Pretty Poison
A CultureMap®
by Stephen Brewer
Published on 10/22/13

Whether they do it for love or money—or the juicier motive of revenge—beautiful women who administer deadly doses of poison are fascinating, and they’ve been storytelling mainstays since Euripides wrote Medea, around 430 B.C. This map highlights some lovely examples of a dangerous tradition, with toxic beauties from myth, history, fairytales, literature and mysteries.

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Medea  (Euripides | play | c. 430 B.C.)
to  “Snow White”  (The Brothers Grimm and others | fairy tale | 19th century and earlier)

In his play Medea the ancient Greek writer Euripides refers to “anger, the spring of all life’s horror.” He offers this observation while recounting the myth of the vengeful Medea, who goes on a killing spree when her husband, Jason, leaves her for Glauce, daughter of the king of Corinth. Medea presents Glauce with a poisonous crown and robe that cause her to erupt into flames; then she murders her own two sons, the most grievous injury she can inflict on Jason.

The fairy tale “Snow White” turns on a different kind of anger—one based on jealousy rather than betrayal—but a similar revenge. Every morning the evil Queen, Snow White’s stepmother, asks, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” Again and again the answer is “Snow White.” The frustrated Queen orders her rival murdered and dines on what she believes are the girl’s heart and liver. When the Queen learns Snow White is still alive, she gives her a poisoned apple that induces a deathlike stupor. Such tales of infanticide and cannibalism bring to mind another of Euripides’s observations: “Of all things upon earth that bleed and grow, a herb most bruised is woman.”

“Snow White”  (The Brothers Grimm and others | fairy tale | 19th century and earlier)
to  Lucrezia Borgia  (1480–1519 | Italian duchess)

Just as the Queen in “Snow White” is the archetypal evil stepmother, Lucrezia Borgia (1480–1519) is forever linked with poisoning. The Borgia clan of immensely powerful popes and cardinals—Lucrezia’s father was Pope Alexander VI—was infamous for regularly dispatching enemies via arsenic concealed in a goblet known as the Borgia cup. “Tasting the cup of the Borgias” came to mean a sudden, mysterious death. Yet the hollow ring with which Lucrezia is rumored to have slipped arsenic into tiresome lovers’ drinks has never surfaced. Lucrezia was willful, promiscuous, ambitious and a willing pawn in her family’s machinations for power—by age 21, she had been married off three times. But has history gotten this beauty wrong? Her last husband was Alfonso d’Este, a prince of Ferrara, where she established one of Europe’s most civilized courts and died giving birth to her eighth child. Her lovers included the poet Pietro Bembo. Mementoes of her life include locks of her thick golden hair (centuries after her death, Romantic poet Lord Byron stole some strands from Milan’s Ambrosiana Library) and packets of love letters. In the case of Lucrezia Borgia, the only known casualty of poisoning may have been her reputation.

Lucrezia Borgia  (1480–1519 | Italian duchess)
to  Medea  (Euripides | play | c. 430 B.C.)

Making an advantageous marriage is an age-old concept, and the Borgias acquired much of their wealth and power through unions with powerful European dynasties. Lucrezia’s first husband, Giovanni Sforza (son of a mighty Italian clan), fled Rome for his life when his father-in-law, Pope Alexander VI, determined she could make a more advantageous match with Alfonso of Aragon; Lucrezia’s brother (and alleged lover) Cesare eventually strangled Alfonso.

As we learn from Euripides, similar shenanigans were transpiring 2,000 years earlier. Medea saved her husband, Jason, from fire-breathing oxen and gave him a potion to slay the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece. Then “he who was all the world to me” tells her he will marry Glauce, daughter of Creon, king of Corinth. Medea is the prototype of the woman who puts her husband through medical school and is dumped for a pretty nurse. Jason says his new union will be good for their two sons, who will have royal connections. But Medea has lost her place in society; she is ruined. She laments, “Of all things that have life and sense, we women are the most hapless creatures.” In those long-ago times, her only recourse was revenge.

Lucrezia Borgia  (1480–1519 | Italian duchess)
to  Sad Cypress  (Agatha Christie | novel | 1940)

With their lust for power, penchant for poisoning and taste for adultery, the Borgias are juicy subjects. In his 1833 play Lucrece Borgia Victor Hugo unleashes his title character on a poisoning binge; Gaetano Donizetti brought the melodrama to the operatic stage a year later. The Borgias inspired novels (including one of Alexandre Dumas’s Celebrated Crimes series), television miniseries (one for the BBC in 1981 and another for Showtime in 2011) and even video games (Assassin’s Creed).

We encounter their 20th-century counterparts in a British country house in Agatha Christie’s mystery novel Sad Cypress. Murder, greed, betrayal and a love triangle all come into play when wealthy Laura Welman dies without a will, lodge keeper’s daughter Mary Gerrard is poisoned and Hercule Poirot steps in to solve the case. In an adroit bit of sleuthing, Christie’s iconic Belgian detective discovers a telltale piece of evidence has been wrongly identified: The M on the label of a vial believed to have contained the poison morphine hydrochloride is lowercased when it would customarily have been capitalized. The vial actually contained apomorphine hydrochloride, an emetic the murderer swallows to make herself vomit after drinking poisoned tea with one of her victims.

“Rappaccini’s Daughter”  (Nathaniel Hawthorne | short story | 1844)
to  Medea  (Euripides | play | c. 430 B.C.)

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s mysterious, menacing short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Giovanni Guasconti has arrived in Padua to study. Soon the handsome scholar is smitten with Beatrice, a beautiful young woman who strolls in a garden beneath his window. Her beauty has metaphorically “instilled a fierce and subtle poison into his system.” But more than love is in the air. Giovanni notices that insects drop dead when caught in Beatrice’s moist breath and fresh flowers wilt in her grasp. She tries to warn Giovanni off. “Forget whatever you may have fancied in regard to me,” she tells him, but he’s irresistibly drawn to her. Giovanni eventually learns Beatrice’s scientist father has nourished her with poisons since birth, and the girl is toxic—literally. When she lays her hand on Giovanni’s, he feels “burning and tingling agony,” and purple marks appear on his skin. While Beatrice’s embrace may be death, her heart is in the right place. She tells Giovanni, “I dreamed only to love thee and be with thee a little time.” Medea, the poisoner of Euripides’s tragedy and a woman wronged, craves only revenge against the husband who has left her, but Beatrice, an unwitting femme fatale, just wants love.

“Rappaccini’s Daughter”  (Nathaniel Hawthorne | short story | 1844)
to  Sad Cypress  (Agatha Christie | novel | 1940)

An Italian garden and a British country house are the settings; the heroines, Beatrice Rappaccini and Elinor Carlisle, are beautiful young women; and both are accused of poisoning. “Accursed one…poisonous thing,” Beatrice’s lover and victim, Giovanni, screams at her in “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” “Thou hast made me as hateful, as ugly, as loathsome and deadly a creature as thyself—a world’s wonder of hideous monstrosity!”

In Sad Cypress Elinor is hauled into the dock for allegedly putting poison in fish-paste tea sandwiches. But neither woman is truly guilty. Due to her father’s bizarre experiments with toxins, Beatrice inadvertently poisons those she touches, and Elinor has been set up by one of her sick aunt’s nurses. Beatrice’s only escape is death: “I am going, father, where the evil, which thou hast striven to mingle with my being, will pass away like a dream—like the fragrance of these poisonous flowers, which will no longer taint my breath.” It’s a more pleasant denouement for Elinor, who finds comfort in the arms of the good Dr. Peter Lord. The detective Hercule Poirot, who is never wrong, tells him, “With you, she can be happy.” And happiness can be as potent as any poison.