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


Fast Facts:
– From the castor bean, Ricinus communis
– Native to Mediterranean, Eastern Africa and India
– Widely grown as an ornamental plant
– Castor oil produced from seed
– Ricin is a cytotoxin
– The white powder in letters sent to officials in USA
– Used to murder Georgi Markov

Ricin comes from the castor bean (also called the castor oil bean) plant. It’s used around the world as an ornamental plant in gardens. Chewing a few beans can kill you, or so will a few grains of the ricin (derived from the plant). Castor oil is also derived from the bean, however the ricin remains in the solid fibre. All parts of the plant contain ricin, however outside of the bean the concentrations are lower.

The poison needs to be inhaled or ingested (it can be manufactured into a powder or a mist). As a cytotoxin it attacks at a molecular level, causing cell death, resulting in respiratory and organ failure and death. The poison is fast acting, but symptoms may take hours to appear and it can take up to ten days for the victim to die.

Ricin has long been used as a weapon. As early as 1918 the US War Department was considering it for warfare. In the ’40s it was tested as an inhalation agent. The the ’40s the US and in the ’80s Iraq manufactured weapons-grade ricin (purified and inhalable particles) and tested on animals and in the field (in artillery shells).

An FBI released image of a ricin letter addressed to the White House in 2003
Wikimedia Commons

In 2003 two ricin letters (containing it as a white powder) were located at postal facilities in Tennessee and South Carolina – one was addressed to “The White House”. In 2013 an envelope was sent to the office of Mississippi Senator, Roger Wicker.

In 1978 Bulgarian dissident, Georgi Markov, who was exiled in London, was near Waterloo Bridge, waiting for a bus. He felt an impact on the back of his right thigh and turned, but only saw a man bending down to pick up an umbrella. He soon had a high fever and was admitted to hospital where he died three days later. His autopsy revealed a tiny sphere of platinum-iridium alloy, which had a small amount of ricin drilled into it, in his thigh. It’s believed it had been fired from an air gun hidden in the umbrella.


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

  1. I did hear that about the umbrella murder, very nasty!

    There was also a dreadful kid here in Sydney who tried to poison his Mum, ordering castor oil seeds online, with plans to wipe out his family. She survived so he just stabbed them all and hit his sister over the head. The reason for his violence? He had failed uni exams for the umpteenth time and didn’t want them to find out!

    Today’s Greek Myth post – Rhea and Renault


    • Ugh, nasty indeed. What sort of mind thinks that, oh I don’t want them to hear I flunked again so I will just kill them? I think he has bigger things to worry about than flunking!

  2. Giggling Fattie

    April 21, 2021 at 9:59 pm

    Ooooooo umbrella gun! Interesting!

  3. Another one I’ve heard of!

    • I think a lot of people have heard of this one because of the white powder in envelope scares.

  4. In fact there are quite a lot of poison ornamental plants in gardens! This one looks familiar.

    • There are. Ivy is a nasty one for some people (like me) and it is everywhere in gardens where I live (in fact, it constantly grows from the neighbours into our yard – so frustrating).

  5. Possibly to soon be part of chemotherapy. If it can kill cells by inhibiting protein production, it will be tried.

    • That’s how it works. I hadn’t heard of those advances with chemo. I wonder if they hope it will have a generic usage or just for certain cancers?

  6. I had no idea it was related to castor oil. Funny how it can be harmless or helpful in one instance, but deadly in another.

    • We used to give castor oil to one of our dogs (he used to be a bit of a goat and eat anything and then need a hand…). It really is weird how the waste from making the oil is deadly.

  7. I wonder what Senator Wicker had done to upset the letter’s sender?

    Hey, I came across a plant with red berries yesterday, and I actually took a picture thinking I need to show it to you and ask if they’re poisonous!

    • I’m not sure what he’d done – I imagine it would have been in the press at the time (although sometimes it’s as much a perceived action than a real one I think).

      It’s funny how some plants go bright with colour to warn of a threat, but others pretend to be a threat by being bright (like cranberry or raspberry).

  8. Oh this is a very interesting theme. I’ll have to go back and read your others.

    Tim Brannan, The Other Side: 2021: The A to Z of Monsters

  9. I remember hearing about the letters and the umbrella. Fictional chemist Walter White also made ricin in the TV show Breaking Bad 🙂

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