Don't judge a book by its cover. That's what they tell us, at least the idea being that because there's so much wonder and adventure inside, we shouldn't let the cover stop us from opening a book up and digging in. But in 2008, one book tested the limits of that old cliche. It came up for auction in Germany and photos of the book managed to draw a lot of attention closed, it looks like an old 17th century book, roughly 14 by nine inches in size and nearly five inches thick.
There are a couple of book clasps mounted to the cover designed to keep it closed when not in use. There are even a few slender bookmarks poking out from the edges of the pages. But it's the photo of the open book that really caught people's attention because inside the entire book turned out to be fake. On the inside of the front cover, a large etching of the human skeleton had been pasted on, most likely cut from an even older book and where the pages should be with something altogether unexpected, a series of small wooden drawers.
It's honestly pretty fascinating to look at all those tiny little compartments, and each one is labeled two with slender, handwritten notes describing the contents of those drawers. Each one of them apparently once held material from a poisonous plant, wolfsbane, nightshade, thorn, Apple, that sort of thing. A veritable poisonous toolkit right there hidden inside a book. And I can't help but see this old book shaped cabinet as a sort of metaphor for the world we live in because it's pretty clear that most things aren't what they appear to be.
And that danger often lies hidden just around the corner. Most of us, though, are only aware of a small percentage of those threats. Thankfully, history is full of stories that can enlighten us. And at the center of many are the very ingredients found inside that little hidden toolkit. They might grow right outside our door. But they've played a role in countless events that have shaped the course of human civilization. And along the way they've become something more.
All someone had to do, it seems. Was picked their poison. I'm Aaron Manque, and this is Laura. They wanted to silence him as the story goes, the ancient philosopher Socrates had become a bit of a thorn in the side of the political elite in Athens. His era was one of decline for the city state of Athens. Democracy was losing its purity with people of status and wealth, wielding much more power than everyday citizens. And as a result, the people were losing faith in the system.
And Socrates was one of the voices crying out against that change. Fellow philosopher Plato referred to him as an annoying insect, and over time that behavior pushed the leaders of the city too far. Socrates was arrested and put on trial on the charge of corrupting the minds of the youth in true Athenian fashion. After he was found guilty, the court asked Socrates what his punishment should be.
He replied that he should be given an annual stipend from the government and free food and drink for the rest of his life. Instead, they decided to give him just one drink, a mixture containing the poisonous plant known as hemlock. The effects of hemlock on the human body are uniquely destructive. While it has been used for a very long time in small doses to treat things like muscle spasms or seizures, larger amounts could shut down the entire body. First the voluntary muscles, then involuntary systems like breathing.
It's a slow, terrifying death. This idea that one simple cup of a substance could control the life or death of another is an ancient one. It's right there in the mythology of many cultures, in the form of things like elixirs used to give life or take it away. In fact, toxic substances were already thought of as weapons long before cultures like the Athens of Socrates Day had been established, and it carried on long after it was gone as well.
One of the biggest dramas from the Roman era took place around 330 BCE. That was around the time that one historian recorded that powerful men in Rome were dying of unknown causes. And it turns out the person who exposed the truth behind those deaths was an enslaved woman whose name was never recorded. It seems that as the number of deaths climbed higher, this young woman approached one of the senior magistrates in the city and revealed that she could explain all of it, but only if he promised her immunity.
After the magistrate agreed, she told him about a large group of women, rich and poor alike, who had grown tired of the patriarchy to end it. They had all banded together, trading in poisons that each of them used to kill off leaders they had access to. Of course, the women who were listed by this servant all denied the charges. That is, until the poison's themselves were uncovered and brought to the forum. Even then, many refused to admit that the mysterious bottles contained anything toxic.
So this unnamed enslaved woman challenged them to prove how safe the liquids were by drinking them right there in front of the courts. Stubborn to the end, they all agreed, killing them all instantly. Three centuries later, another outsider would make her mark on the rulers of Rome, Lucasta didn't start her journey in the capital city, though it seems that she began life in Gaul, making her one of the sorts of people that Romans thought of as barbarians.
Yet she possessed a valuable skill that caught Rome's attention. She was a master of poison. During her time in Rome, she helped a number of political figures overcome obstacles to their career through her use of poisons, but her big break came when she found herself employed by Empress Agrippina, wife of the Emperor Claudius. And her task was simple. Use her skills to get Claudius out of the way so that Agrippina could rule independently. Years later, her services were called upon again, this time to ensure that Agrippina son Nairo inherit the throne rather than his stepbrother, Britannicus.
It said that Nero himself beats and tortured Lucasta until she produced a poison that worked as quickly as he envisioned. When she delivered, he rewarded her with wealth and property. But it would only last for a little while. When Niros Reign came to an end, so did Lucasta safety. Niros successor had her arrested and sentenced to death thousands of miles away. Another poison ruled. The day in China were certain of its use as far back as around 600 seei.
But it's likely that its roots stretch back even further. It was known as GGU and made primarily in southern China. The folklore around you is not that friendly. On the surface, it was said that women in the south of the country used it on the men from the north that visited their region for trade. These women would seduce the men and then threatened them to not return home and the unique properties of GGU allowed them to do this. According to the stories, GGU is made by placing five venomous creatures in a jar together a snake, a spider, a centipede, a scorpion and a toad.
The idea was that they would slowly kill each other until the last man standing was filled with incredible levels of toxicity. The winner would then be killed, dried and ground up to create the poison made correctly, it should be odorless and tasteless, making it an easy addition to food or drinks. Its effects were slow to one. Dose of goo could take as long as ten days to kill a man, giving them plenty of time to reconsider leaving the south to head back home to their families.
If not, given the antidote, victims would experience pain in their abdomen and chest as the poison slowly ate away at their internal organs. And because of that, there are seemingly endless stories about how to detect and avoid it. Even as recently as 1942, travelers were warned to eat their food with Silvertip chopsticks because the silver would change color if it came in contact with the poison. Clearly, humans have been comfortable with poison for thousands of years. It's been an instrument of execution and extortion and a back door to political advancement.
But along the way, poison has also allowed a few people to do something else. It made them famous. She seemed to be destined for fame. Born in 1894, Olive was considered one of the most beautiful women of her generation. Had she been born today. She probably would have made a healthy income as an influencer on social media by the beginning of the 20th century. Didn't have such things. It did, however, have beauty contests. In 1914, at the age of 20, Olive was crowned the most beautiful girl in New York City.
An impressive claim for such a crowded place. And with that recognition came new opportunities. Soon enough, she was hired to join the other chorus girls performing on Broadway of a New Amsterdam theater. And things just blossomed from there. In 1916, she made the leap that had seemed impossible just a year earlier from stage to screen. Soon enough, she was starring in silent films and earning more in one month than most people earn today in a year. And along the way, she found love.
Olive married actor Jack Pickford that same year, and for a while, their romance was everything one would hope it could be a Jack was soon wondering, which led to fights tension and in Jack's case, syphilis. Olive's dream life seemed to be falling apart. In September of 1920, the couple decided to try and save their marriage by taking a second honeymoon. They sailed to Paris and checked in at the Ritz and began a fun and refreshing vacation focused entirely on themselves.
But one night after returning to the hotel with much more alcohol in their blood that they started with, Jacques climbed into bed while Olive went to the bathroom for something to help her sleep. Moments later, laying in bed, she cried out, Oh, my God, I've been poisoned. Five days later, she was dead and the doctors determined that she had been correct.
She had been poisoned only there was no one to blame but herself impaired by all the alcohol she'd had. Olive apparently mistook Jack's syphilis ointment for her sleeping medication. A chemical caused her kidneys to become inflamed, ultimately ending her life. Oliver Thomas had accomplished much in her short career, but it was that one mistake in Paris that would get people whispering. She may have been famous before, but thanks to poison, her story won't be forgotten anytime soon. They might be said about another woman, although her fame didn't arise from a tragic accidental death.
No, she earned her fame by using poison on others, becoming a household name for over a century. And her name was Julia D'Amato. Julia was the very model of success in 17th century Italy when she was born in 16 20. Her mother was already known throughout Sicily as the person you would go to if you were looking for poison. So when Julia's father mysteriously died in 16 33, her mother was arrested, tried and executed. But Julia had already learned everything she would need to make a name for herself later in life.
After getting married and having a daughter of her own, the family moved first in Naples and then to Rome, and as she did, her business grew making and selling cosmetics to the women of the city. Rome offered her a larger client base, and it seemed that business was booming for her. But not everyone came to her for makeup. Using her mother's recipe, Julia brewed a lethal poison that she sold in small glass bottles. Of course, they weren't labeled poison.
Instead, they were described as the manner of Saint Nicholas of Bahri, an oil that supposedly seeps out of his bones entombed there in southern Italy. They even had a little drawing of a saint on the label, but that was all a ruse. Instead, the liquid was purchased by women looking to rid themselves of horrible husbands administered in doses. This poison, which became known as aqua softener after Julia's married name to Fana, worked slowly building up power each time it was used.
And that slow, measured approach allowed her to welcome qualities. It made the symptoms look like a normal illness, and it allowed the killer to choose the time and place of the final dose. Guilia Tofana's business came to an end when one of her customers got cold feet at the last minute and confessed about the poison to her husband, the man then beat his wife until she revealed where she had purchased the drug and shortly after word went out that the authorities were looking for Guilia.
After hiding out in a church for a while, she was eventually dragged out, arrested and put on trial. It said that she claimed to be responsible for over 600 deaths over the course of her nearly two decade career and as a result was sentenced to death by execution in 16 59, just like her mother before her. And ever since Aqua Tofana became the sort of poison that inspired suspicion and fear, being tasteless and odorless, it was impossible to detect.
And because its effects mimicked other natural illnesses, it was often too late. By the time someone determined the poison was to blame, it said that the legendary composer Mozart believe that he had been poisoned with Aqua Tofana. But it's not true. It was just a rumor, one that Mozart started himself. But it demonstrates the power. The mere mention of that poison could have over the general public poison. And those who used it as a deadly weapon have earned a special place in the pages of history.
But there's one story that seems to defy the rules. It's a tale of mystery, of questions, and one of the deadlier qualities of a human mind. It's the sort of tragedy that can forever alter the way we perceive the world around us and leave us feeling very afraid. They were newlyweds, although they probably wouldn't have looked like it, Fremont was 75 and his new bride, Annie, was 60, they had found new love late in life and had traveled to New York City to celebrate their hotel and choice, the Hotel Margarets.
It had been standing in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn since 1889, so by the time the Jacksons arrived for their honeymoon in April of 1922, it already had a reputation. If you were alive back then, traveling to the city and looking for a pristine, luxurious accommodation, well, the Hotel Margaret was the place to stay. We don't know how the couple spent their time in the city. We don't know where they dined or what sort of sites they took in.
I wish we did because it would help us understand them a bit more. But sadly, all we have is the final chapter of their story. On April 27th, one of the hotel's maids knocked on the door of the room the Jacksons were staying in, but there was no answer. She had arrived to do all those things one might expect. Change the sheets, empty the trash, clean the bathroom. But she found the door locked, assuming the Jacksons were out for an early breakfast.
She pulled out her master key and let herself in. What she found was a scene of horror, Annie Jackson's lifeless body was on the bathroom floor. Her teeth clenched in an eternal grimace of pain and agony.
Her lips and chin were stained with dried blood, and the color of her face had shifted to an odd blue tone. Just outside the bathroom, her husband's body was in the same condition. He was positioned as if he had been trying to crawl to the bathroom to his wife, only to die along the way. It was like walking into a moment, frozen in time, a moment that no one would ever want to experience. But it was much more than that.
This was a true locked room mystery. There was only one exit to the room and it had been locked. Their room was not on the first floor taking the windows out of the equation. And yet here were two dead bodies clearly murdered with no answer as to how or why. The events that followed are what you might expect, the police were called and a medical examiner arrived to study the bodies. His immediate assumption was poisoned, although he would need to wait for the autopsies to know for sure.
But he offered an early guess that the Jacksons had taken their own lives and that the evidence would be found in their stomachs. Except it wasn't. With the autopsy's complete, the authorities were left with more questions than answers. Yes, there had been a minuscule amount of cyanide in their stomachs, but it wasn't enough to kill a person.
So the stomachs of both victims were removed and sent to an expert for further analysis. A chemist named Alexander Gettler, the getler, confirmed what they already knew. The stomaches showed none of the usual evidence of cyanide poisoning. So the police returned to the hotel and began to ask more questions of more people, and in doing so they learned something interesting. One of the maids revealed that the hotel had recently sealed some of the basement rooms with paper, which was standard practice for fumigation.
And that got the authorities thinking. You see back in the 1920s, the way people took care of cleaning was very different from today. For example, it was common to polish your family silver with a product that contained cyanide. It worked amazingly well and that's why they used it, of course. But it was also highly toxic. In fact, it was said that if you had a small cut on your hand when you did this, it could actually kill you.
And while it was rare, this did happen from time to time, cyanide was also a common ingredient in the cleaner used to scrub dirty pots in the kitchen, although most people had gotten really good at thoroughly rinsing them before using them. And the toxic chemical was used in something else. Fumigation. On a hunch, the medical examiner exhumed the bodies and had the lungs removed for study. And sure enough, Dr. Gettler found the evidence he was looking for.
And with this, the final piece of the puzzle fell into place. It seems that the Jacksons had retired to their room the day before, just like any other guest in the hotel. But while the basement rooms were being fumigated, some of the cyanide gas managed to leak out and find its way up to their room. After that, the effects of the poison would have shut down their body's ability to process oxygen, and they would have essentially strangled to death.
Sadly, the rest of the case did not go the way we might assume it should. The hotel manager denied that they had fumigated anything. And when the manager and the fumigator who did the job were brought to court, their lawyers attacked the medical evidence as unreliable and then called on paid witnesses to confirm those denials. And in the end, it worked, the manager and fumigator walked away from the trial without consequences for their obvious actions, and the family of Fremont's and Annie Jackson had to endure attack after attack on the character of their dead loved ones.
Which is a sad reminder that not all toxic things are substances we can pluck from the ground or mix up in a lab, sometimes lives are poisoned by an even more insidious weapon and one that shows no sign of ever going away. Injustice. Poison feels like a weapon pulled straight from the pages of folklore, almost magical in nature, a little vial of liquid or a dash of powder could have the power to change lives, alter careers and gift death to the unsuspecting.
In the mythology of ancient Greece, Heraclitus was a divine hero known for his feats of strength and victory over monsters. In one story, he used the venom of the Hydra to coat the tips of his arrows, allowing him an advantage over his foes. So maybe it's no wonder that the Greek writer Homer mentions soldiers in the Trojan War. Crafting poisoned weapons of their own poison makes us feel like gods changing the fate of others with a seemingly magical substance.
Maybe that's why it's not surprising that so many people have abused that power over the course of human history. And clearly stories like the one about the Fremont's leave us aware of all the toxicity around us. In an ideal world, no one is slipped a deadly toxin or denied justice for a clear and obvious murder. But our world has never been ideal as it. For some, justice has arrived, though it's just taken a long time. A great example of this would be a woman named Mary Ann Cotton.
She was born in England in 1831 and over the course of her short life of 40 years, managed to kill three of her four husbands, all but two of her 13 children, a couple of lovers and a number of stepchildren. All told, it's estimated that Mary Ann Cotton was responsible for at least 21 one murders. And in all cases, she used a slow acting poison with arsenic as the main ingredient. And in doing so, she became England's first female serial killer.
Hers was a killing spree that happened right under the nose of just about everyone she knew. And it took years for all that baggage to catch up. But in 1873, it did. And she was tried and sentenced to death for the murder of her stepson, Charles, on the 24th of March. She was hanged for her crimes. Mary Ann Cotton wasn't the first killer of her kind, and she wouldn't be the last. Even today, new killers use new poisons to commit a crime that's older than most cultures in the world.
Some get caught and punished, but there will always be another to take their place. When it's all said and done, though, these stories leave us asking a more important question, what's more toxic, the poison or the people? Stories of poisoners and the tools they used are only as thrilling as the effects those tools have on others, whether by accident or intention, the aftermath of a poisoning can leave a community reeling. And with that in mind, I have one last story to share.
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And with my promo code more, you get a special offer that includes a four week trial plus free postage and a digital scale. No long term commitments or contracts. Just go to Stamps.com, click on the microphone at the top of the homepage and then type in the word law that stamps.com offer Kotler Stamps.com never go to the post office again. Lillian had a job in the city, she worked as a typist for one of the businesses in the Townsend building, which stood over near Madison Square Park at the corner of West 25th Street and Broadway.
Her employer may dress close and by all accounts, she loved her job. Lillian was only 17 and she lived with her parents, but I have to imagine there was something magical for her about stepping out into the hot New York City streets in the summer of nineteen twenty two. Everything must have felt alive and prosperous. After all, the country was still a few years away from the precipice of the Great Depression and everything just seemed to be firing on all cylinders.
On the morning of July 31st, Lillian left the house for work but was stopped by her mother. Would she care for a packed lunch? The older woman asked her, but Lillian left it off.
The heat would probably take away her appetite, she told her mother. But if she got hungry, there were plenty of places to grab a bite to eat. Then she said goodbye and headed to work. Hunger did arrive later that day, and like a lot of the others in the towns and building both in her company and others throughout it, she left her desk and went looking for food. At the time, one of the more popular spots within walking distance was a restaurant called the Shelbourne.
So Lillian followed the steady flow of fellow office workers down the block. She had a sandwich and then for dessert, a cup of coffee and a generous piece of their huckleberry pie. And then she went back to work. But as the afternoon went on, a darkness fell across the town's and building. People were running to the restroom and those who couldn't make it were vomiting at their desk. Many were overcome by all of it to the point of passing out.
And one of those was Lillian. Sensing a larger emergency, doctors were called to the building and they began to try treating every sick person they could find, they brought stomach pumps with them and were moving from patient to patient, trying to remove whatever they'd eaten before the symptoms became worse. And they had reason to be afraid. The worst of the sick were showing signs of something far more terrifying than food poisoning. Some were actually turning blue in the face and constantly cried out in pain.
And one of those was poor young Lillian. All told, at least 60 people from the building were rushed to the hospital and before the day was over, six of them were dead. Lillian was among them. And naturally, people started asking questions about what might have caused it. So the police dug in, starting with the place where all of them had eaten their lunch. The Shelbourne. At first, the investigation made headway into the mystery. After medical reports on the contents of the stomachs of each victim, the food was narrowed down to one of the pies offered at the restaurant, and that meant that the poison had been in the crust.
The next day, tests at the restaurant confirmed what they all suspected. And the owner of the restaurant was highly motivated to find the cause, a large percentage of his own employees had also become sick, probably from eating leftovers after the lunch rush had finished. But he refused to believe it was some sort of outside job sabotage by a competitor. Instead, he believed it was one of his own. You see the very two men who had made the dough for all the pies had mysteriously failed to get sick, and one of those bakers, the older of the two, had recently heard the rumor that he was going to be fired soon to the restaurant owner.
That seemed like all the motive. Someone would need to do something as horrible as poisoning an entire day's worth of customers. Despite posting a hefty reward for any evidence that might lead to an arrest, no one stepped forward and the two bakers kept their mouths shut through multiple interviews in the end with no one to arrest. There was no trial and no consequences for the six murders and dozens of critically ill patrons, just like the poison's so many killers have used over the course of human civilization.
The work of the Shelbourne killer was difficult to trace, harder to prove and impossible to reverse. Their actions took lives without warning and left everyone else grasping at the invisible straws of justice and were easy to sum up in a single word. Toxic. This episode of law was written and produced by me, Aaron Manque, with research by Ali Steed and music by Chad Lawson, law is much more than just a podcast, though. There's a book series available in bookstores and online and two seasons of the television show on Amazon Prime video.
Check them both out if you want a bit more law in your life. I also make an executive produce a whole bunch of other podcasts, all of which I think you'd enjoy. My production company, Grim and Mild, specializes in shows that sit at the intersection of the dark and the historical. You can learn more about all of our shows and everything else going on over in one central place, grim and mild dotcom. And you can also follow this show on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
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