Historical Poisoning Victims?

Part of the The Power of Poison exhibition.

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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–featured in the special exhibition, The Power of Poison.


Cleopatra (69 BC–39 BC)

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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.


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Lucrezia Borgia (1480–1519)

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)

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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.

Visitors in Poison iPad Gallery