Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

POISONINGS.

Let us often repeat useful truths. There have always been fewer poisonings than have been spoken of: it is almost with them as with parricides; the accusations have been very common, and the crimes very rare. One proof is, that we have a long time taken for poison that which is not so. How many princes have got rid of those who were suspected by them by making them drink bullock’s blood! How many other princes have swallowed it themselves to avoid falling into the hands of their enemies! All ancient historians, and even Plutarch, attest it.

I was so infatuated with these tales in my childhood that I bled one of my bulls, in the idea that his blood belonged to me, since he was born in my stable — an ancient pretension of which I will not here dispute the validity. I drank this blood, like Atreus and Mademoiselle de Vergi, and it did me no more harm than horse’s blood does to the Tartars, or pudding does to us every day, if it be not too rich.

Why should the blood of a bull be a poison, when that of a goat is considered a remedy? The peasants of my province swallow the blood of a cow, which they call fricassée, every day; that of a bull is not more dangerous. Be sure, dear reader, that Themistocles died not of it.

Some speculators of the court of Louis XIV. believed they discovered that his sister-in-law, Henrietta of England, was poisoned with powder of diamonds, which was put into a bowl of strawberries, instead of grated sugar; but neither the impalpable powder of glass or diamonds, nor that of any production of nature which was not in itself venomous, could be hurtful.

They are only sharp-cutting active points which can become violent. The exact observer, Mead, a celebrated English physician, saw through a microscope the liquor shot from the gums of irritated vipers. He pretends that he has always found them strewn with these cutting, pointed blades, the immense number of which tear and pierce the internal membranes.

The cantarella, of which it is pretended that Pope Alexander VI. and his bastard, the duke of Borgia, made great use, was, it is said, the foam of a hog rendered furious by suspending him by the feet with his head downwards, in which situation he was beaten to death; it was a poison as prompt and violent as that of the viper. A great apothecary assures me that Madame la Tofana, that celebrated poisoner of Naples, principally made use of this receipt; all which is perhaps untrue. This science is one of those of which we should be ignorant.

Poisons which coagulate the blood, instead of tearing the membranes, are opium, hemlock, henbane, aconite, and several others. The Athenians became so refined as to cause their countrymen, condemned to death, to die by poisons reputed cold; an apothecary was the executioner of the republic. It is said that Socrates died very peacefully, and as if he slept: I can scarcely believe it.

I made one remark on the Jewish books, which is, that among this people we see no one who was poisoned. A crowd of kings and priests perished by assassination; the history of the nation is the history of murders and robberies; but a single instance only is mentioned of a man who was poisoned, and this man was not a Jew — he was a Syrian named Lysias, general of the armies of Antiochus Epiphanes. The second Book of Maccabees says that he poisoned himself — “veneno vitam finivit”; but these Books of Maccabees are very suspicious. My dear reader, I have already desired you to believe nothing lightly.

What astonishes me most in the history of the manners of the ancient Romans is the conspiracy of the Roman women to cause to perish by poison, not only their husbands, but the principal citizens in general. “It was,” says Titus Livius, “in the year 423 from the foundation of Rome, and therefore in the time of the most austere virtue; it was before there was any mention of divorce, though divorce was authorized; it was when women drank no wine, and scarcely ever went out of their houses, except to the temples.” How can we imagine, that they suddenly applied themselves to the knowledge of poisons; that they assembled to compose them; and, without any apparent interest, thus administered death to the first men in Rome?

Lawrence Echard, in his abridged compilation, contents himself with saying, that “the virtue of the Roman ladies was strangely belied; that one hundred and seventy who meddled with the art of making poisons, and of reducing this art into precepts, were all at once accused, convicted, and punished.” Titus Livius assuredly does not say that they reduced this art into rules. That would signify that they held a school of poisons, that they professed it as a science; which is ridiculous. He says nothing about a hundred and seventy professors in corrosive sublimate and verdigris. Finally, he does not affirm that there were poisoners among the wives of the senators and knights.

The people were extremely foolish, and reasoned at Rome as elsewhere. These are the words of Titus Livius: “The year 423 was of the number of unfortunate ones; there was a mortality caused by the temperature of the air or by human malice. I wish that we could affirm with some author that the corruption of the air caused this epidemic, rather than attribute the death of so many Romans to poison, as many historians have falsely written, to decry this year.”

They have therefore written falsely, according to Titus Livius, who believes not that the ladies of Rome were poisoners: but what interest had authors in decrying this year? I know not.

“I relate the fact,” continues he, “as it was related before me.” This is not the speech of a satisfied man; besides, the alleged fact much resembles a fable. A slave accuses about seventy women, among whom are several of the patrician rank, of causing the plague in Rome by preparing poisons. Some of the accused demand permission to swallow their drugs, and expire on the spot; and their accomplices are condemned to death without the manner of their punishment being specified.

I suspect that this story to which Titus Livius gives no credit, deserves to be banished to the place in which the vessel is preserved which a vestal drew to shore with a girdle; where Jupiter in person stopped the flight of the Romans; where Castor and Pollux came to combat on horseback in their behalf; where a flint was cut with a razor; and where Simon Barjonas, surnamed Peter, disputed miracles with Simon the magician.

There is scarcely any poison of which we cannot prevent the consequences by combating it immediately. There is no medicine which is not a poison when taken in too strong a dose. All indigestion is a poison. An ignorant physician, and even a learned but inattentive one, is often a poisoner. A good cook is a certain slow poisoner, if you are not temperate.

One day the marquis d’Argenson, minister of state for the foreign department, whilst his brother was minister of war, received from London a letter from a fool — as ministers do by every post; this fool proposed an infallible means of poisoning all the inhabitants of the capital of England. “This does not concern me,” said the marquis d’Argenson to us; “it is a packet to my brother.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25