Arsenic, cyanide, mercury…what do they have in common? These naturally occurring chemical elements and compounds can all be fatal if ingested in large doses. Chemicals found in certain plants (such as water hemlock and nightshade) and some varieties of mushrooms can also cause extreme illness or death if ingested.
These substances – and plenty of others – have been used throughout history as poisons. In antiquity, poisoning was a common way to dispose of a political rival or pesky relative, and people generally got away with it. Without the ability to prove through autopsy that a death was caused by poison, authorities and loved ones alike could only speculate as to the cause of a seemingly healthy person’s sudden demise.
24/7 Tempo has compiled a list of the most famous poisoning deaths in history by reviewing historical accounts of individual poisonings as well as current news articles, using sources including Britannica. Only cases that are generally accepted by historians to have been poisonings were included. Occurrences such as gas leaks and carbon monoxide poisoning have been excluded. Mass poisonings and large scale terror attacks were also excluded, but you can read about some of those horrifying accounts in 17 of the most terrifying cults in history.
An overwhelming majority of these poisonings occurred in governments or royal courts. As far back as the Persian Empire, clashes over royal succession commonly led to poisoning deaths. Ancient China, Greece, Arabia, and Rome all saw high profile political and religious leaders poisoned, cutting their reigns short. (Here are the 25 longest reigning Roman emperors.)
20th-century poisoning victims include Soviet spies who defected to other countries, as well as political dissidents throughout Communist Eastern Europe in the period leading up to World War II. Assassinations of political, religious, and scientific figures were not uncommon in the Soviet Union. Around the end of World War II, several Nazis committed suiсide by poison to avoid capture or sentencing for war crimes.
A few unintended poisonings are listed here, including the tragic death of a film star in 1920 who accidentally ingested a toxic medication containing mercury. (Here are 20 movie and TV stars who died far too young.)
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