Hemlock

Hemlock is a neurotoxin which paralyses the nervous system. Hemlock is the name of the plant from which the poison comes, the active component is coniine, an alkaloid. It acts from the extremities and moves up the body until it reaches the torso, at which point breathing is arrested. The Greeks wrongly believed that death was due to the poison stopping the heart. In fact the victim asphyxiates.

Hemlock was the poison of choice for offing citizens of Athens, so long as their crime wasn't bad enough to merit something nastier, such as stoning. Hemlock was very much the easy option, and of course its most famous victim was Socrates. There are actually a number of plants in the hemlock family. The one used to make the poison which executed Socrates was Conium maculatum, called simply Poison Hemlock. There's also Water Hemlock, which if anything is even more toxic, and a tree called hemlock.

Two things I better say right at the start, just in case some idiot eats hemlock and survives to sue me: don't even think about touching the stuff; also, I'm not a doctor.

Every part of the plant is toxic, but the roots and berries particularly so.

Believe it or not, some Greek doctors prescribed hemlock as a medicine. In fact hemlock was used as a herbal medicine up until relatively recent times. Clearly doctors' professional practice insurance isn't what it used to be. For what did they prescribe it? Arthritis, and any disease that involved involuntary movement. The paralytic effect stopped the shaking.

The danger is that the difference between a medicinal and a fatal dose is very, very small. I've read texts which suggest 1 leaf is medicinal and 6 leaves is fatal. But of course your mileage will vary depending on the individual plant, which parts were used, and the size and sensitivity of the patient-cum-victim.

There have been well documented cases of accidental poisoning in the last hundred or so years, some of them very tragic. I've read of one case where someone sucked a tuber of water hemlock, having mistaken it for a different, edible plant. Poison hemlock resembles parsley closely enough that someone could make a mistake. Children playing in the woods are particularly vulnerable, both because they're more likely to make the mistake and because with their smaller bodies the poison takes effect quicker.

The effect of hemlock seems to vary widely. Some cases record convulsions, others report the victim dying quietly over hours and remaining conscious and rational to the end, which was the experience of Socrates.

There's no cure, but if you do accidentally ingest hemlock and you realize it in time, then all is not lost. It takes quite a while to die, and if you can get to a hospital in time -- don't run, in fact don't move at all if you can help it -- then they'll put you on an artificial breathing and heart pump machine until the paralysis has worn off, after which you should be okay, if somewhat terrified.

Here's a picture of Poison Hemlock:



This gorgeous image belongs to J. Alex Halderman, an amateur photographer of very great skill.

Hemlock is present as a weed in Australia. It was deliberately introduced by some moron who thought there weren't enough poisonous things in this country, so he added one more.

Here's the famous description of the death of Socrates. It was written by Plato in his book Phaedo. I've taken it from the online Perseus edition.


Thereupon Crito nodded to the boy who was standing near. The boy went out and stayed a long time, then came back with the man who was to administer the poison, which he brought with him in a cup ready for use. And when Socrates saw him, he said: “Well, my good man, you know about these things; what must I do?” “Nothing,” he replied, “except drink the poison and walk about till your legs feel heavy; then lie down, and the poison will take effect of itself.”
...
He walked about and, when he said his legs were heavy, lay down on his back, for such was the advice of the attendant. The man who had administered the poison laid his hands on him and after a while examined his feet and legs, then pinched his foot hard and asked if he felt it. He said “No”; then after that, his thighs; and passing upwards in this way he showed us that he was growing cold and rigid. And again he touched him and said that when it reached his heart, he would be gone. The chill had now reached the region about the groin, and uncovering his face, which had been covered, he said—and these were his last words—“Crito, we owe a cock to Aesculapius. Pay it and do not neglect it.” “That,” said Crito, “shall be done; but see if you have anything else to say.” To this question he made no reply, but after a little while he moved; the attendant uncovered him; his eyes were fixed. And Crito when he saw it, closed his mouth and eyes.


Some people have actually used this passage to suggest Socrates was not killed by hemlock. The major objection is that Socrates' legs are described as cold and rigid. It's got to be wrong. Hemlock produces a flaccid paralysis.

However in the past 100 years there have been some cases of accidental poisoning which precisely matched the symptoms Plato describes, except for the flaccid muscles. The obvious answer is Plato is being misread here (easy to do with one word after 2,500 years) or else it's a copy error.

Hemlock is said to have a fetid taste, somewhat akin to a mouse. It can't be all that strong though, considering the number of people who've eaten it accidentally. One man even ate it in a sandwich. Nevertheless any mouse odor is easily masked by mixing it with Ancient Greek wine, which often had fenugreek added. I personally have tasted a similar Roman wine called Turriculae. Believe me, Turriculae could mask almost anything.

I suspect the execution potion that killed Socrates was hemlock mixed with strong wine.

Another possibility, clearly not used with Socrates since he remained rational, would be to add a sedative. Greek medicine was very primitive, but we know they were expert at making opium. It makes sense to mix poppy juice with the hemlock; not everyone would be as calm about dying as Socrates was, and it's easy to imagine a distraught prisoner causing considerable trouble. After a good slug of poppy juice the prisoner wouldn't care if his legs fell off, let alone lost feeling. This is the ancient world's equivalent of death by lethal injection, and I'm not sure it isn't just as effective and perhaps even more merciful.

32 comments:

Stephanie Thornton said...

Hemlock tastes like mouse? I'd like to find the poor sucker who figured that out.

The use of poisons in ancient times totally intrigues me. I've done enough research on what the ancient Egyptians had their hands on that now I get advertisements for all sorts of crazy stuff.

I hadn't realized the Greeks mixed hemlock with poppy juice. That is pretty darn smart, but then those Greeks were a savvy bunch.

Great post, Gary!

Gary Corby said...

Hi Stephanie!

The hemlock/poppy mix is my speculation. But it makes a lot of sense to me.

Stephanie Thornton said...

It definitely makes sense. I think if I were sentenced to drink hemlock I'd want the opiates before I drank the hemlock.

Kind of like when the dentist gives you laughing gas. You want to saw into my jaw to yank out a bunch of my teeth? Totally awesome! Go for it!

You want me to drink hemlock? Sounds great! Fill 'er up!

L. T. Host said...

LOL at Stephanie.

Poisons frighten me. I like the comment you made about someone deciding that you needed one more poisonous things there... how is the life expectancy in Australia not like, 12??

Very interesting and informative post, Gary. I remember the story of Socrates from school and it always touched me how stoic he was about the whole thing... but then I guess that was the Greek thing to do anyway.

Amalia T. said...

The joys of interpretation and re-interpretation! You can make any text prove anything if you're really determined.

Excellent post, Gary! I had no idea what poison Hemlock looked like, and the fact that it resembles Parsley will now make me think twice before I pick any in the wild.

I don't know why anyone would deliberately introduce ANYTHING else that's poisonous in Australia. Was it a doctor who wanted to grow it for medicinal purposes or something? Otherwise, holy buckets! I don't even really want to ever VISIT Australia because of all the poisonous and otherwise dangerous things living there! (Sorry. Spiders FREAK me out. And I'm not really interested in dying of a snakebite, either.) Yeesh.

Carrie said...

I guess the slow paralysis makes it not uncomfortable? Interesting. It seems to be one of the gentlest poisons I've read about yet. Great article Gary!

thepoisongarden said...

There's a couple of things that intrigue me about Socrates. The Phaedo is a fictionalised account by Plato rather than a first-hand recording so you have to wonder what was changed.

Also, the Greeks had other poisons to hand. They certainly knew about plants in the Aconitum genus which kill much more quickly than poison hemlock.

It's sometimes suggested that Socrates chose the poison he took which leads me to wonder if, perhaps, he wanted the slow death to see what philosophical insights might be forthcoming.

There have been a couple of incidents, this year, in the USA. In one a woman died and in the other a man mistook the root for a carrot but, luckily, was visiting friends when the symptoms set in and, thus, survived.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I can't understand picking anything while out in the woods and eating it. I often wonder about the translations and interpretations of old texts especially when people quote a religious text as if it was written by God's hand in the king's English.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Susan, yes, I'm often surprised the degree to which some people take ancient texts as...er...gospel truth. Plato was obviously distressed over the whole thing and the essential point was his friend dying. It's not supposed to be a clinical journal! I think he's allowed to muff a few details.

Gary Corby said...

Stephanie, you have a future in comedy...

Gary Corby said...

L.T., rather ironically, stoicism as a way of life would not be invented for about another 100 years at that point, but Socrates was indeed famous for his stoicism and probably served as an inspiration.

I must do a post some time about poisonous Australian stuff. People seem to be interested.

Gary Corby said...

Amalia, I have no idea why hemlock was introduced (I pulled that off a government web site...) but it wasn't smart.

It's quite safe to visit. Honestly! I can't recall ever hearing of a tourist being killed by a snake or spider. Mostly they tend to drown, or get stung by jellyfish, or eaten by crocodiles.

Gary Corby said...

You're right, Carrie, hemlock is gentle compared to most. I wonder there haven't been more suicides who used it. Maybe because it needs some expertise to get it right? I have an idea the attendant who made the potion for Socrates was in some sense a professional.

Gary Corby said...

Hello PoisonGarden, and welcome to the blog.

I had a look at your web site. Wow, I had no idea there was a garden dedicated to poisonous plants! What an interesting idea.

You're right, which is no surprise since you're obviously a total expert. Aconitum is a Greek word. I seem to recall Medea was said to have used aconitum, but I can't off-hand recall a single instance of it being used in recorded Greek history?

Phaedo was written after the fact, as all Plato's works were, and they're all for the declared purpose of eulogising Socrates. Plato almost certainly puts his own words in Socrates' mouth at times, but where Plato can be checked on physical facts he always comes up trumps.

Keep in mind too that Socrates was deeply admired by Xenophon, who was an exceptionally tough mercenary captain, which makes very believable Plato's repeated assertion that Socrates could cope with any physical hardship.

Plato's works were read by people who were actually there and knew the real man. If Socrates had run around screaming and weeping, Plato would never have got away with what he wrote.

Hemlock had been the poison of choice for old men who wished to end it all, going back centuries.

Loretta Ross said...

Well, Stephanie already spoke my mind. Seriously! Who knows what mouse tastes like?

Your story of the medicinal uses of hemlock reminds me of something I saw on TV once. There was a show in the 1970s called Emergency!, about the first American paramedics working with the Los Angeles Fire Department. Just a show of course, but as I understand it pretty accurate about equipment and procedures and such. Anyway, in one episode they were treating a man who'd been trapped in an ice house. At the hospital they were trying to intubate him but he was shivering so hard they couldn't get the tube down his throat so the doctor gave him a shot of curare (I think it was). He said it was a poison used by headhunters that paralyzed the victim. In this instance, paralyzing him allowed them to treat him and keep him alive.

FWIW.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Loretta,

I don't know about curare in LA, but it's very believable because I do recall reading a book which said curare was used by surgeons in the time before anaesthetics. The curare kept the patient immobilised while they operated. Unfortunately the patient remained conscious and felt every bit of the pain...

Amalia T. said...

Oh man, I forgot about the Jellyfish! Remind me that if my husband ever talks me into a trip, I am NOT going anywhere near the beach!

I think I'll be able to steer clear of the Crocodiles without too much trouble...

Gary Corby said...

I confess jellyfish are a bit of a problem, Amalia, but really only in Queensland during summer.

12 years ago my wife and I had chartered a boat and sailed around the Whitsunday Islands. We went swimming and, knowing jellyfish were about, we wore light wetsuits. Problem solved you'd think. Then I got a painful sting. The damn thing had got me around the wrist.

Amalia T. said...

(The funny thing here, is that I wanted to work with Tigers for a living, hands on as a zookeeper. I went to go PET one, once, that somebody kept in their warehouse and it wrapped its jaws around my thigh, but I was like NO PROBLEM! LET ME COME AGAIN! Large predators don't frighten me at ALL-- but all these little things that can kill a person? Those will keep me from stepping foot on an entire continent.)

thepoisongarden said...

It's usually said that Aconitum was used on Ceos to get rid of the old or sick for the benefit of the rest of the family.

I suppose that would make it a poison of the poor.

It seems to be Mrs Grieve who is most often cited as the source for the Ceos story. Some of her 'A Modern Herbal' is fanciful. I'll have to go back and try and find an earlier reference.

On the Phaedo point, I wasn't thinking so much about weeping etc. Conium maculatum is, often, described as a strong emetic and I wonder if Plato left that out or if Socrates didn't experience any sickness.

Thanks for the compliment on the website. Sorry to be pedantic but I'm no longer involved in any way with the Alnwick Garden. The site is called The Poison Garden because every garden is a poison garden.

Gary Corby said...

Hi PoisonGarden,

I'm not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but by sheer coincidence I can help you with where Mrs Grieve got her information. She got it from Strabo's Geography, section 10.5.7, which describes the Kean Law that those aged 60 should take poison. I wrote a post about it once which I called Dead At Sixty.

Strabo says the poison used was hemlock, so I think Mrs Grieve may gone slightly off track at that point. Here's the section in English on the Perseus database.

I checked the original Greek in case it was mistranslated (which happens sometimes). Strabo used the word κωνειά - Koneia - which as you certainly know is the modern Conium.

Gary Corby said...

Woops, forgot to add, thanks for mentioning about the emetic effect. I didn't know that. It makes a lot of sense now that you mention it though, since all the muscles go flaccid.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Amalia, I totally get that, because with the teensy things you can't see if trouble's coming, whereas a tiger is visible from a distance.

Ummm, someone keeps a tiger in their warehouse? Is this some sort of exotic but highly effective security system?

Amalia T. said...

The tiger was the mascot for the business-- I could see her deterring theft, also. for sure.

Loretta Ross said...

In 1879 there was a murder case in northern Missouri where a man named Hade Brown was being tried. His first trial ended in a hung jury and he was moved to St. Louis to protect him from lynch mobs. On his way back for his second trial he took arsenic that his wife had slipped him, but it didn't kill him, though it made him deathly ill. A doctor told the local paper at the time that the reason it didn't kill him was that he'd taken too much. A few grains would have killed him, but the amount he swallowed irritated his stomach and caused him to throw it back up.

Gary Corby said...

Loretta, interesting about the arsenic. I knew it was possible with other drugs, but arsenic seems like it should be final. I presume after all that he was found guilty and they hung him anyway?

Loretta Ross said...

Yes. He had attacked his father-in-law and murdered his mother-in-law because they helped his wife leave him to escape his spousal abuse. When he was captured his wife went back to him. Four days before the execution she smuggled some morphine to him, then went home, sent her little boy next door to play and shot herself in the head so she could be buried with him. He was supposed to kill himself with the morphine when he got word of her death, but the guards found it and took it away. The day of the hanging he tried a third time to kill himself, again with morphine and again unsuccesfully. He was pretty laid back for the execution, though.

Gary Corby said...

Oh, that's awful. Why do women keep going back to abusive husbands? I just don't get that at all.

That poor child. What a history to grow up with.

thepoisongarden said...

Hi Gary,

Thank you very much indeed for that. Mrs Grieve does seem to prove unreliable quite often.

The two links were very interesting and I'll be making some revisions to my site once I've read them thoroughly.

It seems my understanding that it was a family decision is also wrong. That's a pity because I've had some interesting discussions about euthanasia as a result of that story.

thepoisongarden said...

Curiouser and curiouser. Though Strabo says that those over 60 were 'ordered' to drink hemlock, he seems to be relying on Menander and quotes him as saying 'that he who is unable to live well should not live wretchedly'. That suggests, to me, that if you were over 60 but able to 'live well' you did not need to die. Could it be that the law allowed voluntary euthanasia rather than requiring it? (I appreciate that the ambiguity may have come in the translation rather than the original.)

I've changed my page on Conium maculatum and included a link to your home page.

http://www.thepoisongarden.co.uk/atoz/conium_maculatum.htm

Gary Corby said...

That's a fascinating page, PG! I have to ask since you're obviously an expert on the subject...are you ever at risk of an accident, doing so much with poison plants?

The distinction between law and custom was pretty much non-existent back then. Laws were essentially documented customs; and even to archaic times, the law was unwritten. So when an ancient author says, "It was the custom..." it means almost the same as, "It was the law..." except whether you'd get into trouble for ignoring the custom depended on how strongly people felt about it, and how well or otherwise you were liked. The Kean Law was gone by classical times; obviously at some point it broke down. A 60 year old man on Keos in 700BC would have been under intense social pressure to do the right thing (keeping in mind too that age-recording was lax); a 60 year old man on Keos in, say, 580BC might have been under some pressure but could have resisted.

thepoisongarden said...

Thanks for the compliment.

Well, I'm still here, so far.

It's interesting that you have this confusion (confusion's too strong a word, overlap, association?) between 'custom' and 'law'. In my area, many people seem to put 'deadly' silently ahead of 'poisonous'. There are a huge number of poisonous plants but, thankfully, they cause very little accidental harm. A lot of that is down to taste or appearance and some of it is just that the dose required is substantial.

But, when I start one of my talks with stinging nettle, lots of people say 'that's not poisonous, it just stings you'.

It's all about what you understand a word to mean, and that's something you must encounter daily.