– Commonly known as curare
– Made from a mix of plants
– Causes paralysis
– Poison used on arrows in South America
– Used in the Dr X killings
Curare is not a specific poison, it is actually the common name given to a mixture of various plant extracts. It is made by boiling the bark of one various plant alkaloid sources (and there are dozens) until it is a paste (allowing it to be used on arrow and dart heads). Traditionally used for hunting and for therapeutic purposes, it is also a symbol of wealth in indigenous tribes of South America.
Curare is a neuromuscular blocker, causing paralysis of every voluntarily controlled muscle in the body which includes the diaphragm, meaning victims asphyxiate (although it doesn’t affect the heart muscle). Spontaneous breathing commences after the affects of curare wear off, which can take 30 minutes and up to 8 hours. This means artificial respiration will keep a person alive. Therapeutic uses include treatment for tetanus and strychnine poisoning and for surgical procedures (due to its use as a paralysing agent).
During WWII Bishop Theodore Romzha wasn’t liked by communist officials due to his refusal to follow their orders. He was attacked and taken to hospital where he was recovering until the nuns caring for him were dismissed and a new nurse brought in. Later that night the bishop was found dead. The nurse had poisoned him with an injection of curare on the orders of Nikita Khrushchev, a high ranking communist official.
Dr Mario Jascalevich became the Chief Surgeon at Riverdell Hospital in New Jersey in 1965 when patients began to die unexpectedly. Doctors at the hospital reviewed the cases of the many cases (it is suspected there were more than 25 patients killed) and noted several similarities: all patients had an IV, deaths were sudden and unexpected, involved respiratory arrest, many occurred around 8am and Dr Jascalevich had been near all patients.
One of the doctors opened Jascalevich’s locker and found several vials of curare, including some syringes with curare in them. Jascalevich said he’d been using the curare as an experiment in his work on liver biopsies with dogs. Because a later investigation found dog hair and blood in his locker there was no way to prove anything so the case was dropped. In 1967 Jascalevich left the hospital and the mortality rate decreased.
The New York Times received a tip in 1975 that led a reported to start investigating the case. On the basis of the expose published by the report the Deputy Medical Examiner for New York reviewed the case notes, concluding that the majority of cases could not be explained. As technology had improved in the time that had passed, it was now possible to detect tiny amounts of curare in the victims and exhumations were conducted. Curare was found in several of the bodies and Jascalevich charged with murder.
The prosecution and defence battled it out on the basis of forensics, each with their own expert. The main opint of difference was whether chemicals, such as embalming fluid, could have impacted the detection of curare on exhumation.
The jury found Jascalevich not guilty, however his licence to practice medicine was revoked by the New Jersey Medical Licensing board for seven unrelated counts of malpractice.