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


Digitalis lanata 1.JPG
From: Wikipedia

Fast facts:
– Latin name is Digitalsi lanata
– Native to the Balkans
– A naturalised, invasive species in the US and Canada
– Contains a powerful cardiac glycoside called digitalin (or digoxin)
– Used in heart medication
– Adverse drug reactions common
– Margin between effectiveness and toxicity narrow
– Famously used in the Foxglove Murders and by Angel of Mercy killer, Charles Cullen

Foxglove (Digitalis lanata) contains digitalin (digoxin) which is a powerful cardiac glycoside historically used by those suffering heart conditions. Due to the small margin between its effectiveness and its toxicity, medical treatment for heart conditions is moving away from digitalin. Even so, more than 3 million prescriptions for it were issued in the US in 2017.

Digoxin 0.25mg Tablet
From: Zahravi

The effect of digitalin slows the heartbeat and slightly increases the contraction power, improving circulation. This has the flow on effect of better kidney function, which lowers the volume of blood and reduces the load on the heart. However, those exact benefits are also what makes digitalin potentially fatal, with toxicity symptoms of gastrointestinal distress, high potassium (kidney failure) and life-threatening heart arrhythmia and cardiac arrest.

The fine line between digitalin as a medicine and toxin has meant it’s been popular for homicidal purposes, as it is harder to detect.

Charles Cullen is an American angel of mercy serial killer who confessed to killing patients over 16 years as a nurse. Initially confessing to 40, it became apparent it was a much higher number, but while he could remember details of their murders, he rarely could remember their names. It’s been estimated by experts he may have been responsible for 400 deaths (which would make him the most prolific serial killer in recorded history). He was sentenced to 17 life sentences.

The Foxglove Murders were a series of murders committed by six young women from a Romany gypsy clan between mid-1980s to mid-1990s. All women married in May-December romances (marrying wealthy men in their 80s, while they were in their 20s). After the weddings, the men were killed with an overdose of digitalis heart medication with the women inheriting. Unfortunately, because of problems with the forensic evidence, the women weren’t charged with murder, but faced charges of conspiracy to murder, theft, embezzlement, fraud and forgery, which could carry life sentences (but the outcome of the trial doesn’t seem to have been reported).



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

  1. Hms no guesses for G, but now I want to know what happened to those ladies who killed their husbands! And maybe this isn’t the place, but why is an old/young marriage called may-december? So strange!

    • I’m hoping maybe someone who reads this post might know what happened at the trial. But I couldn’t find any information, even after a lot of research. (and G is a little sneaky…)

  2. I’ve heard of this, too. I’m keeping this list. I can see using these in upcoming novels!

  3. Foxglove is used as an ornamental here in the states. Because it closely resembles Comfrey, some folk end up making tea out of it, to often fatal results. Be careful out there, fellow naturalists.

    Amazing how learning a particular language, like the environmental business language, tends to make people think similarly. Of course, when you learn such a language you can’t really talk about, unless the other person has also learned that language.

    • I didn’t know it was an ornamental in the states. I figured it was just a weed. Bit of a dangerous one to have in the garden.

      Anyone who thinks like me should be worried, lol 😉

  4. Of course foxglove is also a pretty and popular cottage garden flower, making it one of the poisons I could actually get my hands on easily if my thoughts turned nefarious! (And if you use wolfsbane for W, I’ll have another!)
    Black and White: F for Faerie

    • Getting your hands on some of these poisons can be tricky, because they are so closely managed. It’s the botanicals where murderers need to focus.

  5. I always find it so incredible that with some poisons and toxins, portion can make the difference between using it to heal or harm.

  6. I did not realize that came from foxglove.

    • A lot of people don’t. It’s why when you get pets you need to be so careful of the plants you have in the yard because often you don’t realise how deadly it is.

  7. Great and interesting article! I did indeed find out what happened to these ladies. Read on https://www.sfgate.com/crime/article/Poison-for-Profit-Case-Ends-in-Plea-2-2801566.php

    • Wow, thanks, Jennifer. Great research! It’s sad they got off on a lesser plea, but at least they had some punishment.

  8. As an attentive “ER” watcher, I know about digoxin, but I never thought about where it might come from, especially not from a pretty flower.
    Sneaky gold digging ladies, eh?


    • It’s easy to forget that most of these poisons probably come from plants. There’s a plant that is common in Australian backyards that if you eat the beans you will get a terrible case of diarrhea (but it doesn’t kill).

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