Hemlock

(Conium maculatum) Tradition has it that it was a decoction of this drug that was drunk by Socrates, but how could he have died so quickly? Hemlock poisoning is a relatively slow progress towards death, so Socrates must have had some narcotic like opium (Rambosson) mixed with it. The purple spots on the stems were said to reproduce the marks on Cain's brow after he had killed Abel (M Evans).

Herbivorous animals do not seem to be poisoned by eating it (it is said that a Cambridgeshire way of controlling unruly horses was to pound hemlock in a mortar until it was finely powdered, and then to rub it on their noses (Porter. 1969)), but it seems that carnivores are more susceptible (Sanford). It is also said to be most poisonous in the southern part of its range (Salisbury. 1964). Martin. 1703 described the effects of eating hemlock: "Fergus Caird, an empiric, living in the village Taliste (Talisker?), having by mistake eaten hemlock-root, instead of the white wild-carrot, his eyes did presently roll about, his countenance became very pale, his sight had almost failed him, the frame of his body was all in a strange convulsion, and his pudenda retired so inwardly, that there was no discerning whether he had been male or female. All the remedy given him in this state was a draught of hot milk, and a little aqua-vitae added to it, which he no sooner drank, but he vomited presently after, yet the root still remained in his stomach. They continued to administer the same remedy for the space of four or five hours together, but in vain; and in about an hour after they ceased to give him anything, he voided the root by stool, and then was restored to his former state of health.".

A plant as poisonous as this would naturally have an association with witches. "Root of hemlock digged in dark" was one of the ingredients in the witches' cauldron in Macbeth, and Summers claimed that it was used by them either as a poison or as a drug, favoured mainly because of its soporific effects. The soporific effect is uppermost in a story told by Coles that "if asses do chaunce to feed upon Hemlock they will fall so fast asleepe that they will seeme to be dead. In so much that some thinking them to be dead have flayed off their skins, yet after the Hemlock had done operating they have stirred and wakened out of their sleep, to the griefe and amazement of the owners, and to the laughter of others". On the fringes of the association with witchcraft is an Irish love charm that consisted of taking ten leaves of hemlock, dried and powdered, and mixing this powder in food or drink (Wilde. 1902). Some say that it is the purple blotches on its stem that gives it a bad name, for these streaks are copies of the brand put on Cain's brow when he had committed murder (Skinner).

The fruits are the only convenient source of the alkaloid coniine (or Conia), which was introduced into British medicine in 1864. The pure drug has been used sometimes in soothing cancer pain (Schauenberg & Paris). The plant itself was used in Anglo-Saxon times, and is mentioned as early as the 10th century, in the vocabulary of Aelfric, Archbishop of Canterbury, as Cicuta, hemlic (Fluckiger & Hanbury). It was, in fact, an ingredient in the narcotic drink called dwale (Voigts & Hudson). It has been used in the past in dealing with a cataract. Buchan, in the 18th century, congratulated himself on curing a cataract "by giving the patient purges with calomel, keeping a poultice of fresh hemlock constantly upon the eye, and a perpetual blister on the neck".

In parts of Ireland, it was used for giddiness (Bar-bour), and an Irish recipe of about 1450 recommended it for the falling sickness, epilepsy (Wilde. 1890). Boiled hemlock was widely used in Ulster (and in the Isle of Man (Moore, Morrison & Goodwin)) to reduce swellings in men and animals. It could not be used if there was a cut or scratch near the swelling (Foster). On the other hand, the leaves, dried and powdered, were used in Essex to be put on cuts (V G Hatfield. 1994), and in Ireland a pain-killing poultice used to be made by mixing hemlock leaves with linseed meal (Moloney), a preparation also used on boils (Maloney).

In 1790, a Cornish blacksmith, Ralph Barnes, was supposed to have cured himself of a cancer by taking immense quantities of hemlock juice (Deane & Shaw) (primitive chemotherapy?). Equally unlikely is Buchan's recommendation of it for the King's Evil, but there is another usage that is perhaps not so unlikely: Granny Gray, of Littleport, in Cambridgeshire, used to make up pills from hemlock, pennyroyal and rue. They were famous in the Fen country for abortions (Porter. 1969) in the mid-19th century.

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