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Saturday, 14 September 2013

Poison in History and Literature

Historically speaking, Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519) is reputed to have handled poison skilfully. It was easy for Lucrezia to seduce men since she looked very sweet. She is described as having heavy blonde hair which fell past her knees, a beautiful complexion, hazel eyes which constantly changed colour and a natural grace which made her appear to "walk on air":  these were the physical attributes that were highly appreciated in Italy during that period. She had three husbands, who were chosen by her father and brother. She was accused of murders of which there was never evidence. It was rumoured that Lucrezia was in possession of a hollow ring that she used frequently to poison drinks. Lucrezia was also said to employ a chef and a poisoner (two separate people) full time to take care of her guests in the family dining parties.
In the history of mankind there have been numerous examples of male serial killers. Those murderers simply killed their victims with no apparent reason, that is, for the sake of doing it. This has not been the case as regards women. It seems that in order to kill, women always need a reason. Call it passion, revenge or self-defence, the reason is always present
It also seems that when women kill they also do it in a very subtle way: they don't want their hands to get dirty so most of the times they use poison! Besides, poison has certain advantages for women: it is easy to get and no physical force or expert knowledge is needed to use it.
A strange case of "sexual poisoning" took place during the reign of Louis XIV in France. The king had a lover called Madame Vallière. Eager to get the king's exclusive atttention, another lady, Madame de Montespan, consulted the famous witch La Voisin (whose real name was Catherine Deshayes Monvoisin). La Voisin gave Montespan some magic love powders with aphrodisiac effects. As a result of this "sexual poisoning", Montespan became the king's favourite and got rid of Vallière but at the same time Louis' sexual appetite increased and he had to get two new lovers to satisify his sexual needs. 
One of these new mistresses, Madame Fonatges, mysteriously appeared dead in 1681. It is believed she died as a consequence a a black magic spell cast by La Voisin at the request of Montespan. The affaire des poisons or Affair of the Poisons was a murder scandal in France which launched a period of hysterical pursuit of murder suspects, during which a number of prominent people and members of the aristocracy were implicated and sentenced for poisoning and witchcraft. La Voisin said that de Montespan had bought aphrodisiacs and performed black masses with her in order to gain the king's favour. She had worked with a priest named Etienne Guibourg. There was no evidence beyond her confessions, but the bad reputation followed these people afterwards. Monvoisin was sentenced to death for witchcraft and poisoning, and burned at the stake on February 22, 1680. Montespan, however, was banished from the palace and continued her life unmolested afterwards. 
Poison has always inspired artists. In fiction it is worth mentioning the poisoned apple that SnowWhite is given by her stepmother disguised as a witch. In his short story The Landlady, Roald Dahl portrays an innocent-looking lady who uses arsenic to kill her victims, all of them handsome young boys. The landlady has an unusual hobby and this is to stuff all her pets when they "pass away".
Many years later, during the First World War, Agatha Christie worked in a hospital, where she acquired the detailed knowledge about poison that was going to be so useful for her to write her detective novels. It is believed that the poison most frequently used by Agatha in her works was arsenic. Agatha married Archibald Christie in 1914. In 1926 came a great shock when Archie told her he had fallen in love with another woman and wanted to leave her. Instead of killing her husband by using poison, Agatha chose to disappear for some days, When she was found, she alleged having lost her memory but the truth about her disappearance was never discovered. Agatha later married archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, who was fourteen years younger than her. Their marriage was happy in the early years, and endured despite Mallowan's many affairs in later life, notably with Barbara Parker, whom he married in 1977, the year after Christie's death. 

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