Page images


No. 21. SEPTEMBER 1st, 1808.



To the Editor of the Athenaum. Sir,

EVERY one who is conversant with history must recollect numerous instances in which the death of eminent persons has been attributed to poison. In some periods, particularly, this notion has been so prevalent, that scarcely one is to be met with in a whole line of sovereigns who has been supposed to have died from the consequences of mere natural disease. Besides this. vague supposition, several of the more noted cases of poisoning have been admitted into the number of unquestioned historical facts, although attended with circumstances which a little reflection would show to be highly improbable, I shall not here enquire whether the propensity to this belief be owing to a natural maliguity in mankind, a love of wonder and mystery, or any other innate principle; it is sufficient that it is one of the sources of erroneous opinion, to induce a lover of truth to submit it to impartial discussion.

It appears to me, that in judging of this matter certain rules or canons may be laid down, which might abridge the process of enquiry in each particular case, or even supersede such an examination as, from the distance of time, and want of authentic testimony, cannot now be satisfactorily instituted. The first of these that I shall propose is the following: Great crimes are to be regarded as among the rarer occurrences of human life; whenever, therefore, an event can with probability be accounted for without their aid, it is unphilosophical to suppose their existence.

I know not how far this proposition will be generally allowed; but for

my own part, being convinced that there is more good, both moral and physical, than evil in the world, and that even in bad characters crimes abhorrent to human nature are not committed without a degree of repuguance, I cannot give an easy credit to such an impuVOL. IV.


2 C

[ocr errors]
[merged small][ocr errors][merged small]

tation as that of poisoning, unless I perceive a very powerful motive inciting to the deed. Even adepts in villainy have held the maxim that crime is too precious a thing to be lavished, and have therefore reserved it for important occasions. In fact, they have been desirous of doing without it, if possible; both to save themselves the secret pain of guilt, which the most hardened can seldom entirely subdue, and to escape the odium and danger of a detection. Certain characters in history are so blackened with infamy that every charge against them is apt to appear probable, and examination is thought superflu

But many of those persons were as prudent as they were wicked; and the actions of a Tiberius or a Borgia require adequate motives, as much as those of the most virtuous of mankind. In several of these cases of imputed poison, a known constitutional disease, or old age, would soon innocently have effected all that crime could propose to do. When alınost the whole royal family of France was swept away in the latter years of Louis XIV. men of understanding saw the cause in the enfeebled progeny of luxury, rather than in the chemical laboratory of Philip of Orleans.

Another canon is, that the supposition of poison is not to be adopted in order to account for deaths, the circumstances of which are totally different from the known effects of poisonous substances.

In common opinion, poison, like magic or any other mysterious power, is conceived capable of acting in any mode required. It can kill instantly, or at ten years distance-by the ordinary vehicle of food and drink, or by the extraordinary conveyance of perfumes, vapours, and topical applications—with known and customary symptoms, or with such as are new and unaccountable. But no physician or naturalist can admit such gratuitous assumptions. He will, in the first place, remark that all the poisonous substances which modern researches (so much more accurate than ancient) have detected, are referable to certain classes, distinguished by precise and definite modes of action. Thus, the corrosive, the drastic, the narcotic poisons, in all their various degrees of strength, are as well known by their sensible operation, as the classes of medicines with which they are connected, and in which, indeed, they are for the most part comprehended. I do not mean to assert that it is impossible there should be in nature deleterious substances whose effects are not reducible to the above-mentioned classes; but I would maintain it to be highly improbable that any such, in those parts of the world which have been the chief theatres of historical events, should have escaped the enquiries of naturalists and chemists. Further, it will appear that some of the imputed consequences of poison are absolutely irreconcileable to the laws of the animal economy. Thus, though it be possible that a noxious substance received into the stomach shall not only excite immediate disturbances, but shall lastingly injure the constitution; yet that, conformably to some stories, it should lodge weeks and months in the intestinal canal perfectly harmless, and reserve all its mischievous effects to some remote period, precisely determined by the giver, is, I conceive, an impossibility. Again--that any poison can be so


volatilized and concentrated as to kill by the odour communicated to a letter or a pair of gloves--or that any exists sufficiently strong and penetrable to prove mortal by infecting the caul of a wig or fruit touched by an envenomed knife—will scarcely be credited by a reflecting mind; for although the miasms of certain diseases are destructive in forms as subtle as these, it is inconceivable that any human beings could prepare a venom so exquisite without being themselves destroyed by it.

A very suspicious circumstance with respect to many stories of poisoning is the alledged efficacy of counterpoisons. The doctrine relative to these substances—that a previous use of them will fortify the body against the operation of any poisons that may be afterwards administered—is contrary to every façt respecting such things as we know to be really poisonous. One of the most famous compositions of the antidote class, that contrived for Mithridates by his physician Archigenes, has come down to our times; and it is certain that a person might take large doses of it daily for his whole life without being secured from the baneful effects of any poison, except, perhaps, opium, which is contained in the composition itself.

A number of the antidotes in highest repute h ave been the most inert substances in nature, chosen from their rarity alone, or some fanciful and superstitious notion connected with them, and such as could have no possible efficacy in rendering a deleterious drug harmless. Indeed, the whole antidotary, which was formerly a copious division in books of materia medica, is expunged from modern works of that class.

When, therefore, of two persons supposed to have taken poison, one is alledged to have escaped by means of a counterpoison, we may pretty safely conclude that neither of them was in reality in danger from that cause.

Poisoning and magical arts are common combinations in criminal charges. Indeed, the term veneficium in Latin signifies equally poisoning and sorcery. We know the latter to have been a fictitious crime, the creation of superstition and credulity; and it is highly probable that in those instances the poisoning was in like manner a false imputation, the forgery of malignity and calumny. It is true, the charge of sorcery or witchcraft has sometimes been well-founded; that is, practices of that kind have really been employed, in the belief that they would produce the mischiefs intended; and persons capable of such criminality would probably feel no repugnance at any other nefarious practices; but, on the other hand, if they confided in their magical rites, they would think an additional mode of effecting their wicked purposes superfluous.

As another rule in judging of stories of poisoning, it might, perhaps, be required in support of them to show by what means the poison could be administered; or, at least, to answer the objection often arising from the apparent difficulty of such administration. Kings and princes are usually surrounded with officers in such a situation of responsibility, or so much attached to their persons by interest, that


[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

it would be no easy matter either to engage them to concur in such a design, or for any one of them to execute it without the hazard of immediate detection. Voltaire may perhaps be thought to have displayed an outrageous degree of scepticism in questioning the offer made by the physician of king Pyrrhus to the Roman consuls, of poisoning his master, on the ground that the confidential medical attendant upon an opulent monarch could not expect a reward from the magistrates of a poor republic, adequate to the risk and certain loss he would incur by the attempt. I have no doubt, however, that physicians have often been falsely accused of this crime. They have, indeed, the easiest opportunities of administering a fatal dose; but they are the most closely watched; and in arbitrary courts it is a service of danger enough to give even an approved medicine of powerful operation.

It is very seldom that in historical relations of poisonings proof has been given of the fact from examination of the dead body. Appearances, indeed, are often mentioned as denoting poison, but these are sometimes of so marvellous a kind as to throw doubt


the whole story: such is that of the heart remaining entire on the funeral pyre when the rest of the body was consumed. In fact, there is no change in the dead body induced by poison which is not also a consequence of natural disease, except large and recent erosions of the stomach and bowels; yet many positive judgments have been hazarded where this circumstance was wanting, and where nothing was seen but what was entirely equivocal. The detection of the remains of some poisonous substance in the intestinal canal is a demonstrative proof of the fact, which seems scarcely ever to have been attempted in cases recorded by historians.

If the preceding rules and observations are well founded, we shall be warranted in regarding with doubt, and admitting with caution, many of the most remarkable instances in which the death of eminent persons has been attributed to poison, especially where strong prejudices have prevailed against the supposed perpetrators, and the crime has been imputed as a thing of course, without any evidence of fact. The narrations may justly be more suspected when they relate to an ignorant and superstitious age or country, which have always most abounded in tales of wonder of every

kind. I am very far from supposing that human wickedness has not often, both in public and private life, employed this instrument in effecting its detestable purposes ; but something is gained to the cause of benevolence whenever we are able to exonerate our fellow-creatures from any odious charge; and historical truth is at all events an interesting object of enquiry. I shall, perhaps, in a future paper apply the principles I have attempted to establish, in an examination of some noted instances in which credit has been given to the imputation of poisoning.

N. N.


To the Editor of the Athenæum. Sir,

IN recording the unfavourable features which doubtlessly held the predominance in the character of the unfortunate Paul, it is to be deplored that most of his biographers should appear to have lost sight of those amiable qualities which shone forth in the earlier part of his hapless career. This, however, cannot excite surprise in the breasts of those, to whom it has been an object of lamentable obsesvation, that the mass of mankind is unhappily prone to pass over in silence the modest virtues of contemporary merit, and to dwell with a kind of inhuman sportiveness on the vices and failings into which the weakness of human nature, or the impulse of human passions, may have betrayed the object (I had almost said) of their relentless persecution. It is this ignoble spirit and effervescence of “ back-wounding calumny" which our immortal dramatist so happily stigmatizes, when he makes Cromwell to exclaim,

Men's evil manners live in brass; their virtues
We write in water.

Animated, therefore, by a desire to rescue the more amiable lineaments in the Russian sovereign's character from oblivion, and to render an act of posthumous justice to his memory, I hasten to communicate a cursory sketch, which personal investigation and a residence in Russia during the greater part of his reign have enabled the writer to trace, with a full conviction of the authenticity of the details on which it is founded.

Paul, more especially before his accession, took a peculiar delight in exercising the rights of hospitality, and giving a hearty welcome to his guests in the Russian mode. His table, supplied with lavish profusion, was constantly beset with officers. That fettering restraint which generally attends on royalty was there an utter stranger; every one acted according to the free suggestions of his choice, and the emperor was never more pleased than to see his guests eat with a good appetite. Instead of waiting upon him, he might rather be said to have waited upon them; for, it was an invariable rule with him never to rise till all had finished their meal. He exerted his utmost to prevent them from feeling any effects of the ill-humour to which he might have given way in the morning, and he carefully abstained from sar. casm. This, however, cannot exactly be asserted of his later days. He drank but temperately; at dinner-time partaking only of a little claret. Coffee and chocolate were his favourite beverages, and with the latter, indeed, he usually regaled himself on parade. Neither


« EelmineJätka »