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.”

 

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The Smoking Baby of Fressingfield

vintage-2792557__340The Fressingfield Witch was inspired by articles from national and local papers about Mary Ann Corbyn and her alleged use of witchcraft to procure the death of her step-granddaughter.  Below is an extract from the Framlingham Weekly News 12 April 1890:

“An inquest was held on Wednesday evening at Gooch’s Farm House, Fressingfield, before C W Chaston Esq touching the death of Edith Margaret Hammond, aged 11 weeks, daughter of Ben Hammond, agricultural labourer…

…Deceased  seemed very queer on Friday, and early on Saturday morning was taken home in a perambulator by witness and his wife.  On the way they noticed smoke issuing from the perambulator and deceased died after arrival home.

Sarah Hammond, the mother, said that when she took deceased out of the perambulator, the clothing was quite hot and dry and smelt of brimstone.  She had no doubt but that deceased’s death was due to witchcraft and wickedness…

…George Corbyn of Wingfield, grandfather to the deceased, gave it as his opinion that his late wife had the powers of a witch and that he in consequence used always to try to do what she wanted him.

The jury found that deceased came to her death from shock to the system, caused by the external application of some irritant, the nature of which there was not sufficient evidence to show.”

 

 

 

 

Opium – “Mother’s Friend.”

Glass Pharmacy Bottles with old  Labels

A number of poisons are referenced in Vote for Murder, as one might expect in a murder mystery.  Mary Cage, despite her poverty, was an opium eater.  This use of drugs, among the poorest in Victorian society, might seem unlikely but opium was, in fact, readily available and extremely cheap.  To put it in context, it was possible to purchase a quarter of an ounce of opium for the same price as a pint of beer.  In East Anglia, opium was widely sold in pills and penny sticks.  In other parts of the country it was dispensed as “poppy tea.”

Opiates or laudanum, caused episodes of euphoria, but these highs were followed by bouts of depression, slurred speech, restlessness and poor concentration.  Long term use of laudanum caused addiction but there were other short term symptoms including muscular aches, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.

Perhaps the most concerning use of opiates, was as a ‘quietener’ for children.  Mary Cage used opium pills to subdue her children in Vote for Murder:

“…two nights with no sleep has a remembering effect and I crushed the pills down and the children lay torpid and quiet about me, as Mary Ann and James had done those many years before.”

The use of opiates to subdue children was common place in working class households. Proprietary medicines were manufactured for the express purpose of calming children.  Godfrey’s cordial, a preparation of opium, water and treacle, was known as “mother’s friend.”

With the sale of drugs unrestricted and little or no direction on how to use opiates, deaths of children were inevitable.  The article below, from the Nottingham Evening Post 22 June 1907, recounts the sad demise of Aubrey Samuel Barnes:

Nottingham Child’s Death

An inquest was held at Leen-side this afternoon touching the death of Aubrey Samuel Barnes aged ten months, whose parents live at 144, Portland Road, Nottingham.

Kate Elizabeth Frances Barnes, the mother of the child and the wife of Frederick William Barnes, lace manufacturer, said deceased had suffered from bronchitis and constipation and had been under Dr. Roberts’ treatment.  She had also given it a cordial which she obtained some time before for herself.  On the label of the bottle was inscribed, “Infants’ Cordial. Poison.”  She obtained it from Mr. J.G. Wildgoose, chemist, of Alfreton Road.  There were no directions on the bottle.  She gave the child a dose at midnight on Wednesday.  On the following day she sent for Dr. Smith, who paid frequent visits, but death took place in the evening.

Dr. Smith stated that when he saw the child on Thursday morning it was in a state of collapse from narcotic poisoning.  It was a puny infant, and had evidently suffered from bronchitis.  Witness ascribed death to bronchitis, accelerated by narcotic poisoning.  The cordial referred to contained opium. Opium was very detrimental to children under twelve months, although it was a common thing for parents to give it.  In some parts of Nottingham, the common use of laudanum amounted to an abuse.

John Wildgoose, chemist, of Alfreton Road, said that the cordial which he sold contained a preparation of opium.  A spoonful of the cordial would have about a sixth of a grain of opium.

The Coroner suggested to witness that he ought to put the prescribed dose on the label, especially as the cordial was taken by both adults and infants.

The jury found that death was due to misadventure, and expressed the opinion that the chemist should state in future on the label the amount of the dose that should be taken.

Vote For Murder – Sample Extract

“Alfred said he was afraid of this but continued without preamble stating that Mary had been found guilty of murder by poison and would die within a week. There was nothing that could prevent her execution, so any renewal of our friendship would inevitably be of short and painful duration.”

Extract from the diary of Anna Tomkins, August 1851

A short excerpt from Vote for Murder is available here

VIntage  Apothecary Bottle

Coming Soon…….

Vote For Murder

Front cover snipIn the Spring of 1911, suffragist Louisa Russell finds an old diary in a box of artefacts, while attending a census evasion night at the Old Museum in Ipswich. The diary recounts the last days of Mary Emily Cage, executed for the murder of her husband six decades earlier.

When Louisa’s next door neighbour, Charles Drummond, dies under suspicious circumstances, the parallels between the two deaths become impossible to ignore.  But can two deaths sixty years apart be linked?  And can Louisa find the poisoner before an innocent woman is convicted?

 

Vote for murder is based on a real poisoning by Suffolk murderess, Mary Cage.  Set in Ipswich in 1911, the novel brings together suffragism in the early 1900’s and a grisly, Victorian murder. Due for publication at the end of September, Vote for Murder will appeal to readers of historical fiction, genealogical mysteries and Suffolk based crime books.