Herbs to Kill or Heal? Was this 17th Century Faux-Book for a Poisoner or Apothecary?
When photos of the faux-book first began to circulate online it was considered a hoax. The image was featured on the ArtefactPorn subreddit and commenters quickly denounced it as a fake, a mere cabinet of curiosities (as in not a disguised book), or a genuine artifact but one that was not as old as it claimed. All of these allegations were proven wrong. Popularly called the Assassin’s Cabinet of Poison, it was originally bound around the year 1600. The pages of the book were then glued together to form a large block. This was then hollowed out and 11 tiny drawers were installed inside as well as a little glass jar. Each drawer had a silver knob and a handwritten label of the lethal compound stored inside.
When the Faux-Book Came to Light
The faux-book came to light in 2008 when it was put up for auction by Hermann Historica, a popular German auction house. The item was listed as ‘poisoner’s cabinet,’ a title that quickly intrigued the press. The official description of the item as given in the auction catalog is as follows:
“A Hollow Book Used As A Secret Poison Cabinet. Historism, 17th-century style. With original, finely embossed parchment cover. Intact book clasps, the pages glued to a solid piece with a central rectangular cavity. The inside finely worked, providing eleven drawers of various sizes and one open compartment. The front of the drawers covered with colored paper and fitted with flame-carved frames, the knobs of silver and ebonized wood. Handwritten paper labels with the Latin names of different poisonous plants (among them castor-oil plant, thorn apple, deadly nightshade, valerian, etc.). Incl. greenish bottle bearing the label “Statutum est hominibus semel mori” (“It is a fact that man must die one day”). Glued to the inside of the cover an old etching of a standing skeleton bearing the date “1682”. Size of the book 36 x 23 x 12 cm [14.2 x 9 x 4.7 inches]. Elaborately worked Kunstkammer [cabinet of curiosities] object with strong reference to the memento mori [a reminder or warning of death] theme.” (Bookaddictuk, 2014)
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The 17th century faux-book listed as ‘poisoner’s cabinet.’ (BookAddiction)
The picture the description is referring to is that of a standing skeleton on the inside cover of the book. It is a copy of “a skeletal wood block engraving from De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem, an anatomical text by Andreas Vesalius first published in 1543” (Halloween, 2013). The copy is believed to come from a later London printing of the text dated 1682.
This skeletal engraving from Andreas Vesalius’ book was reproduced in the faux-book. (National Library of Medicine)
Meant for an Assassin or Apothecary?
The press loved the idea of a book disguised as an assassin’s toolkit. However, it may very well have been constructed to do good, not evil. 17th-century medicine was not that far from 17th-century poison – there was only a thin line between the curative and the toxic properties of compounds. This kit may very well have been an apothecary’s cabinet or even that of a medicine woman.
Both would frequently need to travel and a small, easy to hold cabinet was probably an ingenious solution to carrying the tools of their trade (as opposed to a doctor’s bag where everything would get all jumbled and may even break). No consensus has thus been reached on the purpose of the book, but any conclusion will doubtless be based on extensive examination of the ingredients found in the 11 drawers.
‘The Apothecary’ (1752) by Pietro Longhi. (Public Domain)
It should be noted that the cabinets and glass jar were empty in 2008 and, as far as one can tell, no analysis of residual traces has been conducted. The cabinet is now in private ownership, bought at the auction for €5,200 ($5590). Based on what the labels say, here is a discussion of the herbs found in the 11 drawers, going in order from left to right and top to bottom.
The First Five Drawers
The first drawer contained Hyoscyamus Niger, a poisonous plant commonly called Henbane or Stinking Nightshade (part of the Solanaceae plant family). It’s first known appearance was at least as far back as ancient Greece where Pliny declared in an offense to understanding. In Pliny’s time, the plant was commonly given to oracles to produce visions of the future. Today, its most famous appearance is undoubtedly in Hamlet (Hebenon is the poison poured into Hamlet’s father’s ear). It can kill a hen (thus the name hen’s bane) and causes hallucinations in humans. Before hops became the main flavoring ingredient for beer, some German brewers used Hyoscyamus Niger because, in small doses, it caused a sensation of giddiness. Medicinally, it was used to treat rheumatism and toothaches.
Hyoscyamus niger L. (Public Domain)
Second is Papaver Somniferum, the opium poppy today widely known as the source of heroin and codeine. Its Latin name means ‘sleep-giving’ (think the field of poppies in The Wizard of Oz) and it has long been given to reduce pain. That being said, a large dose could also be lethal.
Papaver Somniferum. (Public Domain)
Third is Aconitum Napellus, commonly called Monk’s Blood or Wolfsbane. This has been a popular poison for thousands of years, so powerful are its effects. Ancient warriors would coat the tips of their spears before battle and Rome eventually had to outlaw the growing of the plant because it was so widely used in murder plots. It is quite strange to see this deadly flower in a cabinet as its toxicity is enough to kill a person just through contact with the skin. It grows throughout Europe and in 2014 killed the groundskeeper of a millionaire’s estate who accidently touched a wild plant (BBC News, 2014).
Aconitum napellus is an extremely toxic plant. (Wattewyl/CC BY 3.0)
Fourth is Cicuta Virosa, also called Cowbane or Water hemlock. The whole plant is highly toxic but the poison is especially concentrated in the roots. It disrupts the central nervous system and causes seizures and organ failure so quickly that treatment is often unsuccessful.
Cowbane or Northern Water Hemlock (Cicuta virosa) is growing by Keravanjoki river in Kerava, Finland. (Anneli Salo/CC BY SA 3.0)
Fifth is Bryonia Alba, the Devil’s Turnip or Mandrake. Mostly, it is known for being an invasive weed (similar to kudzu) but all parts of the plant contain the poisonous bryonin. If an animal eats the flowers and leaves, it could die. For a human, the lethal dose is 40 berries, making it a rather ineffective poison. On the other hand, a doctor who knows what he/she is doing can use bryonin to treat stomach pain, diseases, and even poisoning because the plant will cause vomiting and/or diarrhea.
Bryonia alba. (Public Domain)
Contents of the Last Six Drawers
Sixth is Datura Stramonium, also known as Devil’s Snare or Jimson Weed. This plant is also part of the nightshade family. This Old World plant quickly caught on in Europe as a painkiller and a means to relieve asthma. In a slightly higher dose, it is a powerful hallucinogenic. Slightly higher still and it is deadly.
Datura stramonium. (Isidre blanc/CC BY SA 3.0)
Seventh is Valeriana Officinalis, usually just called Valerian. This pretty pink flower was commonly used in 16th-century perfumes. The ancient Greeks used it to treat insomnia and the medieval Swedes used to ward off evil elves. Today, it is sold in supplement form to relieve anxiety, stress, and restless leg syndrome. There is no scientific evidence that Valerian relieves any of these symptoms. There is some evidence, however, which suggests that it could be used as a safe alternative to catnip.
Valeriana officinalis. (Public Domain)
Eighth is Daphne Mezereum, also known as Spurge Laurel. Its name derives from two highly toxic compounds, daphnin and mezerein. If ingested, it causes a choking sensation; skin exposure causes a rash.
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Daphne mezereum L. (Public Domain)
Ninth is Ricinus Communis or the Castor Oil Plant. It is also sometimes called the Palm of Christ because of its supposed ability to heal wounds. It is thought to have anti-inflammatory properties and is still being tested to this day. In small doses, scientists have found that it can protect the livers of lab mice from certain poisons; in higher doses it causes death.
Ricinus communis. (CC BY SA 3.0)
The tenth is Colchicum Autumnale, also known as Meadow Saffron and Naked Lady. The first half of the plant’s name comes from the colchicine it contains. A traditional remedy dating back to at least the 16th century, colchicine is approved by the FDA to treat gout and certain inflammatory disorders. However, colchicine is toxic and the wrong dosage can yield similar results as arsenic.
Autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) growing at Gföhlberg, Lower Austria. (Public Domain)
Finally, the eleventh compound is Atropa Bella, widely known as Deadly Nightshade or Bella Donna. It is one of the most toxic plants in the Eastern Hemisphere. Since ancient times, Atropa Bella was used to create poison-tipped arrows. The wife of Roman Emperor Augustus allegedly used it to murder rivals and possibly the Emperor himself (this was never proven).
In Macbeth, Macbeth of Scotland betrays a truce and poisons the invading English army with Deadly Nightshade. The moniker Bella Donna (‘beautiful women’) comes from the ancient practice of using an extract of the plant as eye drops to make the pupils dilate (a fashion thought to make women more seductive); prolonged usage leads to blindness. For centuries it has been used as a pain reliever and a muscle relaxer. Since the 1800s, it was used to induce ‘twilight sleep’ for women in labor – a semi-narcotic state characterized by insensitivity to pain without the loss of consciousness (which can happen with morphine). This tactic was used by Queen Victoria. Today, it is used to treat motion sickness.
Atropa bella-donna L. (Public Domain)
After reviewing the contents of the cabinet, one cannot help but think that its original owner used the contents to both save and end lives, perhaps depending on the clients’ requests.
Top Image: Was this 17th century faux-book made for a poisoner or apothecary? (deriv.) Source: BookAddiction
BBC News. "Gardener Nathan Greenway 'died after Handling Deadly Plant'." BBC News. BBC, 07 Nov. 2014. Web. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-hampshire-29949698
Bookaddictuk. "A Book of Poison or Medieval Cures?" Book of the Week. BookAddiction, 16 Nov. 2014. Web. https://bookaddictionuk.wordpress.com/2014/11/16/a-book-of-poison-or-medieval-cures-book-of-the-week/
Halloween, Eva. "Let Dead Lips Congregate: Vintage Poisoner’s Cabinet." The Year of Halloween. The Year of Halloween, 10 Sept. 2013. Web. https://theyearofhalloween.com/2013/09/10/let-dead-lips-congregate-vintage-poisoners-cabinet/