Saturday, February 18, 2012

Extraordinary Popular Delusions

My serious reading is now done on the IPad and my new guideline is to purchase "real books" if they are curious in some way. This book's jacket was well worth the three bucks at the Bottom Shelf.  It was first published in 1841 and reprinted in 1932. Some of the delusions and madnesses the author covers are:
    1. The south sea bubble
    2. Tulipomania
    3. Magnetizers
    4. Influence of politics and religion on the Hair and Beard
    5. The Crusades
    6. Witchmania
    7. The Slow Poisoners
    8. Duels and Ordeals
    9. Relics
It was "The Slow Poisoners" that interested me.

 "The Italians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries poisoned their opponents with as little compunction as an Englishman of the present day brings an action at law against anyone who has done him an injury." 

In the year 1659 it was made know to Pope Alexander VII in Italy that great numbers of young women had avowed in the confessional that they had poisoned their husbands with slow poison. The Catholic clergy were shocked and alarmed at the extraordinary prevalence of the crime. People who would have been deterred from using the pistol or the dagger employed slow poisons without dread. It was noted at the time, that if any couple lived unhappily together, the husband soon took ill and died. Females were particularly prone to committing poisoning and it seems to have been regarded as a perfectly justifiable means of getting rid of an enemy or husband.  Ladies put poison bottles on their dressing-tables openly and used them with little scruples upon others. The idea was to send a cruel husband to "his last long sleep".  Sounds better than murder.

The poison was incorporated in food and drink. Small quantities were administered over a long period of time which gradually wore out the constitution of their victims. Arsenic was mixed into the salt, cantharides (Spanish fly) with the pepper.  Seven different kind of poison were commonly used: aquafortis, arsenic, mercury, powder of diamonds*, lunar-caustic (silver nitrate), great spiders and cantharides.

This poisoning business caught on in France as well; in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century the prisons of France teemed with people accused of this crime. Officials clamped down and two famous Parisian poisoners were discovered and burned alive in 1768  "their hands had been bored through with a red-hot iron and then cut off". Thirty to fifty women were hanged in principal cities; others were tortured on the rack to reveal their sources and confess.

Apparently slow poisoning enjoyed a revival in England around 1850, once again carried out by women and their victims were their husbands and children. The motive was thought to be "burial money" which they would collect from a burial club to which they subscribed, kind of a fore runner of the insurance policy.

Diamond powder administered internally, was a legendary poison. The son of the Turkish Sultan Bajazet (1447-1513) was said to have murdered his father pouring a large quantity of powdered diamond in his father's food.
In l532, Pope Clement VII’s doctors dosed him with fourteen spoonfuls of pulverized gems, including diamond, which resulted in death for the patient.
In the same century, Catherine de Medici was famous for dealing out death by diamond powder, and Benvenuto Cellini, the famous Italian goldsmith, described an attempt on his life by an enemy who ordered diamond powder to be mixed in his salad.
The association of diamonds with poison may have been promoted to discourage the practice of stealing diamonds by swallowing them, particularly during mining.


  1. what a great find. you beat me to it.

  2. I was surprised when I saw it there.
    I'll turn it over to you next time I see you. A lure.