In 399 BC the philosopher Socrates was found guilty in Athens, Greece of corrupting the youth and refusing to recognize the gods of the state.
His crimes centered on his method of teaching—later known as The Socratic Method—in which one is taught to question everything, and that exclusive belief in anything beyond a doubt can prevent one from truly knowing anything. This method of teaching allows for open discussion of the possibilities that eventually can reveal the truth about a subject.
In ancient Greece, hemlock was a common method used to poison condemned prisoners and, by forcing Socrates to drink his own cup of poison, he became his personal executioner.
Later, Shakespeare as well as other literary greats popularized this method of death for murder scenes—likely as much for the general availability of hemlock as its historical connection to the famous philosopher.
Hemlock was and is found throughout most parts of England and Europe. It’s prevalent in neglected meadows, along hedge banks and near the borders of steams. Hemlock is a member of the parsley family along with fennel, parsnip and carrot.
It ancient times, the plant was prepared into a drug and administered in minute amounts as an analgesic. But the plant (poison hemlock or conium maculatum) is so poisonous that just a few drops could be fatal to small animals.
Every part of the hemlock plant contains the lethal alkaloid coniine, especially the fresh leaves and the fruit. Coniine is a volatile, colorless, oily liquid. It’s strongly alkaline, bitter to the taste and with a disagreeable odor (said to resemble a “mouse-like” odor).
As an analgesic drug, the preparer would use fresh flowering plant parts, including the roots, and macerate them in alcohol before diluting to therapeutic dosages. Hemlock is used today in homeopathic remedies as a sedative and antispasmodic, and it has been used as an antidote to strychnine poisoning, tetanus and other similar poisons in the past.
Prepared hemlock, however, has a very narrow therapeutic window and more concentrated preparations can quickly turn from a beneficial drug to a deadly weapon. It is said that a lethal dose of prepared hemlock is a mere 100mg, or about 8 fresh leaves of the plant.
Overdoses of the drug produce total paralysis of the body with an initial loss of speech and respiratory distress. Early signs of overdose include excessive salivation (drooling), dilation of the pupils, and small muscle twitches all over the body before paralysis sets in.
Eventually, all respiratory function ceases and the person dies from asphyxia. An interesting effect is that the mind remains unaffected and is active until the time of death, so the person is aware of the body shutting down and experiences the effects of medicinal suffocation to the very end. Hemlock murder is definitely not a peaceful death.
In modern times, hemlock poisoning has been used in murder plots both in literature and on film. And periodic news reports describe murders using hemlock as the lethal poison.
Interestingly, poison hemlock was brought to the United States from Europe as an ornamental plant in the late 1800s and now grows throughout North America. It is most commonly found in the lower elevations and coastal regions of California.
Socrates once said that the only thing he really knew was that he knew nothing at all. In our modern age of instant, electronic knowledge gathering, we can become experts in almost anything in a short amount of time—even learning the proper way to prepare poison hemlock and for describing that perfect, dramatic murder scene using an ancient poison in a modern setting.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!