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Poison absorbed through skin/Poisoned dress
ringo, adorable, mo
biblio_filia wrote in little_details
I'm looking for a poison that is readily absorbed (or plausibly capable of being absorbed) through the skin. I need to kill a character this way, namely through the wearing of a poisoned dress. I know the reality of poisoned clothing is iffy at best, but I would love to find a way to make it happen because it would be so beautiful and perfect for my ending. I'm open to any poison, plant, chemical, venom, whatever, as long as it would be available at the end of the 19th century. My specific setting is Newport, Rhode Island, c. 1895 or so, just for reference. The person obtaining the poison is a member of royalty, so she'd have access to pretty much anything, no matter the cost or the rarity. I also don't really care how long the poison takes to cause symptoms, although it can't be more than a few days, if that.

I'm mostly concerned with pinpointing a possible poison so that I can portray believable symptoms. I also need for another character to be able to touch the character wearing the poisoned dress without absorbing so much that he dies himself. He can be affected and even become moderately ill, but I need him in functioning order. I would also prefer that the symptoms not be too horrifying, but I can work around that.

I've Googled variations of "poisons absorbed through skin", "poisons readily absorbed through skin", read the Wikipedia entry on poisons and the entries on arsenic, cyanide, cadmium, and mercury, and Googled for the symptoms of all those terms as well. I've also gone over the entries under the "poisons" and "poisoning" tags. Thanks in advance for providing me with the means to an intense conclusion.

I don't know about scientific feasibility, but I just wanted to say I was immediately reminded of the Greek hero Hercules dying by poisoned cloak.

Also, I believe the term for a poison delivered through skin is "contact poison."

Edited at 2008-08-02 06:50 pm (UTC)

And Jason's girlfriend -- Jason's wife Medea being understandably upset at being cast aside for some greek young thing, IIRC the play...

And Lady Eleanore's mantle in Hawthorne's Tales from the Province-House.

I don't know if it actually kills people, but did you consider lead poisoning? Or some kind of metal in the embroidery?

This question has reminded me of a poisoned dress that was used to kill Hercules' wife in greek mythology, but I believe in that case they used the blood of a poisoned creature to do so. The other possibility is slightly exotic frog persons (though I don't know what the likelihood of them getting a hold of that kind of material.

It's tough to imagine a metal that would be that toxic and could also be used in embroidery (uranium??). Even lead you'd have to be reguarly licking, I think... It's a skin contact poison, but in adults the damage is generally more cumulative.

Okay, I wasn't sure. I had mild lead poisoning as a kid because of the old paint in our farmhouse before it was fixed up.

Toxic dyes (specifically certain emerald shades called Paris green, Scheele's green, or Schweinfurter green, all based around copper acetate-arsenic) were blamed for many deaths in the nineteenth century, usually through fumes given off by colorful wallpaper but also through contact with dyed textiles. Some think Napoleon may have been accidentally poisoned this way, by his wallpaper. In any case, I can't find any cases at the moment that are directly linked to clothing, and it would probably require repeated exposure to the dye, but you might look at those names. looks like it could be fascinating, but more modern.

I started out with skin contact absorption, switched to percutaneous absorption pretty quickly after glancing through the Google results, and added toxicity in just for giggles.


Edited at 2008-08-02 07:13 pm (UTC)

(Deleted comment)
I'm actually quite pleased that my question is prompting all these recollections of Greek myths. My novel is heavily mythologically based, so I suppose I'm doing my job. Medea's wedding dress is a perfect connection. It's what I'm going for, really, even though the novel as a whole is a loose reworking of the Cupid and Psyche myth.

The mention of toxic dyes, by the way, is really interesting- I hadn't considered that at all, a bit unbelievably. I'll definitely look into it.

Your question actually reminded me of a CSI-NY episode where a bride purchased as second-hand wedding gown that had been stripped from an embalmed dead person. The bride dies from formaldehyde poisoning at her wedding...

It was done on CSI...but prolonged skin contact with formaldehyde is poisonous/fatal. Some woman was wearing a dress that had been on a dead body from after they'd done her up for the funeral and such (which included using formaldehyde). Don't know if that helps at all...but that's the first thing I thought of.

And like many CSI episodes, it was "ripped from the headlines" and exaggerated for dramatic effect. It did happen...I don't recall the details except that some funeral director was selling formalwear, cheap...

It's actually an extremely popular urban legend from the 1940s. doesn't give a 'yes or no' on if this is viable or not, but gives some more origins and places that you could possibly explore some? I remembered the scene in the movie 'Elizabeth' where one of her courtiers was killed by a poisoned dress, but I cant recall if they mentioned -what- was in the dress that killed her.

Searching for 'Poison Dress' on google got some interesting results, including a bunch of lore from India. There's also a book out there about poison meant as an aid for authors, but I cant for the life of me remember what it's called.

I would figure, just from personal thought, the best way to do the 'poisoned dress' scenario (which was used in the film Elizabeth, actually, but not very well explained) is to either have the thread itself dipped in poison during the making of the dress - or at least the inner fabric of it, or just bluntly only coat the 'inner lining' of the dress so that only the wearer absorbs the poison. As for poisons that would work for this...
The only kind of chemical that can truly be absorbed through the skin is lipid-soluble chemicals, if that'll help you in any way. Back and torso are the thinnest parts of the skin, as well, so it's somewhat logical at least.

I remember asking a similar question here a couple years back. I went with the arsenic salt based dyes route myself. :)

That seems like the best course to pursue, combined with the specifically poisoned lining. You all are very good :).

From what I remember about Elizabeth, the poisoned dress was also made of lace and thus itchy as hell. So Lady-in-waiting kept scratching at it, which might speed up the absorption process.

The person obtaining the poison is a member of royalty, so she'd have access to pretty much anything, no matter the cost or the rarity.

FWIW, organophosphate poisoning can work this way (I remember reading a case history where several boys came down sick, and the cause turned out to be that all of them were wearing jeans from a shipment that had had OP pesticides dripping on them). The problem is that although some OPs were available by 1900, I don't think their toxic properties were well understood at the time, so it'd only work if your poisoner has a tame biochemist who's figured out something his colleagues don't know. Arsenic ought to do the job, and would need less explanation.

There's a story I learned that was popular in the Chinese Imperial Courts at the turn of the twentieth century, about two rival concubines and the Chief Eunuch who got rid of both of them by setting them up to dance the Dance of the Thirty-Foot Veil (which involves, not surprisingly, wrapping a thirty-foot long gauze veil about oneself and then dancing with it, like the ribbon dances in professional gymnastics) and then poisoning the veil. The poison wasn't identified, but it was in a liquid form and the Chief Eunuch was reportedly very careful about not touching it with his bare hands or letting anyone else touch it, so I'd say it was one of the arsenic salts.

The only incident I know during Victorian times was due to arsenic being used for the pigments of the dress (it gave such a beautiful green colour, apparently).

I'd say it's this pigment:
And you can look at this too:

You might also look at cinnabar, which is an ore of mercury and used as a pigment and sometimes dye. ("cinnabar natural dye" and "cinnabar mineral dye" brought up some stuff.) I think the toxicity is mainly during the refining (Ursula Le Guin featured this in her novella "The Finder" in Tales of Earthsea); once used as a dye, I'm not sure if it's sufficiently toxic to the touch for your purposes, but perhaps you could tweak it in some fashion.

Some good stuff on here about various toxic historical pigments and dyes:

oleander, i think, but i've read it needs to be extremely concentrated (boiled down). heard of someone dying from it on door handle. (janet fitch, white oleander).
nicotine. don't know if it would work with clothing, but if you concentrate the hell out of it and get it to contact skin for a while, yeah.
if you concentrate the hell out of either of these, then maybe boil the dress in it... they'd die.
oleander, maybe would take longer (look this up, i'm not sure of exactly how it kills people). nicotine, well, they would have a heart attack and die within a few hours. so maybe not the best idea?
when they sweated, it would make it possible for it to... er... whatever you call it. osmosis? i dunno, it would leave it a way to contact their skin.

Whatever poison you use, it'll work better if you also coat the inside of the dress with a skin irritant, which will (a) cause the wearer to scratch and rub the poison in more, and (b) break the surface of the skin so the poison has more direct access to the bloodstream. My money would be on cantharides (Spanish Fly), which is impeccably traditional, blisters the skin ferociously, and is highly toxic in itself.

Also, having more than one active ingredient will confuse any doctors trying to treat her. If they see the characteristic blisters of cantharides, they'll work on antidotes to that and fail to register whatever else the dress is dosed with.

Does the fabric itself have to be poisoned? From my understanding it was much more common throughout history to simply poison a needle and leave it stuck in the dress in a way that will scratch the flesh and release the poison into the bloodstream. By the time the person notices, it's already too late.

It's also possible to do this with hat pins, hair combs (if they're sharp), cuff links--anything with a sharp point or that will go into the person's mouth without much thought.

If you want to go the Medea route, you could soak the dress in a harsh irritant and have a few poisoned pins stuck in it as well. It's not bursting into flames and dying, but she'll feel like it, and she'll die.

Thank You


2009-09-07 06:24 am (UTC)

I wanted to thank everyone for their answers, and indeed for posting the question itself. I am writing a story in which a school yard bully is killed by contact with poisoned money, and this has helped me a great deal. Thank you :D

The best contact Poison


2009-11-02 11:13 am (UTC)

I think Hydrofluric Acid with 20% is the best Contact poison.



2009-11-22 10:47 pm (UTC)

HF acid is not a poison, it is just highly corrosive... Dimethyl Mercury (CH3)2Hg is a good bet, effects are (as far as i know) irreversible, but it is a slow death if small dosage, may take weeks to months It is also a horrific way to die only problem is, it will pass through PVC, latex and nitrile lab gloves EASILY, a set of highly resistant laminated gloves over thick neoprene may do the job Research the death of Karen Wetterhahn for more info, a few drops landed on her latex glove and passed through. if extremely lucky, one drop on your finger can be cured with instantaneous amputation (cut it off the second or so that it touches) otherwise you will die unsure how it will get onto a dress and be unnoticed (vapours also extremely toxic) HOWEVER, it is apparently sweet smelling, so a perfume bottle is perfect, one spray gives a highly lethal dose

Re: (CH3)2Hg


2010-05-13 11:03 pm (UTC)

no, hf is basically poison. wiki it.

VX. Less than 1 milligram, death in 18 hours

You may want to check out Batrachotoxin. It's found in poison dart frogs, Melyrid beetles (found in NA) and some species of tropical birds. HIGHLY toxic, found in nature, and lipid soluble. There have been cases of people dying from merely touching a poison dart frog in the wild, so it would be very simple to poison a dress with Batrachotoxin.

I also recall a story of a young girl at around that time being poisoned by touching only 10 leaves of some sort of plant so that seems like a good one as well. I can't recall the plant... I'm 90% sure it's a flowering plant of American origin though if that helps.

Wolfsbane, Proper name is Aconitum. Highly toxic. Absorbed through skin.

Also I think only the leaves are toxic through skin... but I could be mistaken.

dimethyl mercury

I think a good one would be nicotine poisoning, if the dress was soaked in a pure nicotine solution then dried and presented to your character there would be little to no trace of it on the garment except for a slight smell which could easily be explained away in 1895.
The dosage is not that important but it takes a reasonable amount to kill quickly, and your other character would be slightly ill but he would survive provided he didn't touch her for a long time.
The symptoms are; sweating and general fever, feeling faint, disorientation and eventualy blackout.
It causes death by forcing the heart to speed up so much that it can't cope and stops.
It is traceable but not vey well in that time period.
I wish you the best of luck with your book!
x x x

I personally would recommend a mixture of urashol (oil found in poison oak/ivy) and TTX or tetrodotoxin (toxin found in taricha granulosa newt) which when concentrated via deheydration is lethal at about 15mcg or the amount that might fit on the tip of a dart. TTX is oil soluble and urashol is the oil found in poison ivy. I would highly recommend this composite. Although poison arrow frogs are also a good bet but as another had commented the more lipid soluble the toxin the better. Urashol immediately delivers its toxin systemically and whatever is soluble in that oil is also delivered systemically. Certain cnidocysts isolated from sea anenomes and the like provide another way of delivering toxins transdermally. The problem here is these are essentially barbs that must be kept moist to function and to do this your toxin will basically be a gel compound with said cnidocysts suspended in the solution. The first method is much easier and far harder to detect as the resulting rash takes about fifteen minutes to become noticeable and everyone has some level of sensitivity to urashol so even a minute reaction would prove lethal after about 30 minutes to 4 hours. TTX works by shutting down the sodium ion channels in cell walls, so as a result cells stop transporting essential nutrients and can't communicate with other cells because voltaic charge is completely compromised. As soon as five minutes after a 15mcg dose is delivered subject may experience a profound paralysis. This toxin has the neat effect of causing breathing and cardiac rhythms to halt while maintaining vision and hearing, this is the worlds second most potent naturally occuring biotoxin, being topped only by the toxin created as the waste product of bocculism

Also urashol oil can be manufactored relatively easily by an emulsion process of takin fresh leaves of poison ivy/oak/sumac and allowing this oil to rise to the surface of water and using a glass skimming device to obtain a good quantity. One juvenile species of this plant can yield about 1 tablespoon of relatively pure urashol. This oil has been used for centuries behind the scenes as a catalyyst in a lot of black magic and ritualistic purposes, so in this regard it fits in very well with the greek tale of a poisoned garb. As a side note both urashol and TTX are both fairly easy toxins to detect in a tox panel provided you know what you're looking for, but urashol is such a common toxin occuring in fields, hillsides and many commonly inhabited recreational areas that it is probable to be overlooked in a tox panel and ttx is a fairly uncommon toxin and would require an analyst to be actively looking to really be considered.

Other sources of TTX include pufferfish, bluering octupus, certain species of other european newts, oregon rough skinned newt (taricha granulosa also known as californian fire belly newt), and other typically aquatic organisms. Hope this thread has been helpful if not at least informative.

-the quiet killing ninja

As far as another becoming poisoned to inadverdently from a compound of urashol and TTX if the dosage of TTX was kept dispersed at a proportion of 40mcg< the effects of unintended exposure would be quite slim although there may be a residual poisoning of rash and some faint tingling around lips, eyes, and nostrils similar to what you might experience after receiving a shot novocaine from the dentist.

At any rate best of luck on your novel. I'm sure it will turn out interesting no matter which direction you steer things in. Best of luck

Mold spores from certain varieties create acute respiratory problems after a prolonged exposure

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on health products. Regards

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