Off the Wall

Food Poison(ed): A History of Death By, For and From Food

On December 16, 1916, the Russian monk, mystic and politically polarizing figure Grigori Rasputin was invited to a bit of a soiree, one which ended with his body being bound, wrapped in carpet and tossed into the frigid Neva river, but only after he was beaten, stabbed and shot.

All of this, because the cyanide in his wine and cakes didn't kill him. Either it baked off in the ovens or Rasputin had pulled a Dread Pirate Roberts and acquired immunity to poison, though it would be cyanide, in this case, instead of Iocane powder.

Throughout history, poison has been used to knock off kings, nobles, lords and ladies. Assassinations at the dinner table were as common place in ancient Egypt as they were in Medieval Europe. The use of poison even stretched devious tendrils to the Far East, where in the Land of the Rising Sun, it is not just the fugu that'll kill you, although fugu will kill you.

In ancient Rome, the emperors would employ the use of a praegustator, Latin for "cup bearer" or" foretaster."

Basically, some poor mope who had to eat potentially poisoned food before Caesar could possibly mar his goodly palate with tampered fare.

And you complain about your shitty job? Imagine being a slave whose one chance at sweet release is death by poison, a poison meant for someone else. What could be worse? That's like accidentally hooking up with your cousin. Twice.

Poison has even found its way into the highest houses of Catholicism.

Pope John Paul I was found dead, upright in his bed in late September of 1979. He had been pope for only 33 days. The nature of his demise -- as well as the alleged Vatican cover-up -- has sparked much controversy over the years. The official cause of death was heart attack, though papal ceremony denies autopsy of any kind. Curious. Maybe somebody put a little something extra on the Eucharist. Leave it to the Catholics to put Christ into a cracker. They already have the best candy.

In the Amazon, the Yanomamo tribe use poison for mere hunting practices. The tribeswomen crush up vines and float them in the water. Secreted by the vines is a poison which stuns the fish, allowing them to be scooped up in baskets by the tribesmen and women.

The Yanomani use poison on their arrows and spear points as well, and some anthropologists suspect that as many as 50 percent of the Yanomani men die a violent death. This same tribe also engages in a curious mourning ritual, in which the departed is cremated, and the remaining bones are ground into a paste and drank. My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard.

Not all use of poison stems from the desire hunt for food, ruin a meal or end your life. Sometimes, it's as preventable as sunburn, and sometimes, because of our own folly, it is the innocent who suffer.

In the late 1950s, children in the Minimata prefecture of Japan began to be born with moderate to severe physical deformities and neurological disorders. What became known as Minimata disease was a result of severe mercury poisoning. Release of industrial waste substances high in mercury levels matriculated up through the food chain, right into the mouths of the local populace. In Japan, what you are eating at night is often pulled out of the ocean that morning. Look at what happened to local Gulf oysters-- and their suppliers-- after the Deep Water Horizon spill. Unfortunately, irresponsible, unsustainable practices -- both by the captains of industry and the captains of the fishing boats -- often poison our food in a way we can't even control.

Delivery of poison has evolved quite a bit from its humble beginnings. Where poison used to have to be masked by extremely sweet foods, or dropped clandestinely into a drunkard's chalice, modern techniques are much more sophisticated, and you don't even need food.

It used to take bribes, power, money and stature to get a drop of poison into the food of your enemy. Today, it's so much simpler.

Alexander Litvinenko was a former KGB spy who, in 2006, died of radioactive poisoning in London, where he had allegedly been sent to off a wealthy Russian expat. Doctors said that, based upon his body's level of polonium, a wildly radioactive element, he would have had to ingest the element by mouth, inhalation or through a wound. A scratch on the arm by a contaminated penknife and you expire within weeks.

That seems much worse than a wine that puts you to sleep forever. At least you would get to enjoy that one, if only for a moment.

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Sam Brown