Tech UPTechnologyArsenic for compassion or a little history of poisons

Arsenic for compassion or a little history of poisons


One of the great masterpieces of comedic cinema is Arsenic for Mercy , directed by the incomparable Frank Capra in 1941 . The story begins with the civil wedding of Mortimer Brewster, a well-known theater critic. Before leaving on his honeymoon, he makes a stop at the house where he grew up, owned by his two lovely maiden aunts. By chance Mortimer finds a corpse in the chest under the window of the house and it is from this moment that he begins a delirious and intelligent journey through the darkest humor.

For the role of Mortimer, Frank Capra wanted Bob Hope, but the comedian was contractually tied to Paramount. So Capra thought of Ronald Reagan, but in the end he opted for Cary Grant , who makes one of his most anthological performances. Curiously, the actor always considered that his performance was horrible and he considered it the worst of all the films of his career. Nothing is further from reality, because Grant’s vitality, his continuous movement on stage, his priceless expressions, everything that leads him on the way to an inevitable madness, are the best of a film that at no time gives the viewer respite. .

The film’s guest stone is, as its title says, arsenic, which Mortimer’s sweet aunts administered out of pity to lonely, homeless men. It was not a bad choice for the sensitive old ladies, since arsenic has a long tradition as a means of eliminating other human beings. From the 15th to the 17th century it was the main ingredient in the poisoners’ potions of that time: the Borgias, Medici and Sforza were loyal followers of thecantarella or acquetta di Perugia , where arsenic was mixed with dried pork viscera, causing death. in 24 hours. Another potion, widely used by Catherine de’ Medici, was acqua toffana or acquetta di Napoli, a mixture of arsenic with cantharide or Spanish fly. Both the origin and the exact composition of this poison are uncertain and it is believed that if 4 to 6 drops of this mixture were poured into water or wine, death would come within a few hours.

Many historians point to Giulia Toffana as its creator, an attractive poisoner who learned the trade in the back rooms of different pharmacists. She became famous for selling poisons to women, especially those of low social extraction with troublesome husbands . Arrested by the papal police, under torture she confessed to killing more than 600 men in Rome between 1633 and 1651. She was executed along with her sister and three accomplices in the infamous Campo de’ Fiori in July 1659.

The time of the poisoners

The Italian Renaissance was the golden age of poisoners, and among them the Borgia family, originally from Borja (Zaragoza, hence its name) and established in Játiva and Gandia before Alfons de Borja i Cavanilles made the leap to the papacy of Rome. The entire family was a virtuoso in the art of poisoning, and anyone invited to a party ran the risk of beginning to feel truly ill within a few hours. And it’s not that you were poisoned because you represented a problem or an obstacle for the family; sometimes their guests were simply simple guinea pigs with whom they tried new mixtures. The way to administer the poison was through food: being so spicy, it was difficult to identify strange flavors that could indicate the presence of a poison.

Catherine de’ Medici was another of the great poisoners of the time. Married to Henry of Orleans, she took her cohort of assistants with her to France, among whom were her astrologers and parfummeurs , two jobs that sometimes served to hide her true occupation: poison makers .

As soon as Catherine arrived at her French residence, people began to die mysteriously, possibly thanks to the Medici’s colorful use of one of her favorite poisons, arsenic. Such was his fame that among the French the word Italien soon became synonymous with empoisonneur .

Catherine’s favorite poisoner was René “the Florentine”, named after the city where he had learned his art. It was even said that he was responsible for the death of Juana III of Navarra by order of Catherine, by sending a pair of perfumed gloves impregnated with a deadly liquid. This rumor, now known to be false, inspired Alexandre Dumas (senior) to write the novel Queen Margot .

hired poisoners

Later, in the early years of the 17th century, fame fell to Antonio Exili, whose real name was probably Nicolo Egidi or Eggidio . Today his fame has been lost and only small pieces of his life remain. He began his career as an alchemist but the day came when he stopped looking for the elixir of eternal youth and ended up creating death potions. Required by some and feared by others, he toured different European courts, from the Vatican to the Baltic, selling his services. It is believed that he was the paid poisoner of Olimpia Maidalchini, sister-in-law of Pope Innocent X and whose influence in Vatican affairs was such that she became known as “the popess”. When he was seen in France in 1663 the government had him arrested and locked up in the Bastille. There it is believed that he made friends with Godin de Sainte-Croix, the lover of the Marquise de Brinvilliers and that he had been sent to that prison by the countess’s powerful father after discovering the affair. There Godin learned from Exili the formula for acqua toffana , which the Marquise would use to poison, among others, her father and two of her brothers .

Curiously, it was the trial against the Marquise de Brinvilliers in 1675 that unleashed the so-called Poisons Affair , a great scandal that reached from high society to the circles closest to King Louis XIV and that resulted in 36 executions between 1677 and 1682. The first of these executions, that of the Marchioness of Brinvilliers, was especially cruel: the torture of water was applied to her, forcing her to drink more than 7 liters of water, her head was cut off and her body was burned tied to a stake.

The extent of the scandal is made clear by the number of alchemists and fortune-tellers tried for poisoning: more than fifty in Paris alone. The fear was such that the fear of being poisoned spread like a plague throughout Paris and almost any death was seen as proof of it. Hysteria became mistress of the streets of the French capital.


Herman, E. (2018) The Royal Art of Poison, St. Martin’s Press

Hubbard, B. (2020) Poison: The History of Potions, Powders and Murderous Practitioners, Welbeck Publishing

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