Suppose you could kill someone, and nobody would ever know. The weapon of choice might be poison. In a Wall Street Journal article “Poison and Progress”, Deborah Blum talks of some famous poisoners:
“In 17th century Naples, a woman only now remembered as “Toffana” taught wealthy women how to eliminate their husbands with the arsenic-based face paint she sold them. By some accounts she was responsible for 600 deaths before she was sent to prison.
In 1906, Belle Gunness started running personal ads in Midwestern papers. She described herself as an attractive widow with a lush Indiana farm property, interested in an equally affluent new husband. She included a tart postscript: “Triflers need not apply.”
Suitors answered her call by the dozen—and disappeared at a similar rate. After Ms. Gunness herself vanished in 1908, the La Porte, Ind. police department eventually set the body count at more than 40. This figure included her children and stepchildren, pieces of whom were found buried around the farm.
A conspirator later detailed Ms. Gunness’s favorite method for murder: a little chloroform in a tumbler of whiskey, followed by a strychnine chaser. Once her gentleman callers dropped dead, she would wait for dark to dismember and bury the bodies.
Ms. Gunness was one of the most successful poison killers to belong to the era historians call the golden age of poisoning, from the early 1800s to the early 1900s. The rise of spectacular poisoners like Ms. Gunness—or Mary Ann Cotton in Britain, who was hanged in 1873 for eliminating more than 20 people with arsenic—drove a sense of urgency among scientists, eventually leading to the creation of forensic toxicology. Unfortunately, that didn’t mean the end of homicidal poisonings. Under pressure, killers simply became more secretive and creative in their plans.
Homicides by poison still regularly occur in India, where access to plant poisons like strychnine remains easy. The poison diethylene glycol, found in anti-freeze formulas, has been used in the last few years in murders in Europe, Africa, Latin America and the U.S.
During the Great War, poison was established as a weapon of warfare, earning World War I the name, “The Chemist’s War.”
These days, homicidal poisonings are rare. A study conducted last year at the University of Georgia looked at federal mortality data between 1998 and 2005. It found 523 poison murders in the U.S. during that period, less than 1% of all homicides. On the other hand, the researchers, Greene Shepherd and Brian Ferslew, spotted a slight increase in such killings, from 0.2 cases per million in 2000 to 0.3 cases per million in 2005. Infants accounted for most of these victims, followed by the elderly. Mr. Shepherd said, “We may never know the true incidence because some cases undoubtedly evade detection and classification.”
What lessons can we learn from these items that Deborah provides us with? Well for one thing, be careful who you marry. More seriously, there has been an explosion of scientific knowledge about chemicals that affect the body. A unscrupulous researcher into either poisons and drugs, could create undetectable agents, especially if forensic scientists did not know what to look for amidst the vast numbers of possiblities. Biology keeps finding new proteins that affect the body, and Pharmaceutical companies keep finding new drugs that affect the body, many of which could be mis-used.
I don’t know anyone who has really raised this issue.
This is what an unscrupulous country is doing:
Colonel Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov (aka Ken Alibek), was deputy director of Biopreparat, a large Soviet biological warfare development program prior to his defection in 1992 to the United States. He published his memoirs, Biohazard, in 1998. In his book, he describes a top secret covert KGB development program, codenamed Fleta (Flute). He learned about the project but could not penetrate it because of its extreme secrecy. Nevertheless, he was able to learn enough to establish its mission: the development of psycho-active drugs and neuro-toxins to “alter personalities and modify human behavior”.
Think about that. When evil people are bent on power, they pursue knowledge that can them an edge over the rest of us. Including the creepy ability to “alter personalities and modify human behavior”.