One of the hallmarks of strychnine is its extreme bitterness (click for a review of the science, history, and toxicity of strychnine). So bitter, in fact, that homicidal poisonings are difficult to pull off. But with enough sweeteners and other flavors to mask the taste it is possible, as history has shown us. And with the advent of the hypodermic needle in the 1850’s, fatal injections were made possible. So difficult, but not impossible.
Beside my interest in poisons, I’m also a homebrewer, and have been making my own beer for the last 16 years. There’s really nothing like it. And while there are some very good commercial beers out there, they just aren’t as tasty as what a good homebrewer can make. So where am I going with this? In thinking about how to mask a bitter poison, such as strychnine, I thought “Why try to hide it? Put it in something that should be bitter,” and came up with beer. I figure one could turn a Pale Ale into an India Pale Ale, or for my British friends, turn a pint of Ordinary into a pint of Strong. But it seems history beat me to it. By several hundred years.
In 1800’s England nearly everything was taxed, including beer. A prevailing rumor was that pub keepers would evade the tax by watering down their beer. But in doing so they would dilute the bitterness, which came from hops during the brewing process. As a way to re-bitter the watered down beer, they would add strychnine, which was now readily available. Whether or not this was true, I don’t know, but it makes for a fine story.
I don’t have to tell anyone that the British take their beer seriously, as well they should. I love me some Theakston’s Old Peculier. So when in 1850 a French chemist by the name of M. Payen intimated that a large shipment of strychnine making its way to England was for the purpose of adultering beer, either at the brewery or after distribution to a pub . . . . well, those are fighting words, and the British took arms.
Two of the largest breweries at the time, Allsopp and Bass (Allsopp is now part of Allied Breweries and Bass is still brewing away), flung open their brewery doors and invited inspection by the “Analytical Sanitary Commission” (1). The Commission goes into great detail not only in the complete chemical analysis of their beers, but also the procedure for identifying strychnine. They first boil down half a gallon of beer to dryness (which is not an easy feat, trust me) and then using a standard color test of nitric and sulphuric acids, along with potassium dichromate, the solid would develop into a bright violet color if strychnine was present. Apparently brevity was not a strong suit of scientific publications in 1852, as they described perhaps a half-dozen different methods. In all, 20 beers each from Allsopp (2) and Bass (3) were tested, all with the same results:
“The products of malt and hops, and the constituents of pure spring water. Not any other ingredient found, either organic or inorganic.”
You’d think that would be the end of it, wouldn’t you? Oh, no, not for M. Payen. He continued trolling British beer. Today you can troll someone on Twitter in the course of a few minutes, but in the 1850’s it took years. The Commission wrote:
“M. Payen expressed his regret that he had ever said the fraud appeared to have been practised, although, at the time, he accompanied this observation with the further remark that the falsification had no doubt ceased.”
Enter Baron Justus von Liebig. For those that don’t know, which I’m sure is 99.9% of you, Prof. Liebig was a major player in organic chemistry, and chemistry as a whole, in the early to late 1800’s. Not impressed enough to be considered the best teacher of his time, he founded the chemistry journal Annalen der Chemie, which after his death was renamed after him: Justus Liebig’s Annalen der Chemie. As a graduate student I often had to look up articles from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s in this journal. It was on the top shelf and the bound volumes were monstrous. It was quite the workout. It was also published in German, which is why my graduate adviser made us all take a semester of German. Ahhh, memory lane. Prof. Liebig also patented beef bullions cubes, and formed a company named “Oxo”, which is still around today. He was a rockstar.
Enough with the history lesson. Prof. Liebig weighed in on the controversy and stood up for the honor of British beer. He also would have made a fine detective, as he was observant that (4):
“Any attempt on the part of the brewer to impart qualities to his beer in an illicit manner, which are not to be obtained from malt or hops, would necessarily lead to his ruin, as he would be obliged to communicate his secret to too many persons, and to employ too many accomplices.”
So true. It’s always the accomplices that get you caught. Leave no witnesses, that’s what I always say. And then he leaves us with this:
“The specimens of your pale ale sent to me have afforded me, another opportunity of confirming its valuable qualities. I am myself an admirer of this beverage, and my own experience enables me to recommend it, in accordance with the opinion of the most eminent English physicians, as a very agreeable and efficient tonic, and as a general beverage both for the invalid and the robust.”
What I got from that last quote was that he was given beer to be their paid spokesman. And he did a great job. British beer is for the strong and the weak, and 9 out of 10 Doctors recommend it. He convinced me, and I’m the worst type of skeptic. So it’s not likely or probable that beer could be adulterated with strychnine at the brewery. But what about after production? Could that happen? Of course.
In Mayborough, Victoria (Australia) at the Burt’s Hotel in 1892, Catherine Waddell ordered a beer, drank and proclaimed that it was bitter and that she had been poisoned (5). She was right of course, she had been poisoned, and quickly died. The game is afoot! Analysis of her beer revealed 13.3 grains of strychnine, about 860 mg, certainly enough to kill if a few big sips were taken. Was it the brewery? The police asked the brewers of Castlemaine Standard Brewery, and they said “no,” so there goes that lead. They descended upon the hotel next. They had no clue either. By process of elimination they determined that the strychnine was in the empty bottle before it was bottled at the brewery. Seriously? Really. Case closed. Or is it?
Several months prior a Burt’s Hotel patron ordered a beer, and he, too, proclaimed it too bitter to drink. He became violently ill, but survived, and was diagnosed with strychnine poisoning. The police inspected the hotel and tested the cask of beer, and found strychnine. This time, though, it was decided that the strychnine came from the brewery during production. The brewers had no clue and denied any wrongdoing. The owner of the hotel, Mr. Burt (of course), was fined 10 pounds for selling poisoned beer.
So a dude gets poisoned with strychnine, with proof it was from beer at the hotel. A few months later a woman dies from strychnine, with proof it was from beer at the same hotel. And they blame the bottle manufacturer? Not the hotel? No background checks on the staff? CSI this is not.
Poisoning one with strychnine is difficult. It’s bitterness is a dead give away, so you better make it concentrated enough to kill in a single sip. Soooo….who’s coming to my place for some homebrewed beer? Extra bitter.
[Homepage featured image of beer labels by Dawgbyte77 via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]
1. “Analyses Of The Bitter Beer, Pale Ale, Or Indian Pale Ale.” The Lancet 59.1498 (1852): 473-77.
2. “Analyses Of The Bitter Beer, Pale Ale, Or Indian Pale Ale, Brewed By Messrs. Allsopp And Sons.” The Lancet 59.1498 (1852): 477-78.
3. “Analyses Of The Bitter Beer, Pale Ale, Or Indian Pale Ale, Brewed By Messrs. Bass And Co.” The Lancet 59.1498 (1852): 478-79.
4. Liebig, Justus. “Remarks Upon the Alleged use of Strychnine in the Manufacture of Bitter Beer or Pale Ale.” The Lancet 59:1498 (1852): 551-552.
5. “Strychnine in Beer.” Ontago Daily Times. 22 March 1892.