Cover image for The royal art of poison : fatal cosmetics, deadly medicine, filthy palaces, and murder most foul / Eleanor Herman.
The royal art of poison : fatal cosmetics, deadly medicine, filthy palaces, and murder most foul / Eleanor Herman.
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, [2018]
Physical Description:
286 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Introduction -- Poison, poison, everywhere -- Poison from the banquet table to the royal underpants -- Unicorn horns and rooster dung : poison detectors and antidotes -- Dying to be beautiful : dangerous cosmetics -- Murderous medicine : mercury enemas and rat turd elixirs -- Putrid palaces : a poisoned environment -- The poison chronicles : where rumors of royal poisoning meet scientific analysis -- Henry VII of Luxembourg, Holy Roman Emperor, 1275-1313 -- Cangrande della Scala, Italian warlord, 1291-1329 -- Agnes Sorel, mistress of King Charles VII of France, 1422-1450 -- Edward VI, king of England, 1537-1553 -- Jeanne d'Albret, Queen of Navarre, 1528-1572 -- Eric XIV, King of Sweden, 1533-1577 -- Ivan IV, the Terrible, Czar of Russia, 1530-1584; his mother, Elena Glinskaya, ca. 1510-1538; and his first wife, Anastasia Romanovna, 1530-1560 -- Grand Duke Francesco de Medici of Tuscany, 1541-1587, and Grand Duchess Bianca Cappello, 1548-1587 -- Gabrielle d'Estrees, mistress of King Henri IV of France, 1573-1599 -- Tycho Brahe, astronomer and imperial mathematician, 1546-1601 -- Michelangelo de Merisi, known as Caravaggio, artist to Italy's elite, 1572-1610 -- Henry Stuart, prince of Wales, 1594-1612 -- Sir Thomas Overbury, royal adviser at the court of James I, 1581-1613 -- Princess Henrietta Stuart of England, Duchesse d'Orleans, 1644-1670 -- Mademoiselle de Fontanges, mistress of Louis XIV of France, 1661-1680, and the affair of the poisons -- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, imperial court musician, 1756-1791 -- Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, 1769-1821 -- Poison in the modern era -- Scientific advances in the Victorian age -- The democratization of poison -- Modern medicis : the rebirth of political poison -- Pick your poison -- The poison hall of fame -- Bibliography -- Index.


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Material Type
Home Location
746.434 STR Book Adult General Collection

On Order



One of Washington Independent Review of Books' 50 Favorite Books of 2018 * A Buzzfeed Best Book of 2018

"Morbidly witty." --Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times

"You'll be as appalled at times as you are entertained." -- Bustle , one of The 17 Best Nonfiction Books Coming Out In June 2018

"A heady mix of erudite history and delicious gossip." --Aja Raden, author of Stoned

In the Washington Post roundup, "What your favorite authors are reading this summer," A.J. Finn says, "I want to read The Royal Art of Poison , Eleanor Herman's history of poisons."

Hugely entertaining, a work of pop history that traces the use of poison as a political--and cosmetic--tool in the royal courts of Western Europe from the Middle Ages to the Kremlin today

The story of poison is the story of power. For centuries, royal families have feared the gut-roiling, vomit-inducing agony of a little something added to their food or wine by an enemy. To avoid poison, they depended on tasters, unicorn horns, and antidotes tested on condemned prisoners. Servants licked the royal family's spoons, tried on their underpants and tested their chamber pots.

Ironically, royals terrified of poison were unknowingly poisoning themselves daily with their cosmetics, medications, and filthy living conditions. Women wore makeup made with mercury and lead. Men rubbed turds on their bald spots. Physicians prescribed mercury enemas, arsenic skin cream, drinks of lead filings, and potions of human fat and skull, fresh from the executioner. The most gorgeous palaces were little better than filthy latrines. Gazing at gorgeous portraits of centuries past, wedon't see what lies beneath the royal robes and the stench of unwashed bodies; the lice feasting on private parts; and worms nesting in the intestines.

In The Royal Art of Poison , Eleanor Herman combines her unique access to royal archives with cutting-edge forensic discoveries to tell the true story of Europe's glittering palaces: one of medical bafflement, poisonous cosmetics, ever-present excrement, festering natural illness, and, sometimes, murder.

Author Notes

Eleanor Herman is the author of Sex with Kings, Sex with the Queen, and several other works of popular history. She has hosted Lost Worlds for The History Channel, The Madness of Henry VIII for the National Geographic Channel, and is now filming her second season of America: Fact vs. Fiction for The American Heroes Channel. Herman, who happily dresses in Renaissance gowns, lives with her husband, their black lab, and her four very dignified cats in McLean, VA.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

History is rife with tales of poison, as Herman (Sex with Kings, Sex with Queens) shows in her rip-roaring pop history of the role poison played in the royal courts of Western Europe. She includes expected tales of nobles using poison as a means of political gain; more surprising are the great lengths that royals went through to avoid such fate. Louis XIV maintained a strict safety protocol in his dining chamber, requiring servants to test everything from toothpicks to tablecloths for any potential poisonous threat. According to Herman, Louis was not alone in his paranoia. The irony is that many nobles were unwittingly poisoning themselves with their medical treatments and beauty regimens. After a bout of smallpox in 1562, Queen Elizabeth regularly applied a concoction of "lead ore, vinegar... arsenic, hydroxide, and carbonate" to her skin in a misguided attempt to improve her complexion. In the 17th century, the gravely ill Henry, Prince of Wales, was treated with the blood of a freshly killed bird; this was a common practice at the time, according to Herman, who adds that often doctors would leave bird carcasses on the patient's pillows for several days. By turns fascinating and stomach-churning, the book's detailed descriptions of different types of poisons will both shock and delight history buffs and enthusiasts of the macabre. (June) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

PUT A PILE OF ANYTHING IN front of me - shoes, seashells, books - and I'll robotically start organizing them into categories. It soothes my mind to separate, say, con artists from gangsters, and it makes a jumble of true-crime books on a variety of topics easier to tackle. But since the ones right in front of me are about serial killers, let's start with those. Peter Vronsky's SONS OF CAIN: A History of Serial Killers From the Stone Age to the Present (Berkley, paper, $17) creeps off to a start with a chapter on "The Stone Age Reptilian Zombie Serial-Killer Triune Brain," slithers through "The Dawn of the Less-Dead: Serial Killers and Modernity" and slinks to an end with a section called "The New Age of Monsters: The Rise of the Modern Serial Killer." Vronsky's purplish prose is at its lip-smacking best in "The Rippers Before Jack: The Rise of Modern Serial Killers in Europe, 18001887." Splashed across his broad canvas are fabled butchers like Andreas Bichel, known as "the girl slaughterer" of Germany; Vincenzo Verzeni, "the vampire of Bergamo"; and Louis-Joseph Philippe, "the terror of Paris," whose grisly handiwork anticipated that of London's famed slasher by more than 20 years. Vronsky has an alarming theory about the "enormous glut" of American serial murderers who came of age during World War II and the postwar baby boom. He observes that the offenders who made their first kill during the peak years of "the golden age" of serial killers, between 1950 and 2000, "all lived in the wake of a receding shock wave of humanity's biggest, most viciously primitive and most lethal war." In lurid prose, he points out that some of these golden-agers were the offspring of the 16.5 million Americans mobilized during World War II. Although these veterans were conditioned to kill in combat, Vronsky could find no record that any of them returned as multiple murderers, but some of them fathered the serial killers of the next two generations. Those serial killers, in turn, have inspired the obsessive interest of crime writers. To research the kill jar: Obsession, Descent, and a Hunt for Detroit's Most Notorious Serial Killer (Gallery, $24.99), the screenwriter and private investigator J. Reuben Appelman spent what seems like a lifetime (10 years, actually) digging into the unsolved case of the Oakland County Child Killer, also known as "The Babysitter" for the care he took in tending and dressing the corpses of his victims. Over more than a year, in the late 1970s, this meticulous monster kidnapped four children, two boys and two girls between the ages of 10 and 12, and held them captive before killing them and dumping their bodies in plain view. Appelman grew up under the heavy hand of an abusive father and when he was 7 years old a man with "greasy brown" hair, "like motor oil," tried to snatch him off the street and into his car. Throughout the book, Appelman conflates scenes like this, from his own childhood dramas, with those from the lives of the murdered children. He especially identifies with 11-year-old Timothy King, "whom I've come to see as my boyhood self somehow." While these abundant self-references diminish the impact of the victims' ordeals, that personal factor appears to have motivated Appelman to undertake his project. So I guess the self-dramatizing was worth it. Jeffrey L. Rinek, who retired after 30 years with the F.B.I., has a different perspective on victimized children. The voice that narrates in the name of the children: An F.B.I. Agent's Relentless Pursuit of the Nation's Worst Predators (BenBella Books, paper, $16.95), which Rinek wrote with the journalist Marilee Strong, sounds warm and humane, qualities missing from much crime writing. Their book is a professional job, filled with illuminating details about the day-to-day operations of the bureau. Particularly interesting are the regular interviews agents are granted with sex offenders who are about to be paroled by the California Department of Corrections. "Only in this unique setting could we ask them about how they found their victims," Rinek explains, "how they groomed kids, how they outfitted their homes to make them places that would attract children." They had to answer every question or their parole would be denied. Rinek's voice softens when he speaks of victims like 8year-old Michael Lyons, "savagely tortured, mutilated and thrown away like trash," whose grave the agent visited for many years, and 6-year-old Danny Hohenstein, who had a miserable childhood and whose disappearance was one of Rinek's first cold cases. During the five years that Danny was missing, Rinek and his partner often visited the boy's mother and sister; when Danny's remains were finally found and laid to rest, the partners found one of the child's few surviving photographs, taken when a dentist had repaired his rotting teeth, and had it framed for his family. Not everyone is as kind and caring as Jeffrey Rinek, but true-crime writers do tend to identify to some degree with their subjects. In A TALE OF TWO MURDERS: Guilt, Innocence, and the Execution of Edith Thompson (Pegasus Crime, $28.95), Laura Thompson earnestly champions the lost cause of Edith Thompson (no, she's no relation), a woman caught in an awkward moment of history. If the year had been 1923, Edith might have simply divorced her inconvenient husband, Percy, and married her handsome young lover, Frederick By waters. But it was 1922, a year before the passage of the Matrimonial Causes Act that would make divorce a less onerous procedure - so murder seemed the swiftest option. A well-read woman, Edith wrote her lover many passionate letters, which were used against her at trial and which the author wisely quotes at length. (Freddy's epistolary style was banal, if not boring.) As their love affair intensified ("What erotic power this woman had!" Thompson marvels), Percy became even more of an encumbrance, and Edith's clumsy attempt to poison him only raised his suspicions. In the end, Freddy did the deed - with a knife. Edith was with Percy when he expired on a dark street in suburban London, and as the police escorted her back home, she said, presciently, "They will blame me for this." Indeed they did, and so did the public, in whose eyes she became "the very emblem of decadence," as much for her sin of adultery as for her complicity in the crime of murder. Had Edith Thompson had access to the royal art of poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul (St. Martin's, $27.99), by Eleanor Herman, she might have had more success in disposing of her husband. Herman takes a scholarly approach to her subject, but her tone is morbidly witty. (In an appendix called "The Poison Hall of Fame," she identifies arsenic as "the biggest stomach blaster" and says long-term mercury exposure results in the "most disgusting symptoms," including stinking black saliva and oozing sores.) To heighten the entertainment value of her study, Herman keeps the focus on the follies of the upper classes, who seemed to make a hobby out of poisoning their peers and whose creative personal application of "lead face paint, mercury enemas and arsenic skin lotions" constituted suicide by vanity. Among the chapters packed with information on the appalling health habits of past generations, my favorite is "Putrid Palaces," which contains this priceless 1660 entry about a cesspool, from Samuel Pepys's diary: "When go- ing down my cellar," he wrote, "I stepped into a great heap of turds by which I found that Mr. Turner's house of office is full and comes into my cellar, which do trouble me." Herman performs a public service with a chapter on "Modern Medicis: The Rebirth of Political Poison," in which she examines some notorious examples of political murder. With the exception of the deaths of the former Palestinian president Yasir Arafat and the brother of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, her examples are all drawn from Russia. And aside from some eyebrowraising theories about the "natural" deaths of Lenin and Stalin, she names names and identifies possible poisons. Her impressive list of examples ranges from Anatoly Sobchak, a politician who gravely insulted President Vladimir Putin and expired from breathing the vaporized fumes emitted by his poisonsoaked bedside lamp, to Alexander Litvinenko, another outspoken Putin critic, who succumbed to "a staggering amount of polonium-210" that left his body so radioactive the autopsy was performed by doctors wearing hazmat suits. "Russian assassins have developed toxic materials truly worthy of a nuclear superpower, cooking up new radioactive poisons that cause massive organ failure," Herman writes, with something like awe. "Some of these poisons elude even the most advanced tests to identify them." In the spirited words of Donald J. Trump, defending Putin from Bill O'Reilly's charge of being a murderer: "You think our country is so innocent?" No, not innocent. Just less Machiavellian - and funnier. For a sample of American style, see Paul Collins's lively exposé, BLOOD & IVY: The 1849 Murder That Scandalized Harvard (Norton, $26.95). People disappeared rather frequently in 19th-century Boston, and if their bodies never turned up, well, they were probably not worth finding anyway. But when a wealthy landowner, Dr. George Parkman, went missing, there was the devil to pay. And after his truncated body was found in the lower laboratory of the Massachusetts Medical College - teeth in the furnace, torso and a few body parts packed in a chest - society swooned in horror. Because of the disposition of the corpse and the long history of the college's "dark trade in cadavers," suspicions of body snatching were raised - gingerly, since passions were running high and the citizens of Boston had a history of indicating displeasure in strong terms. ("Rioting was an honored local pastime," Collins reminds us.) It was commonly known that, although the graveyards of Boston and Cambridge were filled to capacity, obtaining fresh cadavers for the dissecting theater was a challenge. Yet "Harvard's medical men certainly couldn't be seen coveting the skulls of the still living, or outright stealing the bodies of the newly dead." The case turned out to be a garden-variety murder of one man by another. John White Webster, M.D., was duly arrested, tried and found guilty of homicide. The most interesting thing about this case, aside from the application of expert forensics, was the defendant's defense: "A fellow like him simply couldn't have done it. He was, after all, a Harvard man." Well, he did, and he was hanged for it. But in point of fact, Webster was only the second and, as it turned out, the last Harvard alumnus to be executed in America. (The other was condemned as a witch in 1692.) Finally, for the edification of readers who might feel "soiled," as the Victorians would say, for dipping a toe into the sordid precincts of true crime, let it be known that when Charles Dickens was in Boston in 1868, swanning around with the local literati, he insisted that Oliver Wendell Holmes take him to the scene of the Parkman murder. MARILYN STASIO writes the Crime column for the Book Review.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Introductionp. xi
Part I Poison, Poison, Everywhere
1 Poison from the Banquet Table to the Royal Underpantsp. 3
2 Unicorn Horns and Rooster Dung: Poison Detectors and Antidotesp. 19
3 Dying to Be Beautiful: Dangerous Cosmeticsp. 31
4 Murderous Medicine: Mercury Enemas and Rat Turd Elixirsp. 43
5 Putrid Palaces: A Poisoned Environmentp. 61
Part II The Poison Chronicles: Where Rumors of Royal Poisoning Meet Scientific Analysis
6 Henry VII of Luxembourg, Holy Roman Emperor, 1275-1313p. 83
7 Cangrande della Scala, Italian Warlord, 1291-1329p. 91
8 Agnes Sorel, Mistress of King Charles VII of France, 1422-1450p. 97
9 Edward VI, King of England, 1537-1553p. 105
10 Jeanne d'Albret, Queen of Navarre, 1528-1572p. 115
11 Erik XIV, King of Sweden, 1533-1577p. 123
12 Ivan IV, the Terrible, Czar of Russia, 1530-1584; His Mother, Elena Glinskaya, ca. 1510-1538; and His First Wife, Anastasia Romanovna, 1530-1560p. 129
13 Grand Duke Francesco I de Medici of Tuscany, 1541-1587, and Grand Duchess Bianca Cappello, 1548-1587p. 137
14 Gabrielle d'Estrées, Mistress of King Henri IV of France, 1573-1599p. 147
15 Tycho Brahe, Astronomer and Imperial Mathematician, 1546-1601p. 155
16 Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Artist to Italy's Elite, 1572-1610p. 165
17 Henry Stuart, Prince of Wales, 1594-1612p. 173
18 Sir Thomas Overbury, Royal Adviser at the Court of James I, 1581-1613p. 183
19 Princess Henrietta Stuart of England, Duchesse d'Orléans, 1644-1670p. 193
20 Mademoiselle de Fontanges, Mistress of Louis XIV of France, 1661-1681, and the Affair of the Poisonsp. 203
21 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Imperial Court Musician, 1756-1791p. 213
22 Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, 1769-1821p. 221
Part III Poison in the Modern Era
23 Scientific Advances in the Victorian Agep. 233
24 The Democratization of Poisonp. 239
25 Modern Medicts: The Rebirth of Political Poisonp. 243
The Royal Art of Living and Dyingp. 259
Pick Your Poisonp. 261
The Poison Hall of Famep. 267
Bibliographyp. 269
Indexp. 279