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.”