Weird History

The Most Weaponized Poison In World History: The Deadly Trail Of Arsenic Through The Ages

Arsenic: it’s been called the “king of poisons” and the “poison of kings.” And for good reason – it has a lengthy, storied history, one full of mysterious poisoners and sometimes less-than-sympathetic victims. It's been a tool for thousands of years, used to kill countless people by shutting down their cells; a pea-sized amount of the stuff is enough to cause excruciating death. 

The ancient Romans used arsenic against their political enemies, and for centuries it was the go-to poison for women who hated their husbands. It's odorless and tasteless, so it could easily be sprinkled into someone’s yogurt (a Chinese emperor died that way) or mixed into wine (that’s how the Borgias killed their enemies). Before it could be detected with tests, arsenic poisoning was the perfect crime – just ask Giulia Tofana, the Renaissance poisoner who helped 600 women murder their spouses.

When it wasn't killing people, arsenic was being used in everyday life as a rat poison, a healer, and even makeup. Just like radium was used as a medicine, an arsenic compound successfully treated syphilis before the discovery of penicillin. Regardless of how many lives it saved, however, arsenic remains one of the deadliest substances in human history.