Crows

Corvus corone aka the carrion crow appears throughout The Fressingfield Witch’. In fact, the book was nearly entitled ‘Crowfall.”  It features a crow which was adopted as an unofficial family crest following the Witch Trials and was subsequently used to create terror amongst those of a superstitious nature.

Fear and prejudice has long been held against the crow whose poor reputation existed from ancient times.  A single crow is considered unlucky and it is unsurprising that the collective name for these birds is a ‘murder’ of crows.  If a crow perches near or circles a house, it foretells a death. If it swoops over the paternal house, it is a sign of misfortune. A crow forsaking a flock indicates a famine.

Crows have often been used in literature.  Shakespeare prefaced some of his darker scenes with the introduction of crows or ravens; this below from Macbeth:

“Light thickens, and the crow

Makes wing to th’ rooky wood.

Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,

While night’s black agents to their prey do rouse.”  

Crows are intelligent animals.  They remember faces, particularly when they have experienced cruelty.  They possess the rare ability to problem solve.  Crows are smart enough to drop nuts from great heights to get at the kernel and, in this more modern age, have been seen tossing nuts in front of passing cars to take advantage of an easy nut-cracking facility.

The Fressingfield Witch begins with a quote from Hudibas.  This 17th century narrative poem by Samuel Butler satirised the Civil War.  It also features crows.

“Is it not ominous, in all countries

When crows and ravens croak on trees

The Roman senate, when within

The city walls, an owl was seen

Did cause their clergy with lestrations

(Our synod calls Humiliation)

The round face’d prodigy t’avert

From doing town or country hurt” 

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Taxine – Fruit of the Yew

Anyone looking at my recent Google search history, would assume I’m about to do something very, very bad. They would be advising my husband to inspect his coffee before drinking it and cautioning him not to eat anything I’ve cooked. (Not that he would anyway. Cooking is not my forte).

My search history is full of poisons. Arsenic, antimony, strychnine. You name it, I’ve considered it as a means to dispatch my victims. Writing a murder mystery requires a lot of research to find a credible method of poisoning and one that would have been easy to procure in Victorian times.

In the end, it had to be taxine – it’s qualities were just right for The Fressingfield Witch. Taxine is an alkaloid compound, handily present in the yew tree. Most parts of the yew are poisonous (except for the fleshy red seed covering). The seeds are particularly high in taxine. Dried seeds and leaves retain their ability to poison for several months.

The body absorbs taxine quickly and in extreme cases, death can occur before any other symptoms are seen. Usefully, a victim can recover especially if given an emetic in the earliest stages, thus giving the author a nice degree of flexibility.

Using taxine puts me in good company with other writers, notably William Shakespeare and Agatha Christie. Shakespeare added yew to the witch’s cauldron in Macbeth and Christie poisoned Mr Fortescue with taxine in ‘A Pocket Full of Rye.’

It’s surprisingly under-used in books, all things considered. Writers tend to favour arsenic as it was so easily available in Victorian times. It was also a popular choice for real murderers. Mary Ann Cotton, Florence Maybrick and Madeleine Smith all used arsenic to kill. In fact, Suffolk murderess Mary Cage used it and it was the newspaper account of her trial that provided the inspiration for Vote for Murder. I dabbled with antimony poisoning in that one too.

Anyway, a relevant excerpt from The Fressingfield Witch:

“The fruit of the yew has long been my friend. I harvest it myself, then dry it and store it safely away, always wearing gloves. It is a powerful toxin. My mother taught me not to take risks.”