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Worrisome: Once marketed in Sicily, arsenic now poison of preference in Santacruz?

Blanche Kiser Taylor Moore
By Gajanan Khergamker* 
It’s the oldest trick in the book but works like magic… every single time! And, wives keen on getting rid of their husbands have used it since time immemorial.
From its employment as ‘Aqua Tofana’ -- a strong poison created in Sicily around 1630 and, reputedly, widely used in Palermo, Naples, Perugia and Rome in Italy, when it was sold and delivered to fetch justice to women who were deprived of their legal rights and had little protection in society, till recently in Santacruz -- a busy suburb in India’s Mumbai -- where a disgruntled wife Kajal Shah allegedly plotted with her lover Hitesh Jain to poison husband Kamalkant Shah with a deadly cocktail, and killed him, arsenic remains the poison of preference.
On July 17th, 1676, Paris’ Marie-Madeleine d'Aubray was tortured and forced to drink 16 pints of water, after which, she confessed to a series of crimes, the main being the poisoning of her father and two brothers…with arsenic!
She had, in a morbid practice run, even poisoned around 50 poor people either in hospitals or under the auspices of her ‘charity’ work amongst the underprivileged.
When she was 21, she married Antoine-Gobelin, Marquis de Brinvilliers and although her husband was a commanding officer of a regiment and set up well financially, the Marquis was a chronic gambler and soon landed neck-deep in debt.
Their marriage was ‘open’ with both having affairs but when Marie-Madeleine d'Aubray was introduced to Jean Baptiste Godin de Sainte-Croix, she rather blatantly flouted their affair, even splurged her own money on Sainte-Croix to finance their extravagant lifestyles.
Her husband fled France to escape his creditors. Marie’s father, dismayed by the scandal his errant daughter was causing, got a ‘lettre de cachet’ signed by the King, and got Sainte-Croix arrested and spend a year in the Bastille.
During this period, Sainte-Croix learned about poisons from his mate, an Italian poisoner. On his release, Sainte-Croix plotted with Marie not only the poisoning of her father, Dreux d’Aubray, but also her siblings: and executed them.
The poison she used was based of arsenic and invented by Giuila Tofana, an infamous Italian poisoner and was consequently known as Aqua Tofana.
Marie-Madeleine d'Aubray poisoned her father and two brothers, amongst others, and was executed on July 16, 1676 in the Place de Greve. She was beheaded and her body thrown into a pyre before her remains strewn into the Seine.
She has a lot in common with Blanche Kiser Taylor Moore -- an American convicted murderer and possible serial killer from Alamance County, North Carolina (USA) awaiting execution in North Carolina for her boyfriend's 1986 arsenic poisoning.
Blanche Kiser Taylor Moore, also suspected of the death of her father, mother-in-law and first husband, and the attempted murder of her second husband in 1989, was born Blanche Kiser to Flonnie Blanche and Parker Davis Kiser, a mill-worker, ordained Baptist minister and womanizer.
Her father was an alcoholic, who she said later forced her into prostitution to pay his gambling debts. She was known to switch from quoting scripture to sexually explicit topics in the same breath.
Her father died, reportedly of a heart attack, in 1966. Marie-Madeleine d'Aubray, on her part, acknowledged being sexually assaulted at the age of seven and had incestuous relationships with her younger brother who she went on to poison.
Interestingly, arsenic was in Sicily marketed under the 'tradename' Manna di San Nicola (Manna of St Nicholas of Bari) so as to confuse the authorities, given that the poison was openly sold both as a cosmetic and a devotionary object in vials that included a picture of St. Nicholas. Over 600 victims are alleged to have died from this poison, mostly husbands.
Giulia Tofana, a woman from Palermo, reportedly the leader of a ring of six poisoners in Rome, would sell Aqua Tofana to would-be widows. The first recorded mention of Aqua Tofana is when, in 1632–33, Francesca la Sarda and Teofania di Adamo used it to poison their victims. It may have been invented by, and named after, Teofania.
She was executed for her crimes, but several women associated with her including Giulia Tofana (probably her daughter) and Gironima Spana moved on to Rome and continued manufacturing and distributing the poison.
It was with the arrest of one of Spana’s poison sellers that the poison business was exposed to the Papal authorities. Giovanna De Grandis was arrested on 31 January 1659 and imprisoned at the Tor di Nona where, during interrogations, she went on to name Gironima Spana.
Soon after, on 2 February 1659, Gironima Spana was arrested and taken to the Papal prison of Tor di Nona and interrogated. The intelligent Gironima Spana denied all accusations and stood by her denial for months. This, despite repeated interrogations and confrontations with her former associates and clients, went on for long. 
Blanche Kiser Taylor Moore awaits execution in North Carolina for her boyfriend's 1986 arsenic poisoning
She willingly answered questions even talked a lot, but deftly provided harmless information, such as long, detailed answers of acquaintances, family history and residence, but never anything that could incriminate her. She was described as much more resilient than her fellow prisoners; in contrast to them, she did not even talk about her guilt in her confession to a priest.
Her stoic reluctance to confess was a problem since the law did not permit execution without it. She did not confess until four months later on 20 June 1659 when she finally signed a long statement of guilt. In regard to the poison, she stated: "I've given this liquid to more people than I’ve got hairs on my head."
The Spana Prosecution, continued for several months and involved about forty people accused of having sold or used the poison. Gironima Spana and four of her female business associates, Giovanna De Grandis, Maria Spinola, Graziosa Farina and Laura Crispoldi were executed at the Campo de' Fiori in Rome.
DCP Krishnakant Upadhyay
It was Dioscorides, a Greek physician in the court of Roman Emperor Nero, who described arsenic as a poison in the first century. It was ideal in its qualities such as lack of colour, odour or taste when mixed in food or drink and its easy availability made it accessible to all classes of society.
Importantly, for killers, the symptoms of arsenic poisoning were difficult to detect, since they could mimic food poisoning and other common disorders. Yet, there could be no doubt about arsenic’s efficacy as a single large dose, which provoked violent abdominal cramping, diarrhea and vomiting, often followed by death from shock.
But, to avoid detection or doubt, arsenic is usually delivered in a series of smaller doses, producing a more subtle form of chronic poisoning characterised by a loss of strength, confusion and paralysis.
In Independent India, the first woman to be executed -- Rattan Bai Jain who was sentenced to death in 1955 for spiking ‘pedas’ and killing three employees over suspicion of having ‘relations’ with her husband -- had used arsenic for the purpose. From then, the instances have only multiplied, some detected and some left unproven. Yet, it’s the lack of detection or complaints that is a worrisome trend for law-enforcers.
In Kamalkant Shah’s murder investigation, the police used the old ruse of interrogating the accused separately and met with success. Both the accused gave contradictory statements thereby nailing their complicity. They denied meeting or having any contact with each other and the police found they were in constant touch over the phone and on WhatsApp.
When, on August 24, Kamalkant, a garment businessman from Mumbai’s Santacruz, complained of stomach ache and began vomiting, he approached his family doctor who suggested some medicine. Yet, when the pain persisted, he had to be admitted to Criticare Hospital in Andheri and was then shifted to Bombay Hospital.
It was when his organs started failing one after another, the doctors suggested checking for the presence of metal in his blood. When his blood samples were sent for forensic examination; the report showed high levels of arsenic, 400 times above normal, and thallium, 363.3 times the normal. Incidentally, just over a month ago, his mother Sarla Devi had died following a similar stomach ache.
Bombay Hospital referred it as a medicolegal case and sent it to Azad Maidan police which was then transferred to Crime Branch. The 46-year-old wife and her 45-year-old lover were arrested for allegedly poisoning the husband.
Medical reports, technical evidence and the circumstances under which Kamalkant Shah and his mother Sarla Devi died just over a month apart have made the police and the family suspect the duo -- Kajal Shah and Hitesh Jain -- had also administered the same slow poison to Sarla Devi. Sarla Devi died on August 13 due to organ failure and Kamalkant on September 19.
"We are focusing on collecting the evidence for prosecution and haven’t decided whether to file an additional FIR regarding Sarla Devi’s death as yet," said Krishnakant Upadhyay, Mumbai’s Deputy Commissioner of Police (Detection I). “Deceased Kamalkant’s family members too strongly suspect the involvement of the two, Kajal and Hitesh Jain, in the death of Sarla Devi as it was similar to her son’s. We are investigating that angle too,” he adds.
That said, the task of procuring a conviction even in cases that seem open and shut depend entirely on the creation of a water-tight case which rests primarily upon the investigation and the quality of evidence at hand.
*Founding editor of "The Draft". A version of this article was originally published in



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