Herbs to Kill or Heal? Was this 17th Century Faux-Book for a Poisoner or Apothecary?

Secret Stash of Lethal Poisons Hidden in 17th Century Book. Was This Really an Assassin's Cabinet?

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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)

The 17th century faux-book listed as ‘poisoner’s cabinet.’

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

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.

‘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.

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