NICOTINE AND THE CHEMISTRY OF MURDERDEBORAH BLUM
The 1850 murder of Gustave Fougnies in Belgium is not famous because of the cleverness of his killers. Not at all. They - his sister and brother-in-law - practically set off signal flares announcing their parts in a suspicious death.
It's not famous because it was such a classic high society murder. The killers were the dashing, expensive, and deeply indebted Comte and Countess de Bocarmé. The death occurred during a dangerously intimate dinner at their chateau, a 18th century mansion on an estatein southern Belgium.
Nor it is remembered because the Comte died by guillotine in 1851 - so many did after all.
No, this is a famous murder because of its use of a notably lethal poison. And because the solving of this particular murder changed the history of toxicology, helped lay the foundation for modern forensic science. The poison, by the way, was the plant alkaloid nicotine. And it was chosen because at the time, no one - absolutely no one - knew how to detect a plant alkaloid in a dead body. During the unsuccessful prosecution of a morphine murder only a few years earlier, a French prosecutor actually started shouting about it in the courtroom: "Henceforth, let us tell would-be poisoners...use plant poisons. Fear nothing; your crime will go unpunished. There is no corpus delecti (physical evidence) for it cannot be found."
And that was certainly the idea when the Comte and his wife decided to murder her young brother for his money. That they could kill him with this very special poison. And never be caught.
We probably know nicotine best today for its role in creating the highly addictivechemistry of tobacco, a reason that so many people find it difficult to quit smoking even though the habit is so conclusively linked to disorders ranging from heart disease to lung cancer. The compound has such a potent effect on the brain that some researchers have even suggested that it provides a gateway for drugs such as cocaine. Others have wondered whether that potency could somehow be harnessed to good effect, as a treatment for disorders ranging from Alzheimer'sto depression, although its addictive nature makes such approaches obviously complicated.
But back in the 19th century, of course, there was no way to peel apart its neurochemicaleffects. What people did know was that nicotine was one lethal compound. Tobacco, a plant native to the Americas, had caught the attention of the Europeans during the 16th century. One of its strongest advocates was Jean Nicot de Villemain, the French ambassador to Portugal, who acquired plants and seeds from the Portuguese colony in Brazil and promoted their use during the 1560s. The tobacco plant, Nicotiana tabacum, is named after him, as is the plant's primary alkaloid.
Nicotine was first isolated from tobacco leaves in 1828 by two German chemists, Wilhelm Heinrich Posselt and Karl Ludwing Reinmann (its structure would be determined in 1893 and it would be first synthesized in 1904). Do you wonder what it's made of? Three of the most common elements on Earth - carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen - and this represents one of the things I like best about chemistry, the way nature takes the planet's ordinary ingredients and mixes them up to such varied effect. The formula for nicotine is a straightforward: C14H10N2. Of course, that underestimates its complexity. If you look at a 3D model of nicotine (frankly, these always remind me balloon art) you'll see what a clustering twist of compound it really is:
And it's that elegant arrangement that turns nicotine into such an effective poison, moving through the bloodstream with exceptional speed. When inhaled, nicotine travels from lung to brain in an estimated seven seconds. Toxicologists estimate that a fully smoked cigarette delivers about 1 mg of nicotine to the lungs; this compares to a lethal dose estimate of 30-60 mg. (For further comparison, the lethal dose range for arsenic is 70-200 mg.) The International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS) notes that: "Nicotine is one of the most toxic of all poisons and has a rapid onset of action. Apart from local caustic actions, the target organs are the peripheral and central nervous systems."
Obviously, again, people didn't know all that in earlier centuries. They wouldn't have called it a neurotoxin as we do today. But they did know that it was a poison that killed humans, pets and pests alike and by the 18th century, nicotine had become a very popular insecticide. That use has continued into modern times although pure nicotine pesticides have been gradually phased out due to their broad spectrum toxicity. (Their replacements, neonicotinoide pesticides, which have a chemically similar but theoretically less dangerous structure are now under fire as contributing to the widespread collapse of bee colonies). It's worth noting that because they're based on plant chemistry, pure nicotine poisons have been acceptable to the U.S. government for use by organic farmers treating insect infestations. And also that these same pesticides have occasionally turned up in more recent homicide investigations and in one unnerving2003 mass poisoning incident in Michigan.
We know about those poisonings, these successful murders and these attempted ones, because of what we learned from that bungled murder in Belgium more than 150 years ago. With the help, of course, of one completely obsessive chemist named Jean Servais Stas.
As the story goes, Comte Hyppolyte de Bocarmé rather fancied himself a chemist also. He built a laboratory in the wash house of his rambling estate, ostensibly for the purpose of brewing up perfumes. But in the summer of 1850 - according to one of the gardeners - he also bought an astonishingly large quantity of tobacco leaves and stored them in a barn. Slowly the leaves began to disappear though.
The count's wife, Lydie, was the daughter of a wealthy apothecary and she, like her husband, enjoyed an extravagant life style. The couple became famous for wild parties and hunting sprees - and for living beyond their income. They both counted on a large inheritance when her father died. But the old man left almost all his money to his son, Gustave. The brother, long-troubled by ill health, made his own will, handily leaving all to his sister. And the Bocarmés continued living on their expectations - but with increasing impatience.
By the fall of 1850, as it would turn out, the Comte had distilled two large vials of pure nicotine from his tobacco leaves. Investigators would also later discover the bodies of farm cats and birds that he'd apparently used to test his poison. If you spend any time studying poisoners, you learn that they are by nature planners and plotters and patient with it. So who knows how long he might have waited on his brother-in-law's ill health. But Gustave forced his hand - he decided to get married.
On the night of November 20, 1850, the 32-year-old Fougnies was invited to a celebratory dinner at his sister's home. As the servants testified, everything about the evening was, from the beginning, odd. The children, who usually ate with the family, were instead sent away to the nursery. The countess insisted on serving the meal herself when normally she liked to be waited upon. One servant said he heard a call for help; all heard the thump of a body hitting the floor.
And then the comte and countess poured vinegar down the dead man's throat and washed his body as well in that mild acid. They scraped the floor; the comte's clothes were sent to be washed. His shirt was burned to ash. The conspiring couple announced that her brother had suddenly dropped dead of a stroke. But no one could help but notice that the dead man's face was bruised, cut, and appeared burned by some caustic substance (pure nicotine is, in fact, corrosive). Unnerved, the chateau's servants took the unusual step of contacting the authorities - in this case, a local priest - themselves. The priest contacted a magistrate who took one look at the battered body and summoned the police.
Their investigation led the police to suspect that Fougnies had been poisoned with nicotine. But everything, the tobacco leaves, the laboratory, even the dead animals made only a chain of circumstantial evidence. At the start of the 19th century, no tests existed that could detect a poison in corpse. In the 1830s, the British chemist James Marsh had developed the first procedure for detecting the metallic poison arsenic in a body. But the Marsh testrequired that the tissue be destroyed and, as it turned out, that destructive process also destroyed the more fragile plant alkaloids like nicotine. No test had been developed by 1850 to overcome that problem.
The magistrate decided to take his problem to Jean Servais Stas, the country's best chemist, famous, in particular, for his work with atomic weights. Stas found himself infuriated by this perversion of chemistry. He retired to his Brussels laboratory with organ tissues from Fougnies' body and he began a series of experimentsthat lasted three full months. Chemists can also be patient, after all. And in that time period, he managed to figure out a method using ether, acetic acid and ethanol (for preservation), that enabled him to extract the oily liquid of nicotine from the preserved tissues. His approach has been updated since, but the Stas-Otto method remains a fundamental part of toxicology today.
It's not surprising then that Comte de Bocarmé was found guilty, executed on July 19, 1851. His last request was for a clean death; he asked that the blade be very sharp. His wife, Lydie, claimed that she'd acted solely out of fear of her husband and was found not guilty. Also, perhaps, not surprising. Little is known of her life afterwards. We barely remember her, her husband, even her poor dead brother. But perhaps we should try. They - these incompetent killers, this nicotine murder - changed our lives. This poison and this crime broke down one of the largest barriers in toxicology and helped lay the foundation for the profession of forensic chemistry that we know today.
Images: 1) Murderpedia 2)Wikimedia Commons