Alexey Navalny was on his way back to Moscow last month when he ordered a cup of black tea at the Bogashevo Airport in Siberia. As a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and corruption in the country, Mr. Navalny has survived physical beatings, chemical attacks and imprisonment, but the simple cup of tea during his travels proved uniquely devastating. It wasn’t long before the 44-year-old opposition leader was rendered violently ill, screaming in pain from the airplane bathroom, forcing an emergency landing to rush him to hospital in critical condition.
Rushed to Germany for treatment, officials confirmed what many – including Mr. Navalny’s closest allies – already knew.
“With this, it is certain that Alexey Navalny is a victim of a crime,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at a news conference last week. “He was meant to be silenced. ”She said the crime was attempted murder. The weapon: poison.
The use of poison to kill and threaten dates back to the very beginnings of human civilization, providing sensational plots in both real life and fiction, and at times, even becoming a common part of popular culture. Arsenic was once used so regularly to get rid of unwanted relatives it became known as “the inheritance powder.”
And while poisoning has never fully gone out of fashion, a series of high-profile cases has thrust it back into the spotlight in recent years, exposing anew the potential for toxin as a powerful tool of political manipulation, intimidation, terror and, of course, old-fashioned, cold-blooded murder.
Among the recent cases is Mr. Navalny, poisoned with Novichok in his tea, and Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, sickened with the same Soviet-era poison on the doorknob of their home in Salisbury, England, in 2018.
Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, died after a particularly audacious attack in which two women smeared the deadly nerve agent VX on his face inside the crowded Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2017. The encounter, which was captured on security video, lasted less than three seconds. The women later said they were tricked into taking part in what they believed was a reality-show prank.
“Sometimes governments will do what you think of as a statement killing‚” said Deborah Blum, a science journalist who specializes in toxicology and poison, in an interview conducted before the attack on Mr. Navalny. “There’s a message: Don’t mess with us. We have a million different ways to take you out, and we can take you out with some very bad things.
“Probably more than anything else, poison makes a wonderful threat. Because it’s like, you’re going to spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder. I can put this anywhere, you won’t know.”
As she pointed out then: “If you wanted to kill someone and you didn’t want to send a message, why would you use Novichok?”
Poisoning is a unique form of violence, and poison a singular kind of weapon. A deadly threat quietly fashioned of everything from mushrooms and flowers to eye-drops and radioactive metal, then administered to unknowing and defenceless victims, who may not even realize they are under attack until it’s too late.
“To me, they are a perfect match,” said Ms. Blum, who has authored two books about the history of poison, The Poisoner’s Handbook and The Poison Squad. “Poisons are the most devious of chemicals, and poisoners are devious by nature.
“One of the things that makes poisoners so particularly interesting is that you cannot have an unpremeditated poison murder,” she said. “You have to think ahead about both what the poison is you’re going to use, what your delivery system is and how you’re going to avoid being caught. Poisoners are routinely the coldest killers in the way that they plan ahead and in the way that they take action knowing [the result] in advance. There’s no impulse to it. They are cold at heart.”
Perhaps that is why there has always been something different about a poison plot. In his 1946 essay Decline of the English Murder, George Orwell surmised that the perfect murder story for a certain reader should involve a middle-class professional man (possibly a dentist or solicitor) who is led astray by his passions, then plans a cunning murder with poison.
Agatha Christie, who worked with pharmaceuticals and studied chemistry in real life – and used poison to kill off more than 30 characters, including with poisoned marmalade, doctored pills and a contaminated shaving brush – has been quoted as saying, “Give me a decent bottle of poison and I’ll construct the perfect crime.”
B.C. toxicologist Dr. Reza Afshari says he has been intrigued by poison his entire life and understands why others are as well. “Poisoning is secretive, it’s mysterious, and mysteries are appealing to people,” said Dr. Afshari, a clinical professor at the University of British Columbia who has spent more than 25 years studying both intentional and environmental poisoning and toxicity, and has written extensively about the topic. “The fact that the poisons are not seen but they can have an effect seems very interesting to people.”
Poisonings currently account for very few homicides in Canada. Statistics Canada attributed an average of fewer than 1 per cent of homicides to poison in the period from 2004 to 2014, and it no longer separates them into their own category. But stories of murder by poison once spilled liberally across the pages of the country’s newspapers.
In the late 1800s, the press reported a story about a “slight of frame, but fairly good-looking” teenager, Rosanna Gauthier, accused of murdering two men and as many as three dogs with poisoned tea and bread in Pembroke, Ont., and, in another case, Mrs. Lotte Evans, accused with her cousin and a friend of twice attempting to poison her husband with strychnine-laced oysters.
The first half of the 20th century saw regular tales of Canadian wives dispatching their husbands with poison soup or cake or, in one case, a poison head-cheese sandwich. There was a man accused of trying to kill his neighbour with poison gin; a Quebec doctor who killed his wife with strychnine; a farmer accused of poisoning another family’s well with the ruthlessly deadly insecticide and pigment, Paris green. There were poisoned candies posted to paramours by jealous lovers, parents poisoning their children and children poisoning their parents. In New Brunswick, a teenage babysitter poisoned a baby’s bottle after reading about a similar crime in a magazine. In one plot in 1922, a man sent a poisoned beauty potion to his estranged wife, but accidentally killed his son when the boy consumed it instead.
Because of its ease of administration, poison has often been known as a women’s weapon, a powerful addition to the arsenal of black widows or Lady Bluebeards, who could unknowingly slip substances to their targets. “Either hang this woman or brand her forehead with a skull and cross-bones, symbol of the arch-poisoner,” a prosecutor declared in 1923 at the trial of a Chicago woman accused of trying to kill four husbands. (In the world of serial poisoners, that tally was comparatively low. Giulia Tofana was executed in Italy in the 1600s after allegedly confessing to killing 600 men through the sale of her Aqua Tofana, a powerful and undetectable poison she sold to abused and unhappy wives in the packaging of a women’s cosmetic.)
But while access to poisons increased in the 20th century, so did the means to detect them. There was also a broader public awareness of poison as a weapon. At some point, store clerks began to get suspicious when you asked for enough gopher poison to kill a man, and “poison books” were increasingly used to record purchases at druggists and hardware stores throughout the country.
The decline in poison deaths in Canada was significant enough that by the spring of 1954, Ontario crime detection laboratory toxicologist Dr. H. Ward Smith declared at a conference in Regina that poison murders were becoming “unfashionable,” and that poison was “rapidly going out of style as a murder medium.” Instead, he said toxicologists had begun focusing on a new and vexing problem, the challenge of creating “a powerful drug that would relieve pain but not cause addiction.”
But while easier detection may have increasingly dissuaded some percentage of unhappy housewives and estranged lovers from poisonous plots, in other ways, poison’s lethal history was just getting started.
Poison was a quiet but fearsome tool in the arsenal of the Cold War, and soon others saw its potential as a tool of terror and intimidation as well.
Politically motivated poison plots have been numerous and varied. In 1978, Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov died in London after being poisoned with a tiny pellet of ricin believed to have been shot into his leg from the tip of an umbrella. Other plots included a plan to kill Fidel Castro with a poisoned cigar.
In 1984, members of the controversial Rajneeshee commune in Oregon attempted to hijack the results of a local election with a mass food-poisoning, which sickened more than 700 people and remains the largest bio-terrorism attack in the history of the United States. In 1995, members of a Japanese doomsday cult killed 12 people and injured hundreds more with a sarin attack on a Tokyo subway.
In the uncertain and insecure days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, letters laced with anthrax began appearing around the U.S., launching a series of white-powder scares and panics throughout the continent. In the past decade, ricin-laced letters have popped up with enough regularity that the poison earned itself a nod in The Atlantic as “the domestic terrorist’s toxin of choice” and, in The Verge, mention as “an oddly popular choice for attempting to poison presidents.”
Poisons have seen enough of a resurgence that a feature in The New York Times in the fall of 2016 even considered whether official tasters could once again be used to protect the powerful from being poisoned in their food.
On the weekend, Mr. Navalny was taken out of an induced coma, and he is being weaned of a ventilator. A statement from Berlin’s Charité hospital said he is responding to verbal stimuli, but that it is too early to know what the long-term physical effects of the poisoning may be.
The broader impact of the high-profile poisoning also remains to be seen.
“To poison Navalny with Novichok in 2020 would be exactly the same as leaving an autograph at a crime scene, like this one,” Mr. Navalny’s long-time ally and strategist Leonid Volkov had written on Twitter soon after the poisoning, beside a photo of Mr. Putin’s name and a signature.
As Mr. Volkov later said in an interview on CNN, “The poison they used, it’s not something you can buy in a drugstore.”
The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the attack.
A poisoning is indeed a powerful statement. Picture the pockmarked skin of Viktor Yushchenko, seriously disfigured after being poisoned with dioxin while a candidate in the Ukrainian presidential election in 2004, or former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko lying in his hospital bed in 2006, dying from exposure to polonium-210, believed to have been slipped to him in a pot of tea. Russian-Canadian dissident Pyotr Verzilov told The Globe and Mail after his own poisoning in 2018 that he didn’t believe the attack on him was intended to be fatal, but that, “It was more of a showpiece.”
But while it’s easy to become paranoid about such a sly and surreptitious threat, Ms. Blum assured that “for most of us, the odds of being keeled over by a homicidal poisoner are pretty low.”
Somewhat less reassuringly, she also says there’s probably not much you can do about it anyhow.
“If someone really wanted to poison you or me, they could acquire a poison and put it in some effective delivery system and you wouldn’t have any warning,” she said.
So, she added, be careful of the enemies you make. She was only half joking.
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