The Victorian Poisoner’s Choice: Nicotine

November 20, 2013 in Daily Bulletin


No-one is going to argue that nicotine is a health drug. But did you know it was used as a poison? Deborah Blum reports:

  • In 1850, Gustave Fougnies was killed at a dinner party with his brother, the Comte de Bocarme.
  • The motive was clear. The Comte de Bocarme was heavily in debt, and relying on his father’s inheritance. This, however, went to Gustave, who had recently become engaged.
  • On the grounds of the Comte’s house was a greenhouse full of nicotine leaves and bodies of dead animals. This was however circumstantial, as at the time it was impossible to find nicotine in a body.
  • A few years earlier, a French prosecutor had begun raging in court “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.”
  • Chemist Jean Servais Stas, enraged at the abuse of his discipline, spent 3 months with samples of Gustave’s tissue. He eventually abstracted nicotine using ether, acetic acid and ethanol. Proof, at last, of nicotine’s use.
  • The Comte of Bocarme’s final wish was for the guillotine’s blade to be sharp.

If you’re interested in the history of nicotine, how it compares to arsenic, and what this has to do with Michigan in 2003, click here

Source: Wired