The prime culprit in this story is a rather pretty mushroom with a pale greenish-gold cap and white underside, known scientifically as Amanita phalloides and more informally as the death cap. The mushroom’s native habitat sprawls across Europe and into North Africa (although it now exists in many other countries, including the United States, accidentally brought in with other imports). It is dismayingly similar to a number of edible species, such as the straw mushroom, and it is so deadly that scientists estimate that it takes only half a cap to kill an adult human. As history conjectures, the Greek poet and playwright Euripides lost his wife, two sons, and daughter to a dinner that included this particular mushroom. The death cap is also blamed in the suspected poisoning of Pope Clement VII and the accidental death of Emperor Charles VI.
Many historians believe that a stew of these mushrooms was probably the weapon used to murder the Roman Emperor Claudius in 54. Most also suspect that his death was engineered by his wife, Agrippina the Younger, so that her seventeen-year-old son Nero could become emperor. Also widely suspected at the time was the emperor’s taste-tester, Halotus. Despite that possibility—or perhaps because of it—Halotus went on to become Nero’s taste-tester as well.
It seems that history records only a few deaths of taste-testers, especially in Europe. The insistence of the well-born and powerful in hiring taste-testers speaks as much to paranoia as to real risks. Not that there weren’t other poisonous plotters. In Renaissance Italy, the notorious Borgia family was suspected of brewing up its own special poisons to eliminate their enemies. It was thought that the Spanish government sent a physician to England to poison Elizabeth I; the doctor, Rodrigo Lopez, was caught and executed on evidence so thin that even the queen doubted it. It was also widely reported that while staying at the Louvre, Henry IV of France refused to eat anything that he hadn’t cooked himself (eggs, mostly) or poured himself.
Perhaps the most powerful twentieth century ruler to use a taste-tester was China’s Mao Zedong; if his successors have followed in that practice, they haven’t boasted about it. It was announced, however, during the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing that white mice would be taste-testing food served to athletes, but this was mostly due to fears of poor food-handling practices and bacterial food contamination.
The focus on assassination, though, misses the point; most homicidal poisonings are everyday matters. History’s best-known poisoners, for the most part, aimed low rather than high. They mixed arsenic into oatmeal, aconitine into cake and curry, mercury into figs, and they served these toxic snacks to husbands and wives, lovers and mistresses, friends, family, and business partners, repeatedly demonstrating that deliberate poisoning of food is mostly a domestic affair. Consider the horrifying example of Mary Ann Cotton, a British arsenic killer born in 1832, who was suspected of killing around twenty people—including three husbands, one lover, and most of her own children—probably by mixing arsenic into their morning cereal or evening soup. Many of her adult victims had made wills or life-insurance policies in her favor. Her children, she complained, were simply inconvenient. Unfortunately for Cotton, she had discussed the inconvenient nature of her youngest stepson, Charles, with a public official who was shocked when the boy suddenly died. He began an investigation that discovered lethal levels of arsenic in the child and led authorities to explore the many deaths surrounding Cotton’s life over the previous fifteen to twenty years.
Mary Ann Cotton was convicted of murdering her son and hanged in 1873. The late nineteenth century heralded the end of what historians sometimes refer to as the golden age of poisoners. Up until the mid-1800s, scientists had no real test for arsenic in a human body, much less the myriad of other poisons available. Toxic substances were so easy to acquire and so poorly researched that many poison killers just assumed they wouldn’t be caught. Cotton’s execution—resting neatly on scientific evidence—was among many reminders that the world had changed. Scientists were catching up with poisoners and with the catalog of toxic compounds as well.