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Thy drugs are quick: research

Poisons in nature

"O true apothecary, Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die."

Arguably one of the most famous deaths by poison in fiction, the above quote is from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. And poison is what I speak of here.

In the mid nineteenth century, there was a poison panic. Everyone was scared of it. Yet, bizarrely, the statistics did not match their fear; in the 1840s only 2 cases a year in England and Wales revolved around murder or attempted murder by poison, and that number remained stable for 20 years. 

So many of the Victorian novels I love feature poison. Infamous murders of the period include death by arsenic (Mary Ann Cotton), death by strychnine-laced chocolates (Christiana Edmunds), death by doctor (Dr Pritchard killed his wife and mother-in-law with antimony). Yet, it wasn't as common as we might all suppose. 

Why was it so feared? I'll let historian Judith Flanders explain:

"Poisoning was frightening because it involved intimacy. A stranger might bludgeon a passer-by to death – that was bad luck, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. To poison someone, the poisoner had to be intimate enough to give the victim food or drink. Who more natural to give food and drink than those who nurtured you – your family, or your servants?"

For my current work-in-progress, I've been researching poisons which can induce sleep and lead to death. I've picked up some interesting facts along the way, and wanted to share them with you. 


Otherwise known as Deadly Nightshade. This is most likely the poison used in Romeo and Juliet

All of the plant is poisonous, and in Chaucer's time it was known as Dwale, perhaps derived from the Scandinavian dool, meaning delay or sleep. Others suggest it is from the French word deuil, meaning grief.

A generally accepted view is that the name was bestowed on it because its juice was used by Italian ladies to give their eyes greater brilliancy, the smallest quantity having the effect of dilating the pupils of the eye.

According to old legends, the plant belongs to the devil who goes about trimming and tending it in his leisure.


Opium and opium-based products were everywhere in Victorian times. It was even given to children... 

Godfrey's Cordial was a laudanum and treacle based mixture given to infants to quieten them and to relieve pain.

It was sometimes known as the poor child's nurse. 

In 1854, it was estimated that three-quarters of all deaths from opium occurred in children under five! Many poor mothers used it so they could go out to work and afford food for the family.

The term 'pipe dream' has its origins in opium smoking. It is the kind of improbable fantasy experienced when smoking this drug.

Ergot extraction

Ergot is derived from a fungal disease which can particularly affect rye. 

It was used by midwives and doctors in the 1800s to promote contractions in birthing women, but was also a traditional remedy to induce abortions.

Symptoms of ergotism can include muscle spasms, fever and hallucinations, and the victims may appear dazed, be unable to speak, become manic, or have other forms of paralysis or tremors.


You will have to keep your eyes peeled for these poisons and potions in my upcoming works!

About the author

Delphine Woods

Delphine Woods

Delphine Woods is an author who loves to write historical mysteries and thrillers. 

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