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Sarah E. Glenn and Nicotine Poisoning

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Sarah E. Glenn and her partner Gwen Mayo write the Three Snowbirds series, set in the 1920s and featuring Teddy Lawless. Today, Sarah writes about how they came up with the poison they used in their latest book, Murder at the Million Dollar Pier, and the interesting way they got it into their victim. And we all know why I like poison.

Gwen Mayo and Sarah E. Glenn

The first time we visited Canada, we visited the botanical gardens in Montreal. The shade garden was restful, the lilac garden was stunningly abloom, but naturally, I was lured to the poison garden. And there, alongside the hemlock and nightshade, was tobacco. It wasn’t included because of its association with cancer but because of the nicotine content. Nicotine poisoning is nothing new, and our killer used it to murder Ansel Stevens in Murder at the Million Dollar Pier. The method of delivery, via hat, might seem unusual, but there were plenty of examples for us to draw on.

When city people hear the phrase “nicotine poisoning”, they associate the idea with unsupervised children discovering cigarette butts or getting hold of vaping fluid. If you live in Kentucky or another tobacco state, though, you’re also likely to think about ‘green tobacco sickness’. It happens when farm workers harvest tobacco without proper precautions. Cutting tobacco leads to nicotine being absorbed through the skin when hands are ungloved or when a worker’s clothing gets wet. Harvesting is often done in the morning hours when it’s cooler—but also when the dew is heavy, so wet clothing is a real possibility. The symptoms are nausea, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness. Tobacco sickness can be fatal if the victim doesn’t leave the field, remove clothing, bathe, and receive medical aid. Gloves help prevent poisoning, as does water-resistant clothing. In earlier decades, it was not unusual for clothing to be burned or buried after the tobacco harvest because it wasn’t safe to wear (more on this shortly).

  • Teddy Lawless, from Murder at the Million Dollar Pier: “If I were going to use nicotine, I would have added it to his abominable little cigarettes. The poison in the hat might not have absorbed into the skin in sufficient quantity to kill him, especially if it didn’t get damp enough. Inhaling it would be much more effective.”

During the time of our book, liquid nicotine was readily available, because it made a dandy bug killer. Nicotine’s earliest known use as an insecticide dates from 1690, and that application wasn’t banned in the United States until the 1990s. Neonicotinoids, nicotine-based chemicals, are still used in pesticides today. It is less toxic to humans, but has received some blame for the declining bee population.

An article in the May 27, 1933 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association listed several cases of nicotine insecticide poisoning via clothing, including ones where the patient became (re)contaminated after putting clothes back on without washing them first. My favorite account was the one where a florist had spilled some “Nico-Fume Liquid” (40% concentration) on a chair and then sat on it. The nicotine transferred from the chair to his skin via his clothing, and he became deathly ill. When he left the hospital, he put his still-damp clothing back on, and was readmitted shortly thereafter with the same symptoms. This was four days later. It was clear to me that any one of our suspects could have been the one to purchase a captain’s cap, apply nicotine to the inside band, and expect it to take effect when the victim put it on and went sailing.

Black Leaf 40 was one of the most popular nicotine pesticides, consisting of 40% nicotine sulphate. It was manufactured in Louisville, Kentucky from the 1920s to the 1950s, but wasn’t banned until 1992. Its use was widespread at the time of our novel, and it was easily purchased by farmers and gardeners alike. Our killer had no problem obtaining it to eliminate a two-legged pest, but I did have fun devising the method.

My thanks to Sarah for sharing that. You can find out more about Murder at the Million Dollar Pier at Mystery and Horror, LLC.

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