– From the seeds of the Strychnos nux vomica (most common)
– Native to India and SE Asia
– A common pesticide
– Used in heroin
– Causes muscle spasms
– Death is from exhaustion and asphyxia
– No antidote
– Used by serial killer Thomas Cream
A naturally occurring poison, strychnine is obtained from seeds of the Dog Button plant (Strychnos nux-vomica) as well as other plants. It’s a neurotoxin which impacts the spinal nerves, causing severe body spasms when ingested, causing death within a few hours. There is no antidote.
It’s been used as a pesticide for rats and gophers, however, due to its dangers (it’s non-selective, meaning it’s a risk to children and pets) it’s been replaced by safer toxins in most places. Low doses are added to street drugs, such as heroin, where it can act as a mild hallucinogen and to alleviate some of the less favourable symptoms of heroin. In a very diluted form it can be a performance enhancer for athletes.
A famous historical account of strychnine poisoning is the case of Dr. Thomas Neil Cream. Starting in 1878, Cream killed at least seven women and one man, all his patients. He served ten years in an American prison then returned to London, where he poisoned more people. He was finally executed for murder in 1892.
43-year-old Patsy Wright died unexpectedly in 1987. Eight days after her death a routine autopsy was performed. 56,000 different substances were tested and a positive result was found for strychnine. The morning of Patsy’s death she’d called her sister, telling her she’d taken some cold medicine and felt nauseous – she collapsed while talking on the phone. Testing of the cold medicine revealed high levels of strychnine. Product tampering and suicide were ruled out.
Police thought someone who knew Patsy well was responsible as only those close to her knew she had a habit of taking night time cold medicine before bed. Patsy’s ex-husband was questioned by the police as Patsy had a restraining order against him. She was also due to testify against him in an arson case the following week. He’d been harrassing her to change her story but she refused. He maintained his innocence but refused a polygraph. Police hoped that as sales of strychnine are controlled by the federal government someone would remember a suspicious sale from around the time of her death. The case was never solved.