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In the 1970's a University of Wisconsin co-ed adopted the current fashion
of wearing a necklace of polished beans purchased in Mexico.
She nervously rubbed the beads in class then
rubbed her eyes. A few hours later she
was unable to see and was violently ill from an ancient poison.
Centuries earlier Gypsies had worn similar
necklaces as a means of keeping the poisons handy for use on their enemies.
The toxin is known as ricin.
The source of ricin, the castor plant, is an attractive
household ornamental, which can grow up to thirty or forty feet in height.
Its leaves are maroon and silky when young,
dark green or dark red when mature. The
entire plant is poisonous, particularly the smooth oval seeds about
three-quarters of an inch long. But
when they are pressed to produce castor oil (which is not poisonous) the
remaining residue is a supertoxin. When eaten by humans, the toxin has a
delayed effect of about ten hours. The
symptoms are severe burning in the mouth, throat and stomach, nausea, vomiting,
cramps, delirium, convulsions and death after ten to twelve days.
However, there are many illnesses that can
cause similar symptoms. Unless a doctor
knows or suspects that ricin is involved there is no way that it can be
detected, even by an autopsy, since the poison is metabolized completely.
This makes ricin a perfect and ancient means
1952, under the code-name M. K. Naomi, the CIA identified
another biotoxin for use as a suicide pill for its agents to swallow
when captured. The World War II
era potassium cyandide capsule was not
satisfactory. Cyanide can take up to fifteen minutes to work and causes an
agonizing death by asphyxiation. Agents were understandably reluctant to use
Saxitoxin, a mollusk
poison produced by a tiny marine plankton known as a dinoflagellate was
identified as a possible replacement.
The dinoflagellate involved is the cause of red tides --the
unpredictable sporadic red-colored murk spreading over large stretches of ocean
in warmer zones. During red tides
shellfish become toxic and can cause paralysis or death if eaten.
In its purified form the saxitoxin is incredibly deadly.
After swallowing toxin or receiving it in a pinprick, the victim feels a
tingling sensation in the fingers and lips.
Ten seconds later he is dead.
U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers carried saxitoxin in the grooves of a tiny
drill bit concealed in a silver dollar in his clothing on his historic fight
over the Soviet Union.