On War And Warfare


Biotoxins in Warfare


David W. Tschanz

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil & bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting
Lizard's leg & howlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell broth boil and bubble.
  Act IV, Scene 1

Most persons familiar with the witches scene from Macbeth treat these lines as little more than nonsense rhymes meant to portray insanity.  But the witches who dabbled in these recipes were not as crazy as they might appear. The poison produced by certain frogs, known as betrachotoxin and used by Colombian Indians to tip blow gun darts, is 25 times deadlier than cobra venom. The lowly newt produces tetrodotoxin, another poison of awesome potency.  A brew made from the eye of newt and toe of frog, properly devised by a well-informed old crone, could quickly dim the roving eye of a feudal swain or forever alter the destiny of a medieval prince or dynasty.

Much has been written about biological warfare.   But some diseases, like botulism, are often considered weapons of biological or bacteriological warfare along with anthrax and other living organisms that reproduce.  But death is caused by the chemical poisons that the organisms secrete.  These toxins are not living things. They cannot reproduce. Naturally occurring, they cannot be grouped with the synthetic poisons of the industrial age -- phosgene, mustard agent, or nerve agents that form the basis of chemical warfare.   But their potential in warfare is real and they can and have been used.

The world is a cornucopia of poisons.  Mankind is surrounded by other living creatures that produce chemical substances that can kill him.  Even the most innocent of decorative house plants --such as the colorful croton-- can be a deadly killer. Ricin, the poison produced by castor beans (used to make castor oil), is nearly one hundred times as deadly as cobra venom. Oleander can bring on death within a few short hours.  These are only a few.

Primitive man gained his knowledge of poisons simply by observing the casualties from eating certain animals or plants, or their roots, nuts, berries or juices.  They extracted these substances to stun or kill fish, or to tip their arrows before hunting as with curare in the Amazon.

Many of these primitive concoctions for hunting, combat or ritual, have been chemically reproduced.  Curare, in small doses, has a medical value as it can relax the muscular system without damage.  Ancient man found other natural poisons useful in producing intoxication, visions or abortions when applied in controlled quantities.  Some were used in religious rituals, Inca sacrificial victims were given cocoa leaf to chew to deaden their sense to the numbing cold at 20,000 feet.  Others included opium, strychnine, caffeine, atropine, digitalis and ergotamine.  For magical visions, pain-killers or group therapy there was a choice of nightshade, henbane, mandrake, thorn apple, marijuana, betel nut, peyotl and assorted mushrooms. Other nuts, roots, berries and juices were especially useful for suicide, murder and ritual trial (the accused was forced to swallow a potion or chew a twig and guilt or innocence was determined by whether he or she died).

Not much more than a century ago, less in some areas, everyone was familiar with folk poisons to some extent or knew someone who was. In 1895, the fourth edition of John Reese's Text-book of Medical Jurisprudence and Toxicology stated that poisoning was still "the most frequent of all the causes of violent death, the casualties of war excepted." As Western societies became more urbanized, people became estranged from their traditional close association with plants and animals, except as pre-packaged groceries and ornamentals shrubs. Sources of poisons were lost or forgotten, or buried in the back of most people's mind. The poisons produced by herbs, fungi, reptiles, amphibians and marine creatures not only live on in murder mysteries but in the military plans of the past and present.

Bacterial Toxins




    Trichothecenes or T2 toxins

Other Toxins



Biotoxins in Warfare


    Plague of Athens

    Xenophon, Pompey and the Honey Of Trabzon

    Yellow Rain?

Biotoxins as An Assasin's Weapons

    The Strange Case of Reinhard Heydrich

      The Men with the Bulgarian Umbrellas

Biotoxins As Weapons: Potentials & Realities

     As a Terrorist's Weapon

     As a Weapon of Mass Destruction

Appendix: Famous & Infamous Victims of Poison



Anyone who has ever suffered the agony of vomiting, nausea, cramping and diarrhea after eating improperly handled or contaminated food knows that bacteria can produce toxins. Simple staphylococcal food poisoning ("ptomaine poisoning") usually leaves it victims afraid they will die in its initial phases, then, as the disease progresses, afraid that they won't die. Like other enterotoxins, staphylococcal toxin remains even after the organism dies. The symptoms it produces are the body trying to rid itself of the toxin. Proper handling of food is the simplest way to prevent it. But there are more fearful bacterial toxins -- one of them is the reason mothers instruct their children never to buy dented or bulging canned good.

Of all the earth's natural poisons few are as deadly as botulin toxin, the chemical secretion of Clostridium botulinum. Botulism takes its name from the Latin word for sausage because it was first identified in 1793 when thirteen people in a small German town fell sick after eating the same sausage. The bacterium was isolated a hundred years later when band members in a small Belgian town fell sick after eating a ham. Shaped like a stout rod, Clostridium boutlinum commonly and harmlessly grows in the oxygen free layers of the soil. When environmental conditions do not favor continued growth it produces nearly indestructible spores that can lie dormant for years.

The organism can be found everywhere and spores constantly contaminate food of all types. If the food is not cooked properly before canning, to kill the spores, they survive inside the can or bottle. In the oxygen free environment provided there the spores germinate and the bacteria rapidly multiply, secreting their lethal toxin. Whoever eats the food becomes dizzy, tired, and develops severe headaches. Vision grows blurry. The toxin damages the autonomic nervous system by blocking the transmission of nerve impulses. Eventually death occurs by asphyxiation when the respiratory muscles submit to paralysis.

Commercial canning processes rarely allow the survival of C. botulinum spores. The last outbreak traced to a commercial packer in the United States occurred in 1925. The handful of cases that still occur are associated with either home canned products (where a vacuum is not created) or products not heated properly in which a partial vacuum exists (such as sausage). Bulging cans are the sign of anaerobic bacteria gas-producing activity and in the early years of this century it was common practice for some unscrupulous store owners to dent cans in this condition. The hitting of the can rediffused the gas. Mothers warned their children not to purchase dented cans, a piece of folk wisdom that continues to this day.



The greatest cause of death in the Middle Ages, aside from pestilence, was bread. After the collapse of classical enlightenment agriculture was conducted with neither care nor wisdom.   The planting and harvesting of grain was done in dismal ignorance. Once harvesting was completed landlords hoarded it to maintain stocks in the face of famine or to squeeze higher prices from the hungry. Europe's damp winters and improper storage set the stage for further misery. In the rye, wheat, barley, rice and oats a variety of fungal poisons and molds grew, producing toxins in the grain. Grain that would have been rejected by any Roman, Egyptian, Arab or Greek farmer were turned into bread or fed to livestock. Epidemics of Saint Anthony's fire and other mycotoxins killed thousands of people and livestock.

The most familiar of these ghastly fungal poisons was ergot. Ergot is first mentioned in an Assyrian tablet dating from 600 BC as a noxious pustule found on the ears of grain. A sacred text of the Farsis of Persian from 400 BC speaks of a deadly grass that caused abortions in cattle.   One chronicler described the impact of an epidemic in France in 943 AD:

"Shrieking, wailing and writhing men collapsed in the street. Many stood up from their tables and rolled like wheels through the room; others toppled over and foamed in epileptic convulsions; still others vomited and showed signs of sudden insanity. Many of then screamed "Fire! I'm burning!"

The symptoms were called holy fire, occult fire, Saint Anthony's fire, or Saint Vitus' dance. The symptoms of ergotism combined a sensation of cold hands and feet (cause by the contraction of vein and arteries in the extremities) followed by terrible burning because of the cutting off of circulation. Then came gangrene. The limbs quickly turned black from necrosis and finally arms, legs, ears and genitalia fell off. Death followed shortly afterward. A recent novel by Robin Cook suggests that ergotism was the root cause of the Salem Witch trials.

Ergot is a black or dark purple mass, a long, hard clubbed shaped structure formed by the mold Claviceps purpurea. The mycotoxins, which form in grains stored in dampness, contain alkaloids that are derivatives of lysergic acid. They block nerve impulses, cause constriction of the veins and arteries, stimulate and depress different parts of the brain and cause progressive paralysis and uterine contractions. With the restoration of agricultural know how, ergotism disappeared from area where proper storage of grain could be maintained and hunger did not drive persons to use grains they would otherwise reject. But ergotamine is not the only mycotoxin derived found in bread.

Another grain mycotoxin was identified in Russia in 1891 in the Ussuri district of eastern Siberia. Called the "staggering sickness" because its victims were stricken with vertigo, headache, chills, nausea and vomiting, the disease made several recurrences in the Soviet Union in 1934 and throughout the 1940s. The primitive harvesting methods still practiced in the midst of revolution, famine and war led to practices assuring its growth. It was common practice, particularly in the Caucasus, to leave grain in the fields over winter. But the cycle of thaw, refreeze and thaw promoted the growth of mold. The grain, now thoroughly infested was gathered up by hungry peasants determined not to waste a single stalk.   Grain poisoning added to the death toll.

Soviet doctors christened the disease alimentary toxic aleukia (ATA). The mycotoxins, produced by Fusarium poae and Fusarium sprotichiodes, were called trichothecenes or T2 toxins.

Outbreaks of ATA continued through 1947. Similar afflictions struck horses and cattle in Russia and Eastern Europe in 1958-9 through infected feed grains. There have been instances of T2 poisoning all over the world.   An outbreak killed 100,000 turkeys in England in 1960 after they ate peanut meal contaminated with aflatoxin, another T2 toxin.

T2 toxins are very stable, especially in solid form and may be stored for years at room temperature without loss of potency, even at temperatures of 100 F. They are easily absorbed through the skin or internal membranes. A dose as small as 0.1 mg/kg is fatal, making it more dangerous than cobra venom. These characteristics brought them to the attention of Soviet and American unconventional warfare experts, as will be discussed.



In the 1970's a University of Wisconsin co-ed adopted the current fashion of wearing a necklace of polished beans purchased in Mexico.   She nervously rubbed the beads in class then rubbed her eyes. A few hours later she was unable to see and was violently ill from an ancient poison.   Centuries earlier Gypsies had worn similar necklaces as a means of keeping the poisons handy for use on their enemies.   The toxin is known as ricin.

The source of ricin, the castor plant, is an attractive household ornamental, which can grow up to thirty or forty feet in height.   Its leaves are maroon and silky when young, dark green or dark red when mature. The entire plant is poisonous, particularly the smooth oval seeds about three-quarters of an inch long.   But when they are pressed to produce castor oil (which is not poisonous) the remaining residue is a supertoxin. When eaten by humans, the toxin has a delayed effect of about ten hours. The symptoms are severe burning in the mouth, throat and stomach, nausea, vomiting, cramps, delirium, convulsions and death after ten to twelve days.   However, there are many illnesses that can cause similar symptoms. Unless a doctor knows or suspects that ricin is involved there is no way that it can be detected, even by an autopsy, since the poison is metabolized completely.   This makes ricin a perfect and ancient means of assassination.

In 1952, under the code-name M. K. Naomi, the CIA identified another biotoxin for use as a suicide pill for its agents to swallow when captured. The World War II era potassium cyandide capsule was not satisfactory. Cyanide can take up to fifteen minutes to work and causes an agonizing death by asphyxiation. Agents were understandably reluctant to use it.

Saxitoxin, a mollusk poison produced by a tiny marine plankton known as a dinoflagellate was identified as a possible replacement. The dinoflagellate involved is the cause of red tides --the unpredictable sporadic red-colored murk spreading over large stretches of ocean in warmer zones.  During red tides shellfish become toxic and can cause paralysis or death if eaten.  

In its purified form the saxitoxin is incredibly deadly.

After swallowing toxin or receiving it in a pinprick, the victim feels a tingling sensation in the fingers and lips. Ten seconds later he is dead. U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers carried saxitoxin in the grooves of a tiny drill bit concealed in a silver dollar in his clothing on his historic fight over the Soviet Union.



The first uses of poison in warfare almost certainly involved dabbing them on the points of arrows and spears. Shortly afterward, enterprising strategists began poisoning the water supplies of besieged cities.

Around 600 BC misguided individuals in Delphi's port city, Cirrha, stole land deeded to Apollo's temple.   Called upon to right this wrong, Solon besieged Cirrha and built a dam across the Plesitus River, cutting off the city's water supply. Drinking well and rain water, the Cirrhaeans held on for several months. Solon then tossed hellebore roots into the dammed water, let them dissolve and then released the river to its channel. The Cirrhaeans drank the water and developed violent and uncontrollable diarrhea.   With the defenders otherwise occupied, Solon seized the unguarded walls. Such practices were widespread. During the second year of the Peloponnesian War in 430 BC when plague broke out in Athens, the Spartans were accused of poisoning the cisterns of the Piraeus, the source of most of Athens' water.

There were other methods as well. In 401 BC Xenophon led his Greek soldiers in a hasty retreat from Babylon. To the Greeks the campsite near Trabzon looked very much like heaven.   Fish were available from the nearby sea, the hills were covered with beautiful rhododendrons, and the woods harbored rich beehives. The soldiers than feasted on honeycombs.  The result, as Xenophon recorded, was unpleasant.

All the soldiers who ate of the honeycombs lost their senses, and were seized with vomiting and purging, none of them being able to stand on their legs. Those who ate but a little were like men very drunk, and those who ate much, like madmen and some like dying persons. In this condition great numbers lay on the ground, as if there had been a defeat, and the sorrow was general. The next day none of them died, but recovered their senses about the same hour they were seized. And the third day they got up as if they had taken a strong potion.

Xenophon had been lucky.   The pursuing Colchian army had not attacked during the army's prostration and near impotence.

In 67 BC the Roman General Pompey set out to conquer King Mithridates IV of Pontus. Over the course of a year Mithridates slowly retreated before the Roman advance until the two armies confronted one another near Trabzon, on the black sea coast of Turkey.   Although the Romans thought the retreat was unplanned the maneuver and the direction were urged by Mithradites chief adviser, the Greek physician Kateuas.

Pompey's hungry troops repeated the honey-feasting of Xenophon's troops. Modern science calls the poison in Trabzon's honey a grayanotoxin. Grayanotoxins are produced by various species of rhododendrons and laurels and are present in the nectar of these plants, which is collected by bees for making honey. The toxins selectively bind to the sodium channels in cell membranes.   When excitable cells such as those in nerves or muscles start pumping sodium out through their membranes grayanotoxins prevent the pumps from turning off, and so the cells remain in an excited state. Like the Greek army three and a half century earlier, the Romans went into drunken convulsions.   This time the Pontians, cued by Kateuas, were waiting for the result of the "mad honey poisoning."    The army did not escape but was massacred.



War continued to be fought through the millenia and poisons were used whenever it was considered advantageous. In World War I synthetic chemical weapons were used for the first time with deadly effect. The emphasis on these weapons and their control caused many to forget that the biotoxins still existed.

On September 13, 1981 Alexander Haig, then Secretary of State accused Soviet-backed Communist forces in Southeast Asia of using a novel toxin weapon in Southeast Asia -- "potent mycotoxins, poisonous substances not indigenous to the region and which are highly toxic to man and animals."

The basis of the charge was the analysis of a leaf, a one inch length of stem and fragments of other leaves from an area on the Thai/Cambodia border which Vietnamese planes allegedly attacked.   The samples were carefully parceled out to a handful of laboratories for analysis. Biologists, unaware of the source of their samples, concluded that the leaf was covered by Fusaria fungus and contained three different mycotoxins. The concentrations were 20 times higher than any recorded natural outbreak.   Further supporting this were reports among refugees that they had been subjected to air attacks by low flying planes that had diffused a yellow powder. After exposure to this "yellow rain" they became ill with a variety of symptoms suggestive of T2 toxin poisoning and many died.

The mycotoxin reported was a T2 toxin. In the ensuing months controversy surrounded the charges.   Evidence suggested that the State Department did not know what it was talking about when it claimed the mycotoxin did not appear in Southeast Asia, which it did. Some scientists suggested that the "toxin" was actually little more than bee feces which was eventually proven to be the case.   Anthropologists raised serious objections to the way interviews were conducted with the underlying assumption on the part of the interviewer being that an attack had occurred.  They questioned the American government's motive in making the charge, suggesting it was part of a propaganda ploy to step up chemical and biological warfare production.

The critics had their own axes to grind. The most vociferous were participants and architects of the 1972 Biological Warfare Convention. Evidence that the Soviet Union was producing mycotoxins would invalidate the crowning achievement of their careers. No resolution has ever been achieved in the case, but it serves as a reminder of how difficult detecting such weapons can be.



Poison has a long and rich tradition as an assassin's weapon. Very few famous and infamous persons have died suddenly without someone raising the charge of poisoning.  At the same time there is little question that it has been used to eliminate those who for reasons of state (or personal revenge) needed to be removed from the scene in a discreet and/or sure manner.

The debut of botulism as a weapon of war was not in the elimination or wholesale disabling of a population.   But, in assuring the death of one man on May 27, 1941 on a street corner in Prague, Czechoslovakia.

In addition to the anthrax bomb, Porton Down was working on BTX, the botulin toxins. Botulism, as described earlier, generally appears as a particularly virulent form of food poisoning, with an average mortality rate of 60%.   It can also appear as "wound botulism" -- a rare complication that occurs when a puncture wound becomes infected with botulinum spores and heals partially, creating an anaerobic chamber the organism can live in.   If the toxin is introduced directly into the bloodstream the course of the disease is exactly the same as if the victim had ingested contaminated food.

The British Secret Service turned to Paul Fildes, director of Porton Down's research for help when, in October 1941 they began to plan Operation Anthropoid. Its object was the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.

Heydrich had already acquired a fearsome reputation as the ruthless head of the Sicherheitdienst (SD), the Nazi Security Service. Hitler's personal choice as the man to succeed him as Fuhrer, Heydrich was appointed Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia in September 1941.

Despite his reputation for ruthless suppression, or possibly because of it, Heydrich was very successful in his new role. By means of both the carrot and the stick he turned the Protectorate, with its extensive arms industries, into an important component in the German war economy. After only one season, the Reichsprotektor's charges were eating better and working shorter hours -- while being more productive -- than any other area in the Greater Reich. The British decided he had to go. Operation Anthropoid was launched.

In December 1941 seven Czech assassins were parachuted in semi-moonlight near the small Bohemian town of Lidice. They carried British arms, radio and cipher equipment. Two weapons were handled with extreme care. They were British No. 73 Hand anti-tank grenades. Normally the grenades were 9.5 inches long and weighed 4 pounds.   The grenades the Czechs carried were special conversions, consisting of the top third of the grenade, with adhesive tape thickly binding the open end. The grenades each weighed just over 1 pound. They had been personally prepared by Fildes at Porton Down and given, perhaps personally by Fildes to the Czechs there.

The assassins, led by Jan Kubis and Josef Gabick, went into hiding with the help of the Czech underground. Over the next five months they built up a detailed picture of Heydrich's movements. On the 27th of May, having found out precisely where he would be, they struck.

Precise details as to what happened differ but there were six assassins -- four men armed with submachine guns and grenades, one with a mirror to flash a signal when Heydrich's car rounded the hairpin bend near the Troja Bridge in a suburb of Prague, and Rela Fafek, Gabick's girl friend.   She would precede Heydrich's car, signaling whether he had a military escort or not. Surprisingly for such a high-ranking Nazi, he rarely traveled with an armed escort, today was no different.

Heydrich's open topped green Mercedes rounded the bend, where Gabick was standing in the middle of the road with a submachine gun.   Gabick's gun jammed.   Heydrich screamed at the chauffeur to put his foot on the accelerator but the driver, a last minute replacement, kept slamming on the brakes. Jan Kubis, the other leader, threw one of Fildes' grenades at the car.

It missed but the explosion tore off the door. Splinters embedded themselves in Heydrich's body.   Heydrich leapt into the road, cursing and screaming, then suddenly dropped his service revolver.   Clutching his right hip he staggered backwards and collapsed. The gunmen fled.

Heydrich, in considerable pain and bleeding from his back was driven, fully conscious, to the nearby Bulovka Hospital. Examined by physicians, he had several serious wounds. A splinter of either the grenade or car body was in the chest wall near the spleen, a rib was broken and the diaphragm had been pierced. The wounds were not a cause for alarm nor were they considered mortal. An operation was performed to removed the splinters from the wound which was about three inches deep.

A day later Heyrich's condition unexpectedly deteriorated.   By the end of the day he was in a coma.   On June 4th he died.   His general degradation was accompanied by symptoms consistent with botulin poisoning --extreme weakness, malaise, dry skin, dilated and unresponsive pupils, dry coated tongue and mouth. These were accompanied by a progressive muscular weakness with facial paralysis and weakness of arms, legs and respiratory muscles.  His death, according to the Czech doctor who initially examined him, was "totally unexpected."

The heads of the German Institute of Pathology and the German Institute of Forensic Medicine, drew up a joint report on the cause of Heydrich's death. They stated that death occurred as a consequence of lesion in the [vital] organs cause by bacteria and possibly poisons carried into them by the bomb splinters."

There is no written evidence of Fildes' involvement in Heydrich's death. The files on the entire operation are still sealed. There is only the circumstantial evidence of the grenades, the suspicious nature of Heydrich's demise, and the claims of Fildes himself.  To Alvin Pappenheimer, then a young American biologist and later a Professor of Microbiology at Harvard, Fildes bragged that Heydrich's murder "was the first notch on my pistol."


A Man and an Umbrella

If the cause of Heydrich's death is unclear, that of Georgi Ivanov Markov is not. Markov had been a successful Bulgarian playwright in Sofia.  As comrade of artists, actresses and performers in the state theaters, he came in close contact with the leaders of the Communist party and government officials who mixed with the performers, partied with them and conducted furtive affairs. In 1969 Markov defected. He soon found a job with the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), covering the cultural affairs of Eastern Europe.  In his off-hours he wrote and broadcast political commentary for Radio Free Europe.

Corruption was his favorite target and he used his experience in the theater scene to portray a vivid picture of aparatchikluxury amidst the general poverty in Bulgaria.  He recounted his personal memories of senior party leaders including descriptions of their intimate behavior and occasionally giving the names of their mistresses.

On September 7, 1978 Markov was returning from lunch when he felt a sharp sudden pain in the back of his right thigh.  It was the point of an umbrella.  A powerfully built man had poked him as he passed.

That evening Markov became ill. His health deteriorated rapidly and on September 11th he died.   During the autopsy the pathologists noticed what they took to be a tiny metal pinhead in Markov's right thigh.  They summoned the British Anti- Terrorist Squad who took the tiny pellet to Porton Down.

The pellet turned out to a 1.52 millimeter spherical jeweler's watch bearing. Two holes had been drilled through it at right angles to each other producing an X-shaped hollow in the pellet.  The holes were empty.

Two week earlier, on August 26th, Vladimir Kostov had suffered a similar stinging sensation in his back while leaving the Metro station under the Arc de Triomphe. Kostov, another Bulgarian defector developed a raging fever, but recovered. Acting on a hunch the British examined an X-ray of Kostov's back and discovered a pellet identical to that which had been taken from Markov's thigh.  Kostov was called to the hospital and the pellet removed.

Because Kostov had been wearing a bulky sweater at the time of his encounter, the pellet had not penetrated as deeply as Markov's.   A coating of wax, intended to melt at body temperature had only partly melted and only a portion of the 450 micrograms of the pellets contents had entered Kostov. Chemical analysis of the remainder was clear.  The contents were ricin.  The ancient Gypsy poison was still being used in the Twentieth Century.



Biotoxins have the ability to kill large numbers of people in a very short period of time. Small quantities are sufficient to kill thousands. Unlike biological agents, biotoxins are unable to reproduce or mutate spontaneously so they are unlikely to turn on those employing them.

As a potential terrorist weapon biotoxins are more than science fiction. The distressing thing about "bioterrorism" is that it does not have to succeed in actually harming anyone or anything in order to have an impact.   Consider, for example, the 1989 cases of the two cyanide-laced Chilean grapes. No one ingested cyanide and no one was harmed by the toxin.   In fact the amount found was too small to be lethal. Yet the publicity surrounding these two grapes caused a voluntary boycott by American consumers that resulted in several million dollars worth of damage to Chilean agriculture, the bankruptcy of more than a hundred growers and shippers and strained relations between Chile and the United States. Imagine the other sorts of damage a terrorist might do by simply announcing that botulin or another biotoxin had been introduced into a city's water supply.

Fortunately heating destroys most living organisms and nearly all of their toxins, so even if these agents were used to contaminate food or water, cooking or heating would render them harmless.   Protection against this sort of "attack" may require little more than adequate locks on access doors and hatches, supplemented by regular analyses.

As weapons of war biotoxins leave a great deal to be desired. Not only are they highly unstable -- the US Army abandoned the idea of using botulin as an aerosol when it discovered that simple sunlight degraded it to impotency -- but extracting most of them is no simple task.   For example, one hundred pounds of shellfish must be ground up in order to make enough saxitoxin to kill just a handful of persons.   Difficulties on this order of magnitude make biotoxins unattractive weapons of mass destruction.

Military planners find it far easier and more efficient to rely on something which can be mass produced, remains stable under a variety of conditions and is easily delivered. Biotoxins may have potential, but are not likely to replace more readily obtainable and easier to utilize methods.

David W. Tschanz

Some proven, others speculative

The sudden death of powerful individuals has often been accompanied by suspicion and charges of poison.   In the past, when toxins were not detectable, all that needed to be looked for was a person with motive.   Anyone with a motive was considered a potential assassin. In more modern times, anyone dying under suspicious circumstances without an autopsy can be the rumored (or perhaps real) victim of poison. (Author's comments in italics).

Augustus Caesar.   Suetonius claims that Augustus, in his eighties, was done in by Augusta. He claimed that she had smeared poison on the pears on a tree the Princeps was particularly fond of. (Suetonius is often referred to in historiography as a scandal-monger -- it seems unlikely that there was an overwhelming need to assassinate a man in his eighties)

Socrates. Actually he was poisoned by his own hand. Found guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens, he was forced to drink hemlock.

Claudius Caesar.   Another of Suetonius' poisoned emperors. He apparently succumbed to poisoned mushrooms served by his wife to make room for her son Nero.

Zachary Taylor.   Rumors abounded for several years that this American President was done in by pro-slavery forces with either strychnine or arsenic. Recent forensic evidence suggests he was poisoned not by enemies but by the Salmonella he picked up from the potato salad at the dedication of the Washington monument. The only American president known to have died of food poisoning.

John Paul I (Albino Luciano).  The shortest reigning pope in four centuries, the youngest pope at the time death of his in 350 years and the first pope to die unattended since 1600, his death caused a great deal of speculation. The matter was complicated further by the Vatican's refusal to perform an autopsy, and the official story of his discovery not matching the reality.At least one author has woven a complicated conspiracy theory involving the Vatican Bank, Jesuits, a FreeMason group called P-2, the fanatic Catholic group Opus Dei and most of the Roman Curia.

(There are enough strange happenings in the death of John Paul I, the deliberate lies and the strange behavior of certain church officials to render this as "not proven" though the author personally thinks the conspiracy theorists are wrong).

Pius XI (Achille Ratti).   Another 20th Century papal death.   This pope was rumored to be on the verge of condemning fascism in 1939 when he died rather suddenly.   Poisoning theorists point out that his physician was a relative of the Italian Foreign Minister.

Alexander VI (Borgia). This Renaissance pope was the father of Lucretia Borgia -- one of history's most infamous poisoners. Alexander VI was reputed to achieved his office by literally poisoning the opposition. Then, according to Onofrio Panvino, the official chronicler of the Popes, he poisoned three cardinals and numerous church notables to keep them from interfering with the succession of his son, Cesare Borgia, as the next pope. But Alexander died before his task was complete. At his funeral rumors abounded that he had poisoned himself accidentally by drinking a doctored glass of wine intended for an opponent at a dinner party on a country estate.

Napoleon Bonaparte.   The acquiescence of the relatively young Napoleon to his exile on Saint Helena, and his early death are a matter of some speculation. At least one author has gone so far as to suggest that Napoleon's death was the result of deliberate arsenic poisoning on the part of the British government.

Warren Harding.   Mrs. Harding gets accused of this one. Harding was said to have fallen afoul of his wife because of his marital infidelities   At the same time the President, who was on a cross-country tour, had told his wife of the Teapot Dome scandal about to erupt. She decided to do him in to save him the pain of the scandal while they were in San Francisco. The doctors present agreed he died of a stroke.

Louis XIV.   The Sun King died of natural causes, but he was the rumored object of another type of chemical potion, love philtres   purchased by the Marquise de Montespan.   So widespread was poisons in Louis's reign that in April 1679, 319 writs of arrest were handed down by a special tribunal in the infamous "Affair of the Poisoners.   Thirty four were executed, four sent to the galleys and another thirty-four sent in exiles. Among the convicted was Catherin Deshayes, Madame Monvoisin, several nieces of Cardinal Mazarin and assorted princesses, dukes, marquesses and other royalty.

Rasputin.  The "Mad Monk" actually died from repeated gunshot wounds and being dumped in the frozen River Neva on December 29, 1916. But Prince Felix Yussopov and other conspirators had tried to poison him first with massive doses of cyanide. Rasputin's inhuman resistance was most likely due to a common practice in the Russian courts of taking progressively larger doses of popular poisons to acclimate his system and build up resistance.

Erwin Rommel.   As commander of the famed Afrika Corps, the "Desert Fox" had captured the imagination of the German people. Then in 1944 Rommel was implicated in the July 20th plot to assassinate Hitler.   Unwilling to have Germany's greatest hero identified as a co-conspirator, the Fuhrer gave him a choice. Either Rommel would be subjected to a court-martial, found guilty and sentenced to death and his family would be disgraced, or he could select death by poison.   In the event of the latter, his family would be untouched and his reputation unmarred. Rommel selected the latter means.

Adolf Hitler.   There is still some controversy over the method of Hitler's death though nearly all the eyewitnesses agree he shot himself, possibly biting on a cyanide capsule at the same time for insurance.  But Hitler was the target of at least two aborted poisoning attempts by his Minister of Armaments and War Production, Albert Speer.   After his release form Spandau Prison, Speer claimed that he had soaked a cigar in water with the intent of using the powerful alkaloids released by the nicotine to kill Hitler by serving it in his tea. Speer also claimed that he had secured a toxic agent he intended to introduce into the ventilation system of the Fuhrerbunker.

Saddam Hussein.   There is no evidence that anyone has ever actually attempted to poison the Iraqi strong man. But the "Butcher of Baghdad" is taking no chances.  He has returned to the tradition of having a food taster.   For several years this post was held by the son of Saddam's chef, a particularly Machiavellian way of assuring the chef's loyalty. The position became vacant when Udai, Saddam's son, killed the food taster in an argument.   Who has the post now is not certain, though it is not likely to be a high demand job.


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Mithradites was fearful of being poisoned and adopted the practice of building up resistance to poisons by taking increasingly larger doses.

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