Hemlock, arsenic, cyanide, anthrax… Poison has proven to be one of history’s favourite weapons of choice. It is easy to administer, difficult to suspect and, until recently, almost impossible to detect. From “The Emperor’s New Groove” to the murder of Alexander Perepilichny, poison has worked almost unfailingly (with, perhaps, the exception of the attempted murder of Emperor Kuzco).
Alexander Perepilichny was a Russian whistleblower who uncovered a huge tax fraud, committed by Moscow officials. In 2012, he died while jogging, at the age of just 44. Although Surrey Police declared no suspicious circumstances around his demise, tests carried out in the run-up to this week’s inquest into Perepilichny’s death have revealed traces of gelsemium poison in his stomach.
Alexander Perepilichny fled in the UK with his wife and children in 2009 after he disclosed the tax refund fraud and fell out with a Russian criminal network. Documents, discovered during the investigation of his death, revealed that he was being threatened by Russian secret agents and forced to attend regular meetings with them. It is suspected that Perepilichny ingested the gelsemium poison on a trip to Paris from which he returned ill the day before he died.
Gelsemium can be derived from three types of flowering plants. The most poisonous variety, found in Asia, is also known as heartbreak grass. Until its toxic features were discovered, gelsemium was used as a homeopathic remedy. Initial symptoms of poisoning include dizziness, nausea, blurred vision and convulsions. Large overdose causes paralysis of the spinal cord, loss of muscular power and asphyxia.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was the first to record the effects of heartbreak grass. He self-experimented by gradually increasing his daily dose of gelsemium until he reached 12ml: “The diarrhoea was so persistent and prostrating, that I must stop at 200 minims. I felt great depression and a severe frontal headache. The pulse was still normal, but weak.”
Gelsemium is often used by Chinese and Russian contract killers. The death of Chinese tycoon Long Liyuan is attributed to a slow-boiled cat stew, poisoned with heartbreak grass. Traces of gelsemium alkalides can be detected in the blood and urine of the victims, using mass spectrometry and immunoassays.
Professor Monique Simmonds, an expert in toxicology, will be carrying out further tests to establish with certainty that Alexander Perepilichny was poisoned with gelsemium. The research team from Kew Royal Botanic Gardens hopes that this case will shed some light on the toxicity of heartbreak grass.