– Nightshade is also known as belladonna
– Scientific name is Atropa belladona
– A popular cosmetic in the middle ages
– Ingesting a single leaf or 10 berries is lethal
– Evidence used to kill Roman emperor Claudius
– Used by “Agatha Christie” killer
Deadly nightshade is also known as Belladonna (Atropa belladona), derived from the Italian for “beautiful lady” (bella donna). It had a popular use as a cosmetic in the middle ages as the juice of the berries were applied to the cheeks as a blush and a diluted solution was used as an eye drop to dilate the pupils (to make a woman more appealing to her suitor).
Nightshade is highly toxic with only the ingestion of one leaf or 10 berries being enough to kill. There is a history of the poison being used to kill (although there have been accidental deaths as well). The juice from the berries was used on poison arrow heads. Stories have it that 11th century Scottish king, Mac Bethad mac Findláich, known in English as Macbeth, used nightshade to poison Danes invading Scotland in 1040. Evidence points to Roman emperor Claudius being murdered with nightshade by assassin Locusta for Agrippina the Younger.
A more contemporary murder occurred on 24th December, 1977 and was taken straight from the pages of an Agatha Christie story. Literally. An elderly couple sat down to their Christmas Eve dinner and opened a bottle of wine their nephew had given them. They normally abstained, but had saved the bottle for a special occasion. Minutes later the couple were unconscious. A neighbour happened upon them soon after and while too late for the gentleman, his wife was rushed to hospital (although 11 days later was still in a coma). Doctors believed it was food poisoning.
It would have been dismissed as a tragic accident, except for the fact their son-in-law and a local carpenter visited teh couple’s home a few days later. For some reason they drank the still open bottle of wine and both collapsed on the floor unconscious. Luckily for the men, they both recovered, but it meant the police were now involved. Analysis of the wine revealed the lethal poison, atropine.
Obviously attention turned to the nephew who’d given them the wine. Police searched his apartment, finding bottles of medicine and poison, magazine and newspaper articles on poisons and several Agatha Christie novels, one of which, the short story The Thumb Mark of St Peter, had several key passages underlined.
In the Agatha Christie story, an elderly man saves his atropine eye drops and puts them in his son’s glass of water. Atropine is a toxin found in nightshade.
While Agatha Christie was correct in that you can get atropine from eye drops (they cause dilation of the pupils), she was incorrect when she wrote the poison couldn’t be detected in an autopsy.
The nephew confessed, but not to the murder of his uncle. As the nephew knew his aunt and uncle didn’t drink, he expected them to offer the wine to a friend of his… the intended victim.