and confusion. Despite its toxic nature, digitalis has been traditionally used in medicine for its beneficial effects on heart conditions.
  • Ricin: Ricin, a potent protein derived from the seeds of the castor oil plant, is one of the most lethal natural poisons. It has the potential to cause severe damage to organs and even death. Ricin poisoning can occur through ingestion, inhalation, or injection, and there is no known antidote. Due to its potency and ease of production, ricin has been used in assassinations and terrorist attacks.
These are just a few examples of the numerous poisons that have been utilized throughout history for malicious purposes. While advancements in forensic science have made it more challenging for perpetrators to escape detection, poison remains a popular choice for those seeking to eliminate their enemies with stealth and subtlety.

In summation, poisoning as a means of murder is a sinister and nefarious act with a long history. From ancient times to the present, poison has been employed as a covert and lethal weapon by both individuals and governments. Despite advancements in forensic technology, making it more challenging for perpetrators to escape detection, poison remains a preferred method of homicide for those seeking to eliminate their enemies with stealth and subtlety.

Written By: Md.Imran Wahab
, IPS, IGP, Provisioning, West Bengal
Email: [email protected], Ph no: 9836576565

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