Shortcut Navigation:

The Arthur Ross Terrace will be closed this morning, Tuesday, October 21, for a private cultural observance. You many observe smoke and/or fire coming from the Terrace at that time. The FDNY has been notified in advance, and all safety precautions are in place. The Terrace will reopen at 1 pm.

Villains and Victims

Poison Cleopatra Interior Long 10146205

Until scientists developed forensic tools to investigate mysterious poisonings, facts were hard to come by. Explore some of history’s most intriguing examples—many of which remain puzzling even today—and visit the exhibition for a live presentation about a real-world case.

 

Cleopatra (69 BC–39 BC)

Poison Cleopatra 10146205 Headshot

According to legend, Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt, ended her own life by enticing an asp to bite her. The snake we now call an asp (Vipera aspis) produces very painful—but rarely deadly—venom. Cleopatra was knowledgeable about poisons and their effects, having tested many on condemned prisoners. If she indeed committed suicide (some have speculated she was murdered by political rivals), Cleopatra would have selected a relatively painless death for herself, perhaps ingesting a mix of opium, aconitum (also known as wolfsbane), and hemlock.

 

Lucrezia Borgia (1480–1519)

Poison Lucrezia Borgia Headshot 10680552

Lucrezia Borgia was a member of a prominent and fiercely ambitious family in Renaissance Italy. She was also an alleged poisoner who, according to contemporary accounts, wore a hollow ring with a stash of arsenic inside. Today, historians believe she may have been an innocent woman, wrongfully blamed for the crimes of her treacherous family, who murdered nobles and clergy with a poison called la cantarella. Although the recipe is lost, modern scientists think la cantarella may have contained arsenic and cantharidin, an extremely toxic compound secreted by blister beetles.

 

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821)

Poison Napoleon Headshot Image DAE 10395479-1

After a series of military losses, Napoleon Bonaparte, famed general and emperor of France, spent his last years in exile on the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. Although he believed he was being poisoned by his British captors, an autopsy after his death pointed to stomach cancer. But researchers today debate whether toxic metals may indeed have hastened his death. Samples of Napoleon’s hair show high levels of arsenic, which he could have absorbed from his environment (for example, the green coloring in his wallpaper at St. Helena contained arsenic). Large doses of mercury- and antimony-containing medicines for his many ailments may have triggered his death.

The Power of Poison exhibition included more puzzling cases and a live presentation about an historical murder-by-poison and the rise of toxicology.

Visitors in Theater

© AMNH/D. Finnin


Clues were used to try to solve three poisoning mysteries (and bring the fun home by downloading the free companion app for iPad.)

Visitors in Poison iPad Gallery

American Museum of Natural History

Central Park West at 79th Street
New York, NY 10024-5192
Phone: 212-769-5100

Open daily from 10 am - 5:45 pm
except on Thanksgiving and Christmas
Maps and Directions

Enlighten Your Inbox

Stay informed about Museum news and research, events, and more!