…because damn do we like to put some dangerous stuff into our bodies and environments.
Herman tackles a few different aspects of poisoning through the centuries here, with a focus on European royals. She starts with intentional poisonings — apparently people have been poisoning each other since time began. The ancients preferred using deadly plants (belladonna, foxglove, hemlock) while medieval and Victorian courts tended more towards heavy metals (arsenic, antimony, even gold). Poisonings were so rampant that possible targets relied on all sorts of methods to ensure their food, drink, and even table linens were safe. From professional tasters (who would even lick the king’s napkin) to objects like gemstones and unicorn (narwhal) horns, Herman explains all the ways people tried to detect and prevent poisoning — and how all those ways were basically useless.
Then she launches into an equally fascinating topic — how people intentionally poisoned themselves in SO MANY WAYS. Arsenic in the wallpaper and drapes to create the best shade of green. Lead in EVERYTHING — cosmetics, eating utensils, food and drink. Medicines, meant to treat or prevent disease, often create many more terrible effects. It took a LONG time to get doctors to stop prescribing lead, mercury, arsenic, etc to treat medical conditions. Herman goes into all the gory details.
The final section has to do with specific cases in history — notable figures suspected of having been poisoned. She breaks these down individually — how the person was, why their contemporaries suspected poison, and then modern investigations into each case. This is the only part that dragged a little for me — mostly because there were just so many examples. No one can say Herman didn’t do her research.
If you’re interested in history, medicine, health, etc — you’ll like this book (you should read A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang, too). It was fascinating and gross, and that’s my favorite combination.
P.S. Not once during this review did I manage to spell the word poison correctly on the first try. Not even just now.