– Contains antimony, a naturally occurring metal
– ‘Sb’ on the periodic table (atomic no.51)
– Used to induce vomiting
– Symptoms similar to arsenic
– Kills in 30 minutes after ingestion
– Has an acrid metallic taste
– Can be detected during autopsy
– Intentionally used to treat patients suffering from leishmaniasis
– Used by serial killer George Chapman, suspected of being Jack the Ripper, to kill 3 women
Emetic tartar contains antimony, a common metal which is similar to arsenic in the way it behaves. Emetic tartar was commonly used to cause vomiting, however, due to its acrid metallic taste, it wasn’t pleasant to take.
To help administer the emetic, cups were made from pure antimony, filled with wine, and left for a day. The resulting solution of antimony potassium tartrate in the wine was then drunk in small amounts until the wanted emetic effect occurred.
In the late 19th/early 20th centuries emetic tartar was used to treat alcohol intoxication. In 1941, in the US, it was ruled ineffective (in a landmark court case: United States v. 11 1/4 Dozen Packages of Articles Labeled in Part Mrs. Moffat’s Shoo-Fly Powders for Drunkenness).
The toxicity of emetic tartar is such that it causes sweating, vomiting and cardiac arrest just 30 minutes after ingestion. Unlike arsenic, it is easy to detect because it has an acrid metallic taste. It can also be detected during autopsy as it irritates the lining of the alimentary tract.
Emetic tartar is used as part of the treatment for specific variants of leishmaniasis – a disease caused by certain types of sandfly bites.
Reported in the New England Journal of Medicine was a case study of a man whose wife secretly gave him a dose of emetic tartar. The man had been out drinking the night before and began vomiting not long after being given orange juice laced with emetic tartar. He ended up in the intesive care unit with severe chest pains, cardiac abnormalities, renal and hepatic toxicity, and nearly died. The Journal reports that “Two years later, he [the patient] reports complete abstinence from alcohol.”
Of course, it has also been used for more nefarious reasons. Seweryn Kłosowski, better known by his alias, George Chapman, was a Polish-born serial killer who used emetic tartar to kill three of his mistresses. He purchased the poison from the chemist and gradually poisoned the women (at the same time subjecting them to violent abuse), before administering the fatal dose. He was convicted and executed.
In 1876, barrister Charles Bravo fell violently ill after dinner with his new wife and her hired companion. He spent the next three days in agony before dying. His autopsy revealed emetic tartar as the cause. No-one was ever charged with his death and this case has attracted amateur sleuths since, thanks to the rumours of an affair, an abortion, alcoholism and abuse and the suspects – his wife, her one-time lover, the hired companion, or himself (through either suicide or a failed attempt to kill his wife).