A to Z Challenge: E (poisons & stories of their use)

Emetic tartar

Fast facts:
– 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.

From: Wikipedia

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).



18 comments on “A to Z Challenge: E (poisons & stories of their use)

  1. Giggling Fattie

    April 6, 2021 at 9:19 pm

    Ooooo I was wrong today! Hmmms my guess for F – is fentynol a substance? Or is my just woke up brain creating such a word in my mind?

    • But you had a pretty good guess for today. For some letters there were a few things to choose from. F was a common one in older mystery stories…

  2. This is the first one I haven’t heard of. What a great list you’re developing.

    • This one is definitely less common than the others so far, although I have come across it in a few books before.

  3. I had never heard of this. It sounds like this would kill in a horrific way.

    • I don’t think it would be a pleasant way to die at all. To think they used to deliberately take it!

  4. Hmm, I don’t think I have already heard about this poison. A lot of good information here! (well, not that I want to use it!)
    Quilting Patchwork & Appliqué

    • A rarer poison for sure – probably just as well, although it does seem to cure alcoholism 😉

  5. I’ve never heard of this one. Interesting.

    • I’d done a few common ones up until now so I wanted to keep it interesting. Glad you think so, Liz.

  6. Whew, that wine cup “cure” sounds like it required a little too much trial and error!

    • Yeah, I imagine there were a few errors in there. I wonder how many died because they ended up consuming too much?

  7. I still have about a half a pig of antimonous lead around. Used to weigh secchi discs, back when the environmental business was underpaying me.

    I once saw a couple of recipes for snake oil and they both had emetic acid in them, so it was probably a staple of the 19th century fake medicine ensemble.

    • You’ve seen snake oil recipes? How interesting! I wonder if the emetic acid was there because if it gave such a good reaction as making people throw up they assumed it was a wonderful cure all? I guess we’ll never know.

  8. Sounds like perfectly awful stuff, kind of like syrup of ipecac.

    • I guess it worked in exactly the same way *shudder*. Neither sound like fun even in small doses.

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