Elements of Murder

The Naked Scientists spoke to Dr John Emsley, Bedfordshire
27 March 2005

Interview with 

Dr John Emsley, Bedfordshire


Chris - Elements of Murder is the title of your new book. How did you pick on that? It's a bit macabre isn't it?!

John - It is, and it's all about the dark side of the periodic table. I'm a chemist and of course there are elements in the periodic table like arsenic, lead and mercury which are very toxic, and so the book is basically about them. I spice the stories up by including lots of true crime situations. We're now in a position where we can look back 100 years to the Victorian times and the golden ages of poisoning and understand what they were doing. At the time, of course, it was a bit obscure. In fact you couldn't always detect the poison that was being used. For some poisons that was true up to fairly recently.

Chris - Rat poison was popular wasn't it.

John - Yes, that was a phosphorus compound. I remember as a child something called Phosphine that you put down and the rats came and ate it. They would then die.

Chris - In your other book 'The Shocking History of Phosphorus' you said that the best way to tell if someone had phosphor poisoning was to cut them open at the post-mortem and switch off the light.

John - Yes, because elemental phosphorus does in fact glow in the dark, that was the way of doing it. It wasn't a particularly good poison because you could disguise it. It has a particularly strong taste of garlic. The most famous poisoning was a woman in Blackpool. She actually mixed it with rum and murdered her landlady, who was very fond of rum. You could also disguise it by putting it into HP sauce! However, you can't get phosphorus now: it's almost impossible to get it for research as it's too dangerous to transport. There are poisons that are more subtle. Saddam Hussein's favourite poison was thalium. Thalium was the poison of Graham Young, who murdered his work mates about 20 or 30 years ago. Thalium is a good poison because the symptoms are delayed. The most characteristic symptom if you manage to survive is that all your hair falls out. However, if you're given a large enough dose, you die about a week afterwards before any of your hair falls out. We know that some of Saddam's agents came to Britain and poisoned people with thalium. That was in the 1980s, but nowadays it is really difficult to poison people because forensic science is so sophisticated that if poisoning is suspected, then chemists in forensic laboratories will be able to tell what it is. With thalium it is even possible to detect it in cremated remains, and Young's victims were found to be poisoned by that method.

Kat - Was Napoleon killed by the arsenic in his wallpaper?

John - The answer to that is no. He may have been affected by it but I don't think we can claim that he was poisoned to death by it.

Chris - You said that bed bugs weren't as much as a problem in Victorian times because of wallpaper.

John - Once Victorians took to wallpaper, and they were very fond of green flowery wallpaper, which used copper arsenite, that gave off arsine which was a gas that actually killed people. Bed bugs were quickly mopped up by it.


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