CYANIDE – A Classic Murder Weapon!

il_fullxfull.364865330_m5efIf you’ve been paying attention to my blogs over the last three weeks, you’ll notice that I’ve been writing about some classic poisons that have been used throughout history as murder weapons and which have been the lethal elements of choice in a variety of murder mysteries.

Today’s posting rounds out those recent blogs, as well as others that I’ve written in the past, to complete a collection of discussions on the world’s most famous poisons. The list includes aconite, arsenic, belladonna, botulinum toxin, dimethylmercury, elemental mercury, hemlock, polonium, tetrodotoxin and now cyanide. Hyperlinks are provided to those blogs as a reference.

Cyanide is a dramatic killer. As little as 100mg can be lethal, and it’s a rapidCYANIDE-e1325722958682-1 kill. Death can occur within a minute or up to 15 agonizing minutes, depending on the dose and the method of administration.

This poison was first used as a chemical weapon in the form of a gas during World War I and later in the Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust. In the 1980s, it was used on the Kurdish inhabitants of northern Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War.

It became a famous method of murder in mystery novels (think Agatha Christie) and various spy novels in which captured spies commit suicide by swallowing cyanide pills.

Cyanide exists as a gas, a liquid or in solid form. Hydrogen cyanide liquid is extremely volatile, however, and boils off (vaporizes to a gas) at warm room temperatures (78.1˚F / 25.6˚C). The liquid is almost colorless to a transparent pale blue color. It gives off a bitter almond smell (a sweet cherry-like smell) that is so faint some may not even be able to detect the odor.

Solid cyanide exhibits in crystalline form, mainly as sodium cyanide or potassium cyanide, but the crystals are so fine that they appear to be a white powder.

Poisoning with cyanide may be a difficult crime to detect. The effects of cyanide poisoning exhibit as suffocation, with initial symptoms similar to the shortness of breath climbers or hikers experience at high altitudes.

This happens because cyanide prevents the cells of the body from being able to use oxygen. It inhibits an enzyme in the mitochondria of cells from doing its vital job of capturing oxygen and transporting it into cells.

The initial symptoms of cyanide poisoning include general weakness, shortness of breath, confusion, headache, dizziness, excessive sleepiness and bizarre behaviors. The symptoms progress to seizures, coma and eventual death.

An acute dose of cyanide will have a dramatic and rapid onset. It immediately affects the heart and the victim suddenly collapses, as in a heart attack. When the poison is circulated to the brain, seizures and coma precede death.

Chronic cyanide poisoning with low doses over a longer period of time, however, will exhibit these same symptoms, but the onset is much more gradual and is dose dependent.

Pink not Blue-1 (3) (1)_html_m79c723bbThe most notable telltale sign of cyanide poisoning is an unusually pink color to the victim’s skin (or even cherry-red) because oxygen remains in the blood rather than transferring to the body’s cells. The body is simply starved for oxygen. The victim may breathe rapidly and have an initial fast heartbeat that slows as oxygen starvation progresses.

Another unique sign of cyanide poisoning is that the victim’s breath mayimages-3 smell faintly like bitter almonds, but it may be so slight that this evidence might be overlooked.

Cyanide is present in many common substances found around the home: almonds, apple seeds, apricot kernels, some insecticides and pesticides, and it is plentiful in tobacco smoke.

A common accidental cyanide poisoning occurs with house fires. The victims are overcome by smoke inhalation while common household items like rubber, plastics and silk burn and create cyanide fumes.

So for an easy to use, difficult to detect, rapid and very effective poison, there is nothing sweeter than cyanide. But be sure to look for that telltale bitter almond smell on the victim’s breath and notice their rosy pink complexion.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

About James J. Murray, Fiction Writer

With experience in both pharmaceutical manufacturing and clinical patient management, medications and their impact on one’s quality of life have been my expertise. My secret passion of murder and mayhem, however, is a whole other matter. I’ve always loved reading murder mysteries and thrillers, and longed to weave such tales of my own. Drawing on my clinical expertise as a pharmacist and my infatuation with the lethal effects of drugs, my tales of murder, mayhem and medicine will have you looking over your shoulder and suspicious of anything in your medicine cabinet.
This entry was posted in A How To Blog on Murder Weapons, About James J. Murray, About Murder, Acute Poisons, All About Murder, Blog Writers, Blogging, Bloodless Death Scene Writing, Chemical Poisons, Chronic Poisons, Cyanide and House Fires, Cyanide As A Poison, Cyanide in Household Foods, Cyanide in Household Items, Cyanide Is A Dramatic Killer, Cyanide Poisoning Symptoms, Cyanide Poisoning Telltale Signs, Dramatic Murder Weapons, Drug Poisoning, Drugs For Murder Plots, Ideas for Murder Scenes, Instruments of Death, Interesting Murder Weapons, Lethal Chemical Poisons, Lethal Substances Used For Murder, Murder Weapons, Murder With Cyanide, Plotting Interesting Murder Scenes, Poisons and Murder, The Science of Murder, Tools for Murder, Top Ten Most Famous Poisons, Uncategorized, Ways To Kill, Ways to Murder and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to CYANIDE – A Classic Murder Weapon!

  1. sciencethriller says:

    Reminds me of Deborah Blum’s THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK, which I’m sure you’ve heard of. In this wonderful book Blum details the history of forensic chemistry, including how tests to detect cyanide poisoning were developed in New York in the early 20th century.

  2. I’ll never look at pink skin the same way again! Once again, you’ve given us more meaty grist for our murder mystery mills. Thanks, James, for being a pretty scary dude!

  3. Mike Worley says:

    Thanks for a great explanation, James. I’m planning to include cyanide as an agent in the book I’m working on now. You saved me a ton of research time to get the details right.

  4. Damian says:

    Hi, contrary to popular belief, cyanide can cause a agonising death. I was unfortunate enough to witness the last minutes of the life of a young lady who committed suicide by cyanide. The noise of she gasping for air, foam mixed with blood coming from the mouth are the things that I wish I could erase from my memory.

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