Poison: A History and a Family Memoir

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St. Martin's Press, Oct 11, 2002 - History - 288 pages
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Years after Dr. William Macbeth died, his ornate medicine case passed to his estranged son. Over the protests of his family, the son buried it deep in the ground, out of sight and out of reach.

Then ten-years-old, Macbeth's granddaughter Gail Bell watched the mysterious case of elixirs arrive at her home. She watched her father treat it like a poison chalice. Only decades later would she understand why: the case concealed evidence of her family's deadly secret.

In 1927, Macbeth was accused of poisoning two of his sons. He never stood trial. Bell, determined to discover how this "calm, warm, and caring" healer could become a cunning murderer--and evade detection--eventually uncovered the dark secrets that her father had tried to hide from the world. But as the unexpected twists of her investigation reveal, nothing is as straightforward as it seems.

At the same time, she explores what the crime of poisoning reveals about humanity, through the perspectives of myth, history, fiction, and the great poison trials. A pharmacist by profession, and the granddaughter of a suspected poisoner by circumstance, she is perfectly placed to revisit the cases of Cleopatra, Emma Bovary, Napoleon's doctor, Harold Shipman, and Dr. Crippen, and she is equally well-suited to chronicle the devastating effects of poison's many forms, from hemlock and belladonna to arsenic and strychnine.

Poison is at once a fascinating history of the science and sociology of poisoning, and a true, first-person account of one woman's struggle to understand its mysterious role in her own family's murderous history.

 

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Contents

Chapter One The pleasures of found glass
1
Chapter Two Ingredients for a bellbroth
4
Chapter Three Bitter seeds
9
Chapter Four The victim begins to twitch
23
Chapter Five Post mortem courtesies
28
Chapter Six Theres not much in dying
40
Chapter Seven The leap from chaos
47
Chapter Eight Myth and evidence
49
Chapter Sixteen Death by misadventure
144
Chapter Seventeen The demon nurse
160
Chapter Eighteen The ghost in the labyrinth
179
Chapter Nineteen A supply of white rats
182
Chapter Twenty Their unflinching gaze
186
Chapter Twentyone Murder on the table
197
Chapter Twentytwo Rescue
205
Chapter Twentythree Kraken dreams
234

Chapter Nine Lethal greens
52
Chapter Ten Romancing death
76
Chapter Eleven The magicians clothes
102
Chapter Twelve One mans meat
120
Chapter Thirteen Secundum artem
126
Chapter Fourteen Dry white arsenic
135
Chapter Fifteen Napoleons hair
142
Chapter Twentyfour Out of the coroners court
243
Chapter Twentyfive As children do
249
Chapter Twentysix Rumour of a midnight monster
257
Endnotes
269
Acknowledgements
275
Copyright

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About the author (2002)

Gail Bell was born in Sydney, Australia in 1950. A graduate of the University of Sydney, where she studied pharmacy and education, she has since written award-winning short stories, travel journalism, and many thousands of words about medicines and poisons. Poison is her first full-length work of non-fiction.

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