View Full Version : Writing a mystery and I need a poison that makes people ill but doesn't kill them.

03-01-2011, 02:25 AM
I'm currently writing a mystery novel and I have a character with the psychological disorder of Munchausen syndrome by proxy. It's a disorder and form of child abuse where a parent purposely makes their own child sick in order to gain attention from others.

So...I was wondering if anyone knew of any substances or poisons that can be placed in food that will make you sick. Not kill, but make you ill (forgive the pun). Any ideas?

03-01-2011, 02:40 AM
an easy one would be eye drops in their food or drink... according to the ever infallible wiki, this would cause...

Dangerously low body temperature (hypothermia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypothermia))
Blurred vision
Nausea (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nausea) and vomiting (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vomiting)
Difficulty in breathing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breathing) or even a complete halt in breathing
Elevating (hypertension (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypertension)) then dropping (hypotension (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypotension)) blood pressure
Possible coma (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coma)
Seizures (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seizures) and tremors (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tremors)

source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visine

It'd be nice and easy for your person to get a hold of, anyway

03-01-2011, 02:42 AM
How old is the child in question? I have taken care of these children and the parents can get extemely creative- had one mother who mixed water from a fish tank into her baby's formula- you want to talk sick? the child had vomiting and diarrhea and then developed gastric bleeding and total systems failure due to sepsis-
She got sick very quickly because she was very young- this probably wouldn't work on a toddler- The same mother, before we realized what was going on, injected the same tank water into the childs central line- sadly the child died, mother went to trial for the death-

I'm not sure you would want to go with a drug as the first thing a hospital is going to do is a tox screen, any drug given to the child will be picked up on this if it is still in his system. If it is a drug the child should not have ( like something for a cold or fever or an antibiotic) The staff is immidiatly going to suspect the mother particularly if this mother has a history of bringing the child to clinic with numurous unfounded complaints- or numurous unexplained illnesses. those charts get red-flagged real quick-

had another parent who give their child ipicak to induce vomiting after every meal and when the child kept losing weight, he was admitted for failure to thrive- it was pretty easy to realize the kid was hungry but by the time he was admitted he associated food with vomiting and seriously didn't want to eat- had to have a gastric tube implanted just to keep him alive-

I don't think i have seen any that have given drugs- the parents (mostly mothers) are extremly clever. They want the attention but they don't want it to look like they want the attention.

another give away is how they treat the child away from public view- they usually ignore the child or are openly hostile to them but the moment a health care worker or another parent comes by its all ' oh my poor baby'

03-01-2011, 03:28 AM
Thanks for your suggestions! ToddWBush...my sincerest sympathies.

They're all really good, but is there a simpler way that it can be done? Because my story is set in the 19th century at the Victorian era where a lot of the labeled drugs and substances that we have here weren't really known back then.

To sheadakota,
That must be horrible to see it in reality, I apologize if I made you think about it when you probably didn't want to. I will make sure to take the fish tank idea into consideration. It's a simple way to do it without leaving any evidence that a mother has abused her child. Well, to be honest it doesn't matter that much if it can be detected because the Victorian era did not have our technology. The child is actually 8 years old.

03-01-2011, 03:35 AM
:hi: Melancholia, and welcome! I'm going to port your question off to our Experts thread where you'll get a wider read.

03-01-2011, 03:54 AM
Thanks for your suggestions! ToddWBush...my sincerest sympathies.

They're all really good, but is there a simpler way that it can be done? Because my story is set in the 19th century at the Victorian era where a lot of the labeled drugs and substances that we have here weren't really known back then.

Hmmm....how about something like Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound? These quack remedies were usually full of alcohol, and claimed that they cured any number of maladies: female trouble, "dyspepsia," things like that. Adding quite a bit of it to a toddy or cider might make someone seem drunk, or might cause other issues. Might want to do a search on it. I think it's still around, but quite a bit less potent.

Ipecac has been around in Europe since 1672, so sheadakota's idea about that sounds really promising. Tiny doses of certain poisons wouldn't kill someone right away. Poisoners used to use arsenic and such in small doses. Cumulatively, it would kill someone, but in small doses, I believe it just makes someone very sick.

Just be aware though, that the disease was not officially described until 1951, and wasn't christened "Munchausens by Proxy" until the 1970s, so you won't be able to use that term for it. Maybe include an "Author's Note" in the back or something.

03-01-2011, 04:04 AM
Poinsettia. It will make you sick, but not kill you. If mixed in a colorful salad, easily disguised. For a child, only a tiny amount would be needed.


03-01-2011, 04:04 AM
Thanks! I'd actually thought of arsenic right away, or some other poison, but I'm not too knowledgeable on the specific dosage (if even a little dose can kill you, which is a problem, because I don't plan to kill of a character...yet), and asking on Google gets responses such as "You sound like you're planning to do murder someone".

Yes, perfectly aware that it wasn't called Munchausen's in the 19th century. Since it took so long to be discovered, I doubt I'd even have the community in my novel raise an eyebrow about it, much less the red flag.

03-01-2011, 04:22 AM
what about foxglove leaves substituted for sage? In enough quantity it would make the child sick.

03-01-2011, 04:36 AM
I like the poinsettias and the foxglove leaves! Thanks a lot guys, these are great ideas!

03-01-2011, 06:10 AM
Poinsettia and foxglove are really kind of tricky. Also azalea blossoms. It's too easy to kill someone. Ipecac would probably be safer.

Ink-Stained Wretch
03-01-2011, 08:30 AM
If the goal is simply to make the child sick, maybe certain unripe fruits?

Karen Junker
03-01-2011, 08:40 AM
We used to eat scotchbroom blossoms and seeds when we were kids, not knowing they were poisonous. I remember being fairly sick from that. But scotchbroom doesn't grow everywhere.

03-01-2011, 10:03 AM
I did a lot of research into drugs of the day. The one self published (true crime) book I did was about a woman who poisoned her husband and children with arsenic in 1856. To read the trial testimony, I figured Munchausen's by Proxy and mentioned it in the preface. So your story premise is believable.

They measured in drams then. I went in and asked the druggist how much it would take to kill a man and how much for a child, it was a body weight thing too so keep that in mind. The look on the face on the person behind me in line was priceless.

You could easily take someone to the brink of death just by causing diarrhea. People often died from it back then. The whole water to rehydrate patients wasn't thought of. If someone had a fever they'd try to sweat it out of them instead of trying to bring the temp down. Then there was blood letting of course. Also for some reason they would rub turpentine on the skin thinking the redness of the skin was a sign of blood circulation. There was a slew of medicines that were bad, and doctors often killed their patients in error. The cures in that era was as dangerous as the illness.

I'd say Laudanum was the most popular cure all drug. An ingredient in those patent over the counter medicines back then, even for babies. Used it for everything: cramps, coughs you name it.

Although the Victorian era didn't have our technology, they did have toxicologists. In fact, in my story they sent stomach pieces to the Professor of toxicology at the University of Buffalo Medical department. I went to the medical library there and read some of his reports on the testing for arsenic. I'm talking 1856 reports mind you. Fascinating. I was quite surprised, and had no idea they knew how to do that then.

Thought I'd edit in on the dose. In the real crime I mentioned above the arsenic was said to be sugar and sprinkled on the children's bread and butter. The one girl about 8, only ate half a piece. The other girl of 6 ate her piece and her sister's other half. The 8 yr old got very sick but recovered, the other girl died the next day.

03-01-2011, 11:28 AM
Carolina jessamine was said to make a patient fall sick and unconscious for a while and then wake up, but it wasn't supposed to be fatal.

Back in the day, it was a detoxification or ritual 'cure'. Apparently you feel great when you wake up.

I wouldn't test it or anything, of course!

And it probably couldn't be done often; I would guess it might build up in the system.


03-02-2011, 05:48 AM
In my opinion, one of the best options would be horse chestnuts. There are several reasons for this:

1. It's easy to get a non-fatal dose. Even a child would have to eat a number to die from them.

2. Even a small bite can cause a fairly dramatic reaction. You get vomiting, some people feel like they're suffocating, nausea, etc.

3. A lot of people can't tell the difference between horse chestnuts and regular edible chestnuts. In fact, a lot of people don't even know there ARE multiple kinds of chestnuts. You could probably hand them to your child right in front of somebody and nobody would know the difference.

4. They are exceedingly common. In fact, they are annoyingly common.

There is one thing to keep in mind, though-- they are very bitter. It's almost unheard of for people to die from eating them, partially because they taste so bad people spit them out or don't eat more. However, a good writer can overcome this, eh? ;)

03-02-2011, 07:09 AM
You might enjoy The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum.

I just discovered it in a drawer, a year after I bought it, so I haven't read it yet. But it discusses some of the earliest cases in which forensic science was used to solve crimes. It's a later time period than your work, but it still might be useful.

03-04-2011, 05:54 AM
Force them to read my sample work, it has made everyone sick that has read it so far:)

03-04-2011, 11:19 PM
Buttercup (Ranunculus)
The sap and roots are toxic.

Fruit from a Buckthorn. It would be a slow onset if you aren't looking for something that causes an immediate reaction. But the locality might be a problem.

05-13-2011, 04:02 AM
Does it actually need to be a poison? The reason I ask is that if the child is known to the person, their child for exampe, might it be as simple as a food allergy?

05-13-2011, 04:08 AM
Many mushrooms will induce stomach upsets, profuse sweating, and other acute symptoms, but not be fatal. Notably many otherwise excellent-when-cooked edible boletes and morels will make you sick if eaten raw. Although with a child you'd have to be very careful about quantity. Certainly these would have been known in the 19th Century. And poisonings from them are rare enough, and the symptoms common to many ailments, that a cause would have been difficult to trace.

05-13-2011, 09:40 AM
One of the easiest poison relating to the Victorian age would be to have the child eat 'raw' or 'undercooked' potato.

Potatoes contain toxic compounds known as glycoalkaloids (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glycoalkaloid), of which the most prevalent are solanine (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solanine) and chaconine (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaconine). Solanine is also found in other plants in the family Solanaceae (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solanaceae), which includes such plants as the deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atropa_belladonna)), henbane (Hyoscyamus niger (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyoscyamus_niger)) and tobacco (Nicotiana (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicotiana)) as well as the potato, eggplant, and tomato (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tomato). This toxin affects the nervous system, causing weakness and confusion.
These compounds, which protect the plant from its predators, are, in general, concentrated in its leaves, stems, sprouts, and fruits.[64] (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potato#cite_note-63) Exposure to light, physical damage, and age increase glycoalkaloid content within the tuber;[65] (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potato#cite_note-64) the highest concentrations occur just underneath the skin. Cooking at high temperatures (over 170 C or 340 F) partly destroys these. The concentration of glycoalkaloid in wild potatoes suffices to produce toxic effects in humans. Glycoalkaloids may cause headaches (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Headache), diarrhea (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diarrhea), cramps (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cramps), and in severe cases coma (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coma) and death; however, poisoning from potatoes occurs very rarely. Light exposure causes greening from chlorophyll (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chlorophyll) synthesis, thus giving a visual clue as to areas of the tuber that may have become more toxic; however, this does not provide a definitive guide, as greening and glycoalkaloid accumulation can occur independently of each other. Some varieties of potato contain greater glycoalkaloid concentrations than others; breeders developing new varieties test for this, and sometimes have to discard an otherwise promising cultivar (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultivar).
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/5a/Potato_fruits.jpg/220px-Potato_fruits.jpg (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Potato_fruits.jpg) http://bits.wikimedia.org/skins-1.17/common/images/magnify-clip.png (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Potato_fruits.jpg)
The toxic (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toxic) fruits produced by mature potato plants

Breeders try to keep solanine levels below 200 mg/kg (200 ppmw). However, when these commercial varieties turn green, even they can approach concentrations of solanine of 1000 mg/kg (1000 ppmw). In normal potatoes, analysis has shown solanine levels may be as little as 3.5% of the breeders' maximum, with 7–187 mg/kg being found.[66] (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potato#cite_note-65)
The U.S. National Toxicology Program suggests that the average American consume at most 12.5 mg/day of solanine from potatoes (the toxic dose is actually several times this, depending on body weight). Douglas L. Holt, the State Extension Specialist for Food Safety at the University of Missouri (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Missouri), notes that no reported cases of potato-source solanine poisoning have occurred in the U.S. in the last 50 years, and most cases involved eating green potatoes or drinking potato-leaf tea.[