21st January 1835. Poison!
Conium comes from the Greek ‘Konas’ ‘to whirl’ describing a symptom of its ingestion. Crime writers such as Agatha Christie refers to the drug in ‘Five Little Pigs’ where coniium extracted from poisonous hemlock is used to kill the painter Amyas Crane. Margery Allingham’s ‘Police at the Funeral’ mentions the drug as the causing the death of Julia Faraday.(1)
The Greek philosopher Socrates was poisoned by it and the Old Testament refers to rhabdomyolysis in the Israelites after consuming quail which had fed on the plant.(2)
It was Today in 1835 that Leigh Hunt writing in the London Journal concerning John Keats’ poem ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, of May 1819, claimed it was written whilst, ‘The poet had then his mortal illness upon him, and knew it. Never was the voice of death sweeter’. In the Ode, Keats’ refers to: ‘My Heart aches, and a drowsy numbness Pains/My sense, of though of Hemlock I had drunk’.
Conium contains the pyridine alkaloids of coniine and others, which has a chemical structure similar to nicotine. The alkaloids, all neurotoxins distinguished by a bitter taste, are a group of nitrogen producing basic compounds found in plants, many of which are medicinal.
They include, morphine, quinine, the poisonous strychnine and coniine (hemlock), caffeine, nicotine and LSD. Morphine was the first individual alkaloid isolated in 1804 from Papaver somniferum’, a poppy and a common garden invader.
However what is poisonous to man is obviously agreeable to the member of the Lepidoptera, the silver-ground carpet moth, whose larvae feed on the plant.
(1) Water hemlock often confused with wild carrot, (Queen Anne’s Lace), celery and parsley is of the genus Conium and is one of the most poisonous perennial herbaceous flowers native to Britain and Europe.
(2) Reference is also found in King Lear Act V Scene VI and mentioned by Cordelia when describing her missing father who is insane, to the doctor as: ‘Crowned with rank fumitory and furrow weeds/With burdock, hemlock, cuckoo-flowers’.
Ref: Wikipedia.org.uk/on Conium/Pic Image.
Ref: Daily Mail article. Tamara Cohen. 28.7.2011.
The 18thc herbalist Nicholas Culpepper wrote; ‘It [hemlock] grows in all the counties of this land by walls and hedge-sides, waste-grounds and untilled places’. (Complete Herbal, Wordsworth Reg Ware 1995.)
Hemlock is mentioned in Old English manuscripts and was used by the Anglo-Saxons in medicines.