Arsenic and Old Lace: How to Tell if Someone was Poisoned at a Crime Scene

Sitting comfortably in the 21st century, poisoning as a method of homicide seems comfortably distant and sort of old-fashioned — we think it’s confined to some distant era where people relied on brews and potions to bid adieu to some unfortunate victim. Britain’s first serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton (or the “Black Widow” as she is oft-called) is a somewhat morbid example: she used her preparations to murder twenty-one victims, including eight of her own children, seven stepchildren, her mother, three husbands, a lover and a bothersome friend.

Even now, though, crime scene investigators encounter a deceased person who has succumbed to what appears to be some untoward concoction — and they might have a few tidbits of knowledge that allows them to make that conclusion even before the body is handed to the pathologist. Now, we’re lifting the veil on the examination of the body when you think that their last sip of wine wasn’t just wine — and letting everyone in on how to tell if someone was poisoned (when you’ve first happened upon them).


1. The technicolour poison victim: interpreting the tint of the face and skin.

Very often, the surface of the body and the clothes might show stains or marks of — no graceful way to put this — vomit, faeces or even the poison itself. Look closely for any dark brown stains around the lips, chin and cheeks. Anything around the face that is stained this colour suggests that a person consumed corrosives.

Next, you’ll move on to the hue the skin takes following poisoning (as it is broken down by the body’s own internal parts). Yellowed skin is a key indicator that an individual ingested phosphorus, or suffered from acute copper poisoning; cherry red staining is a clue to poisoning by carbon monoxide; and bright red staining is most often seen in hydro cyanic acid poisoning.

Simply looking very intently at the colouring of the person lying on the hard, grey metal in front of you might be enough to work up a basic diagnosis before the licensed pathologist takes over.


2. Something smelly this way comes: figuring out what that smell is.

Don’t get too close, but try and take a whiff around the mouth and nose. Believe it or not, scientists have a very specific and prescribed way of doing this: it essentially involves with you holding the object out in front of your face (sometimes as far away as possible) and sort of wafting the odor with the other hand toward your nose (everyone looks quite daft as they do this, but it is the right method!). You might be able to quickly figure out if what you’re smelling is: alcohol, ether, cyanides, phenol, opium, a phosphorus compound, or camphor.


3. Blistering and boils: check for any marks that are left behind.

Observation is the key: if you’re seeing any bubbling on the surface of the skin — you might just be looking at a victim of poisoning. Pustules can be caused by barbituates, sedatives and carbon monoxide. There appears to be a somewhat linear relationship, for instance, between levels of carbon monoxide and the appearance of blisters on the skin. Physicians and pathologists are often told that the presence of such blisters may signal severe poisoning — and it’s a good place for us to investigators to determine that something might have been added to a victim’s seemingly innocent cocktails.


Your Turn: What do you think the procedure might involve if the autopsy is looking to diagnose poisoning? Think there’s another method we haven’t mentioned her. Let us know in the comments. We’d like to hear from you.



One Comment

  • Crystal says:

    My dad passed away on August 11th of this year. He had stage 4 Lymphoma, but I think my step mom may have overdosed his medication while he was in hospice at home. She wouldn’t let my sister and I in the room whole nurses spoke with her and when she would give him his medication. He was fine up and talking on a video and 5 days later so out of it he looked starved to death and couldn’t speak. I have video and pictures. I don’t know what to do and how to prove it. He was planning on leaving here and 4 months later dead.

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