Kipling and Medicine

Sudden deaths
and poisoning

(by Gillian Sheehan)
back to introduction

Some interesting corpses | Murder
Accidental death | Decapitation | Mummification | Lightning
Another case of accidental death | Violent death | Undetected murder ?
Poisoning by Dhatura | Poisoning with arsenic | Indian Hemp poisoning
Opium poisoning | Lead poisoning | Poison from stinging plants
Carbon monoxide poisoning | Poison gas | Snakebite

[June 23 2004]

Some Interesting Corpses

“An eminent murderer has remarked that if people did not die so untidily, most men, and all women, would commit at least one murder in their lives.” [from “The Record Of Badalia Herodsfoot”.]

In early April, 1883, the following report appeared in the Civil and Military Gazette:

“A native woman was found, this afternoon, lying with her throat cut, in the compound of the Civil and Military Gazette Office. The police are endeavouring to find some clue to the murder.”
As a result of this Kipling is thought to have written the verses “A Murder In The Compound” (Echoes - 1884).
Accidental Death

In May 1886, the roof of the Lahore High School fell in, killing three boys as they slept. Kipling was sent to the school to report on the tragedy. He described the damage in a letter to Margaret Burne-Jones (3rd May-24 June 1886):

“beams and earth lying three and four feet deep and a heap of smashed beds and three swathed figures on the cots, the sound of the midwives who had laid them out, whispering together, and the smell - the death smell of carbolic acid.”
Kipling had known one of those killed, a boy of eighteen, only a few years younger than he was. He went back to the office where he “unburdened (his) soul and was violently sick” and spent “as unpleasant a night as you’d hope for in another and worse world”. He went on to say:

“Disease and deaths from disease I can stand because I’ve seen both often and it’s in the working of life but an accident like this one is horrible - ghastly- unnatural - and I would, if I could, avoid it.”
[Information from Thomas Pinney, editor, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Vol.1, p.131-2.]

In April 1889, Kipling, in Letter 10 in From Sea To Sea, reports visiting the 'Potter’s Field', the execution ground in Canton, and in a letter to Gilbert Murray in 1903, he described an execution there. But, according to Mrs Hill he did not see it: “RK had a bad attack of Indian fever when we reached Canton and had to stay in his berth.” The substance of his description “was all told to him by the Professor and me.” [Information from Thomas Pinney, editor, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Vol.3, p.136, and note 2, p.137 which refers to WM Carpenter, RK’s Allahabad Home, MS, Cornell, p.24.]

Another Murder

In 1889, when in San Francisco, Kipling witnessed the shooting of a Chinaman in an underground poker den. He had a nightmarish time getting out of the building, fearing all the time he would be mistaken for the Mexican who had done the shooting. But apparently it only “unsteadied (his) nerves for half a day”.

“Frightened To Death”

In “At the End of the Passage” (1890) the engineer, Hummil, has been suffering from insomnia and difficulty in concentrating. When he does manage to sleep, he has a recurring dream of “a blind face that can’t wipe its eyes” and “chases him down corridors”. Spurstow, the doctor, spends the night with him and has to give him two injections of morphia before he can sleep. He has to leave the next day and when Hummil is alone again he starts having hallucinations in which he keeps seeing himself. The following Sunday, when the other three return to Hummil’s bungalow, they find him dead on his bed. “In the staring eyes was written terror beyond the expression of any pen.” Spurstow attempts to photograph the retinae of his eyes, but what he saw in the photographs shocks him so much that he destroys them without showing them to the others.

It is, of course, impossible to see an image of anything on the retina of the eye, in the living or the dead. The retina does not reflect images like a mirror. Spurstow was unsure of the exact cause of death. He said Hummil could have died from “stoppage of the heart’s action, heat apoplexy, or some other visitation”. One of the others says he has been “scared to death”.

In a way they were both right. Something frightened Hummil so badly that the nerve supply to his heart and lungs was interrupted and death occurred suddenly. This is now called Vagal Reflex Inhibition. The vagal reflex inhibitions provide a large variety of sudden, often apparently inexplicable, deaths. Almost any sudden shock may have the same effect. Apparently the receptivity of the subject is an important adjuvant (contributory) factor. [Information from Keith Simpson, Forensic Medicine, Edward Arnold (Publishers), 4th edition, 1961, p.138.]


“The Return Of Imray”, (1891), produces an interesting corpse. Imray, an Englishman working in India, has disappeared. He left no note. He didn’t take any belongings. He simply vanished. After three or four months of “scorching hot weather” Strickland, who had known Imray, rented his bungalow. Sometime later, when the Narrator was staying with him, they decided to get a snake out of the roof. These bungalows did not have ceilings. Instead there was a ceiling cloth, sometimes painted to look solid, above which were the beams and a thatched roof. Frequently small animals such as bats, rats and snakes, lived in the roof between the thatch and the ceiling. Strickland found something large lying on the main roof-beam, and pushed it off so it fell on the table in the room below. It was Imray’s body.

Strickland, Kipling’s sleuth in his Indian tales, unravels the mystery. Apparently Imray had admired the four year old son of his servant, Bahadur Khan. He should have known better, as in India showing admiration for a child was akin to casting an evil eye on him. Ten days later the child died of fever. Bahadur Khan had blamed Imray for the child’s death, murdered him while he was sleeping, and then hidden the corpse on the roof beam. The condition of the corpse wasn’t described. Strickland took a quick look at it, noting that Imray’s throat had been cut “from ear to ear”, before covering up the remains.

To murder a person in this manner is a very messy business. Imray was murdered while sleeping after returning from work. If he was sleeping in a chair with his head thrown back, the main blood vessels may have been drawn back and may not have been severed. Death might then have been caused by inhalation of blood into the air passages. When the main blood vessels are divided the victim becomes unconscious rapidly, and death is due to haemorrhage. In either event Bahadur Khan would have had a lot of cleaning up to do. [Information from Douglas Kerr, Forensic Medicine, A&C Black, 2nd edition, 1936, p.103.]

Once secreted in the roof the large decomposing wound would attract multitudes of flies. Also there would have been a sickening smell. It is very surprising that neither the noise of the flies nor the smell were noticed when the house was searched following Imray’s disappearance. Three or four months later Strickland rented the bungalow. We are told that the weather had been extremely hot. Very high temperatures can prevent bacterial decomposition when there is some circulating air. The body tissues gradually mummify, becoming dry, hard, leathery and shrivelled. The skin is drawn tight over the underlying skeleton. Powdery disintegration of the tissues may be hastened by moulds, moths and beetles. Imray must have been at least partially mummified when he ‘returned’. [Information from Keith Simpson, Forensic Medicine, Edward Arnold (Publishers), 4th edition, 1961, p.11.]

Kipling apparently got the idea for this story while staying with Professor and Mrs Hill at Allahabad. One morning Mrs Hill noticed a disagreeable smell in the dining-room which became steadily worse as the day progressed. The body of a little squirrel was found under the roof.

This incident may also have provided the idea for “An Unsavoury Interlude” (1899), in which Stalky and Co. hide a dead cat under the floorboards of one of the dormitories of their school in revenge for being called 'stinkers'. The temperatures there would have been a lot cooler than in India and the corpse took 48 hours to make its presence felt. When Richards, the odd-job man, took up the floorboards and found the remains he reported : “Her were in a shockin’ state an’ condition. Her nigh made me sick....Her smelt like to bilges.” (He had been a carpenter in the Navy). He deduced that the cat had not died when “mousin’” as the corpse was lying on its back and had a bullet hole and two broken ribs.

Another case of mummification occurs in “The Man Who Would Be King” (1888). Two ne’er-do-wells, Peachey Carnehan and Daniel Dravot, go to Kafiristan, far to the north of India, where initially they are treated as gods. But things go wrong, and eventually Dravot is executed. Peachey is turned out into the snow and has to make his way back to India through the mountains. It takes him about a year to get to Lahore. He carries with him “the dry withered head” complete with red beard and “dry sunken eyes” - immediately recognised by the Narrator as the head of Daniel Dravot. Very low temperatures, such as those Carnehan encountered when walking through the mountains, also inhibit bacterial growth and decomposition. Then the heat of the plains would have helped dry out the soft tissues, so that when Carnehan reaches Lahore the head is mummified.

Mummification also occurs in “The Strange Ride Of Morrowbie Jukes, C.E.” (1885). In this case “the dry sand had turned the corpse entrusted to its keeping into a yellow-brown mummy”.


In “Mrs Bathurst” (1904), two corpses, both turned to charcoal, had been found beside a railway line in the middle of a teak forest. One was standing - possibly Vickery; the other squatting down and looking up at him. Was this Mrs Bathurst ? We are all left guessing. Tattoos were still visible on the arms and chest of the standing corpse - “a crown and a foul anchor with MV (? Vickery’s initials) above”.

In fact, people struck by lightning don’t get turned to charcoal and fall to bits as soon as they are moved. There may be no obvious injuries. Sometimes the unfortunate person is hurled through the air, clothes may be torn off, bones broken, and there may be burns and lacerations. The burns can leave a streaked, leafy (arborescent) pattern on the skin. But burns from lightning don’t have any specific effect on tattoos. Metal articles on the body may become magnetised or fused. The cause of death is usually ventricular fibrillation (cardiac irregularity) or paralysis of the respiratory centre in the brain.

However, Kipling based his two corpses in “Mrs Bathurst” on fact. According to the Kipling Journal of September 1937, L.H.Chandler, the well-known Kipling collector, received a letter, dated June 7th 1932, from F.W.Mackenzie-Skues, a civil engineer and surveyor who was engineer in charge of construction of the Victoria Falls (Railway) Line. He believed Teddy Layton, the locomotive inspector for the line, had given Kipling the information about the corpses and that Kipling had modelled Inspector Hooper (Cape Government Railways), another character in the story, on him. Teddy Layton had found two corpses at M’Benji Siding in the teak forest, 184 miles north of Bulawayo. (Kipling changed M’Benji to M’Bindwe). The corpses were thought to be two tramps trekking to Victoria Falls looking for work, or returning without having found it. When caught in a thunderstorm, instead of keeping out in the open, they leant up against the buffer block in the dead end, and as that was almost entirely built of rails it naturally attracted the lightning. (Kipling’s corpses were also found by the dead end of the siding.)

Two other cases of accidental Death

In "A Little More Beef" (1889) collected in Abaft The Funnel, the cowboy known as 'The Corpse' was killed when his horse fell under him in the middle of a cattle stampede. It would be impossibe to give the exact cause of death. At an inquest on such a case (which there wasn't) death would probably be recorded as due to multiple injuries.

“Fairy Kist”, (1927), is an unusual story. The body of a girl has been found lying face down on a bank by the side of the road. She had been heard arguing with her boyfriend at the spot where she was found. Initially he was accused of killing her. A fern trowel was found near the body and this was thought to be the murder weapon. The doctor who examined the body said “she had been dropped by one scientific little jab, just at the base of the skull, by someone who knew his anatomy”.

The base of the skull is relatively weak because of the number of openings in it. A fern trowel is a long thin trowel, and could not be an easy murder weapon to handle. Like any good murder story Kipling gives us all the facts and leads us up the garden path into thinking the owner of the fern trowel, a shell-shocked veteran of the War, is the murderer. However, the death was an accident as she had been struck on the back of the head by an iron girder, swinging about insecurely on the back of a lorry. Even the lorry driver was unaware of the accident.

Violent Death

In “The Record of Badalia Herodsfoot” (1890)

“Tom heaved Badalia against the bed. Her forehead struck the bed-post, and she sank, half-kneeling, on the floor....Tom kicked with the deadly intelligence born of whisky. The head drooped to the floor, and Tom kicked at that till the crisp tingle of hair striking through his nailed boot with the chill of cold water, warned him that it might be as well to desist”.
A few minutes later, when Jenny bends over Badalia, “there was intelligence in the battered woman’s eyes - intelligence and much hate”. But Badalia is able to convey to Jenny, with her eyes, that she does not want Tom arrested.

When Brother Victor has bandaged her up, he says she had internal bleeding and a certain amount of injury to the brain. He thought she would live twelve hours at the most. She can speak very softly, but with a cough.

The next morning, shortly before dawn, the Rev. Eustace Hanna thinks she is going fast and Sister Eva is sent for. Badalia is still conscious and able to speak to her “with startling distinctness”; she appears to be fully aware of her condition and is able to tell them where she had hidden the money and record book.She tries to persuade them that her husband hadn’t been back for two years, and advises Sister Eva to marry the curate.

I think it very unlikely, though, that Badalia would have still been conscious having been kicked repeatedly on the head by a man wearing hobnailed boots. With internal bleeding she would gradually have become unconsious as the blood supply to her brain failed.

Possible Undetected Murder

In “The Man Who Would Be King” (1888) when Carnehan returns from Kafiristan with Dravot’s head and crown, he asks the Narrator for whisky and a little money, and says he will ask the Deputy Commissioner to let him stay in the poorhouse until he gets his health back. He leaves and goes off in the direction of the Deputy Commissioner’s house. At noon that day the Narrator saw ”a crooked man crawling along the white dust of the roadside, his hat in his hand, quavering dolorously after the fashion of street-singers at Home”. He doesn’t recognise the Narrator who “drove him to the nearest missionary for eventual transfer to the Asylum”. He dies the following morning in the Asylum. The Superintendent says he had been admitted suffering from sunstroke, and asks if it is true that he had been half an hour bareheaded in the sun at mid-day. Dravot’s head and crown are never seen again.

Possibly he did die of sunstroke. But, before he left the office, the Narrator had feared “that his mind might go” and when he left had thought “he was not fit to walk abroad”. Maybe half an hour bareheaded in the sun had been the last straw. But who took Dravot’s head and golden crown ?


Poisoning with Dhatura

In 1884 Kipling refused to be bribed by one of the Afghan Sirdars who was a prisoner in Lahore. He feared that he would be given dhatura in his coffee. This was the poison used by Thugs on their victims. [Information from Thomas Pinney, editor, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Vol.1, p.56, and note 4, p.57.]

In "The King's Ankus" (1895) in The Second Jungle Book "'Apple of Death' is what the Jungle call thorn-apple or dhatura, the readiest poison in all India." Mixed with flour and made into a cake of unleavened bread it caused three deaths.

Dhatura stramonium is also known as Thornapple Leaves, Jimson Weed, Stramonium Leaves. The symptoms of dhatura poisoning include confusion, hallucinations, dilated pupils unreactive to light, dry mouth, ataxia and blurred vision. [Information from Martindale’s Extra Pharmacopoeia, The Pharmaceutical Press, 25th edition, 1967, p.178.] The leaves and stems were used medicinally. The dried leaves were smoked in cigarettes or powdered and burnt and the fumes inhaled to relieve asthma.

A preparation of dhatura was also used as an antidote to poisoning by opium. This took some time to prepare and was kept ready-made in hospitals and dispensaries. [Information from William Moore, A Manual of Family Medicine and Hygiene for India, reprint Delhi, 1989, 6th edition 1893, p.23.]

In his autobiography, Something Of Myself, Kipling said he was offered his first bribe when he was nineteen, in a Native State. He returned the bribe, a five-hundred-rupee note and a cashmere shawl, at the hands of the camp-sweeper. His servant feared he would be poisoned and made himself responsible for all Kipling’s food and drink until they got home. Unfortunately Kipling did not say which particular poison his servant expected to be used. This may have occurred in Patiala, where Kipling was sent to report the Viceroy’s visit in March 1884. [Information from Thomas Pinney, editor, Something of Myself and Other Autobiographical Writings, p.231, note 12.]

Poisoning with Arsenic

In “In The House Of Suddhoo” (1886), Janoo is afraid that her food will be poisoned by Bhagwan Dass, a friend of the seal-cutter, if she tells Suddhoo how he is being tricked. But the Narrator thinks: “but, unless something happens to prevent her, I am afraid that the seal-cutter will die of cholera - the white arsenic kind - about the middle of May.”

In “Miss Youghal’s Sais” (1887), the wife of one of the other saises fell in love with Strickland and then tried to poison him with arsenic because he would have nothing to do with her.

“Gemini” (1888), involves two identical twin brothers, Durga Dass and Ram Dass, who are both moneylenders. Durga Dass is mistaken for his brother and badly beaten up by the servants of a rich landowner whose land Ram Dass is claiming in lieu of repayment of debt. Ram Dass takes his injured brother home to his aunt. She “knew medicines and many cures”. When he has been in bed for a couple of days he develops fever. After the fever he “was taken with colic and gripings very terrible”. Afterwards he thinks his second sickness had been the work of his aunt. This was probably deliberate poisoning with arsenic. Then he develops a “new great sickness” and afterwards he can’t remember how many days he’d been ill. When he recovers his aunt gives him medicine which puts him into a very heavy sleep. When he awakes he is alone in the house. His brother and aunt had abandoned him, taking all his money with them. He finds it was 41 days since he’d been beaten up. She may also have poisoned him with Indian hemp or opium.

In "Kim" (1901) the Hindu child who was Lurgan's assistant was jealous of Kim, and tried to poison his Master with white arsenic,

Arsenic was formerly used extensively as a “tonic”. Also an arsenical solution, Liquor Arsenitis Potassae was sometimes used in the treatment of some types of skin disease, especially dermatitis herpetiformis and eczema. [Information from Martindale’s Extra Pharmacopoeia, The Pharmaceutical Press, 25th edition, 1967, p.139.]

In India in the 19th century, those unable to take quinine, because of constitutional idiosyncrasy, were advised to take an arsenical solution during the malarious seasons. It was also recommended for the cure of ague. [Information from William Moore, A Manual of Family Medicine and Hygiene for India, reprint Delhi, 1989, 6th edition 1893, p.596 and 644.]

Poisoning with arsenic causes faintness, nausea, violent vomiting and purging of material streaked with blood, burning in the throat, stomach, and fundament, thirst, cramp of legs, feeble pulse, and cold skin. The “stools” are not of the rice-water description (cholera), but often contain mucus streaked with blood, as in dysentery. [Information from William Moore, A Manual of Family Medicine and Hygiene for India, reprint Delhi, 1989, 6th edition 1893, p.105 and 519.]

The mortality in acute poisoning is 50 to 75%. The fatal dose varies with the solubility of the preparation and the fineness of the powder. [Information from Martindale’s Extra Pharmacopoeia, The Pharmaceutical Press, 25th edition, 1967, p. 138-9.]

Hemp Poisoning

Kipling thought that where there was polygamy, poisoning of the male child of the favoured wife occurred in many Indian houses. He mentioned this in a letter to Gilbert Murray in August 1905. [Information from Thomas Pinney, editor, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Vol. 3, p.191.

He had used the idea in The Naulahka (1892), where the young Maharaj Kunwar was poisoned by his step-mother, Sitabhai. She was a gipsy who had poisoned her first husband and was awaiting execution when the Maharajah saw her, ordered her release and married her. The young Maharaj Kunwar was married to a three-year-old girl. The wedding festivities lasted three days and he had eaten some white almond curd given him by a “new girl from Lucknow”. After the festivities his “almost lifeless form” was brought to the missionary’s door.

Initially Kate thought he was just suffering from exhaustion, but “the little one had roused from his stupor, blue-lipped and hollow-eyed, and had fallen from one convulsion into another, until she had begun to despair”. At last he had dropped into a deep sleep of exhaustion. Mrs Estes, the missionary’s wife, had seen him “in paroxsyms of this kind” twice before, and thought he was suffering from “a return of his usual malady”. Possibly she thought he had epilepsy. But Kate had seen two cases of hemp poisoning in the past week - “men given sweetmeats by a gang of travelling gipsies, and all their money taken from them before they woke up”. She was convinced the child was also suffering from hemp poisoning.

Indian Hemp; Cannabis indica; Marihuana; Bhang; Gunja ; Cannabis was formerly employed in mania and nervous disorders as a cerebral sedative or narcotic and it has occasionally been used for the relief of migraine and of headache due to hypertension. [Information from Martindale’s Extra Pharmacopoeia, The Pharmaceutical Press, 25th edition, 1967, p.276-7.]

A person who has been poisoned with Indian Hemp appears like a drunken person, with fits of laughing, alternating with intervals of stupidity, which gradually increase to insensibility. [Information from William Moore, A Manual of Family Medicine and Hygiene for India, reprint Delhi 1989, 6th edition 1893, p.519.]

I have found no reference to Indian Hemp causing convulsions. In fact the main psychoactive constituent (THC) reduces the number of convulsive episodes in epilepsy. [Information from John Mann, Murder, Magic, and Medicine, Oxford University Press, 1992, p.75.]

Opium poisoning

In Kim (1901): “Kim meditated poisoning (the school-teacher) with opium borrowed from a barrack-sweeper.” The prominent symptoms of opium poisoning are giddiness, drowsiness, stupor, succeeded by total insensibility and stertorous breathing, skin cold, face pallid, eyes closed, pupils contracted. [Information from William Moore, A Manual of Family Medicine and Hygiene for India, reprint Delhi 1989, 6th edition 1893.]

Lead poisoning

In “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” (1888):

“...Aunty Rosa had told him, a year ago, that if he sucked paint he would die. He went into the nursery, unearthed the now disused Noah’s Ark and sucked the paint off as many animals as remained. It tasted abominable, but he had licked Noah’s Dove clean by the time Aunty Rosa and Judy returned.”
In 1894, Kipling’s aunt, Louisa Baldwin, sent his daughter, Josephine, a Noah’s Ark. Kipling “sucked the moo-cow hard” to remove the paint, but couldn’t get it all off so, to avoid the risk of lead poisoning, his father varnished all one hundred and twenty six animals. [Information from Thomas Pinney, editor, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Vol.2, p.130.]

Chronic lead poisoning is due to the accumulation of small quantities of lead in the body by inhalation, ingestion, or skin absorption. Most of these cases occurred in young children from sucking lead paint or lead toys. Early symptoms are anorexia, constipation, headache, weakness and the development of a blue line on the gums. [Information from Martindale’s Extra Pharmacopoeia, The Pharmaceutical Press, 25th edition, 1967, p.716.]

Poison from stinging plants

In “The Judgement Of Dungara”, (1888), the high priest, Athon Daze, tricks the missioner Rev. Justus Krenk, into getting the Buria Khol to make garments from the fibres of the 'Nilghiri Nettle', Girardenia heterophylla “which stings even when they make bridge-ropes of it unless it’s soaked for six weeks”.

The 'Nilghiri nettle', or 'Himalayan nettle', Girardenia heterophylla, is in the same family as the European stinging nettle, Urticaceae. It occurs in the subtropical and temperate Himalayas from Kashmir to Sikkim, up to 7000 feet above sea level; also in Assam and the Khasia Hills. It is a coarse, erect, perennial herb almost 2 metres high, covered with long, rigid, sharp, stinging hairs. The intensely stinging hairs make collection a practical difficulty. A touch is enough to cause smarting and itching.

The stinging effects are produced by acetylcholine, histamine and 5-hydroxytryptamine which are present in the hairs. The leaves have to be boiled twice to remove these toxic substances. [Information from Chopra, R.N., Badhwar, R.L., an Ghosh, S., Poisonous Plants of India, Vol.2, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, 1965.]

Regarding the cut-leaved buttercup, ranunculus sceleratus, mentioned in “The Eye Of Allah”, (1926). Roger of Salerno says of it:

“For the juice of that herb.... burns, blisters and wries the mouth. I know also the rictus, or pseudo-laughter, on the face of such as have perished by the strong poisons of herbs allied to this ranunculus”.
John of Burgos says that when he was a boy in a convent he had made tetters round his mouth and on his neck with buttercup juice, to save having to go to prayers on cold nights. Of buttercups and their kin, David Bellamy has written:

“This is a family not to be messed about with: handling even the commonest of Buttercups can irritate the skin and cause sores. Beggars used to employ its poisons to give themselves rashes and blisters in order to gain pity and alms.” [Information from David Bellamy, Blooming Bellamy: Herbs and Herbal Healing, BBC Books, 1993, p.62-3.]

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

In “A Madonna Of The Trenches”(1924) John Godsoe takes two braziers into the dug-out and wedges the door shut behind him. He had been stealing charcoal for a week, so he had a good supply. Next morning he is found frozen to death, sitting between the two braziers. According to Black’s Medical Dictionary, 1918:

“the fumes of a charcoal brazier in a badly ventilated room have often caused death. When asphyxia is due to charcoal fumes, coal gas and other narcotic influences, death ensues gently and may occur in the course of sleep.”
Carbon monoxide in itself is a colourless, odourless gas with an affinity for haemoglobin 300 times that of oxygen; as a result of the conversion of haemoglobin to carboxyhaemoglobin the oxygen-carrying power of the arterial blood is diminished and hypoxia results. Carbon monoxide may also have a direct toxic effect on cardiac muscle. [Information from Henry Matthew and AAH Lawson, Treatment of Common Acute Poisonings, 3rd edition, Churchill Livingstone, 1975, p.57.]

Unknown Poisons

In “The Treasure And The Law” (1906) Kadmiel wanted the people at Pevensey to think that he had poisoned the Castle well and given them plague. He had bought “certain drugs” in London and, having prepared them, cast them into the well. The result was a “blotched and itching rash”. But he knew it would fade in fifteen days. This sounds like an allergic-type reaction, but an extremely long-lasting one, if it lasted for fifteen days. Possibly the water was coloured by the drugs, alerting the people to the fact that it had been “poisoned”. Kadmiel wanted them to think he had poisoned it.

During the Black Death, centuries after Kadmiel, Jews were tortured and killed in some European cities because they were thought to have poisoned wells and spread the plague.[Information from Irvine Loudon, Western Medicine, An Illustrated History, Oxford University Press, 1997, p.178.]

Kipling had a similar idea with “Beauty Spots”, (1932). The chemicals Mr Gravell poured into his dell caused “orange and greenish-copper blotches on the healthy young”. These faded entirely in a week or so. In “Gow’s Watch” (1927), Gow died after appearing to have kissed his ring. Possibly he had poison secreted in the ring. This could have been cyanide or strychnine, but there are other possibilities.

In a letter to Charles Eliot Norton, in February 1895, Kipling said he was working on “the lamentable history of a very fat Indian administrator who was, in the course of a survey, shot in his ample backside by a poisoned arrow: and his devoted subordinate sucked the wound, to the destruction of his credit as an independent man for the rest of his days”. Apparently this was based on truth. [Information from Thomas Pinney, editor, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Vol.2, p.173.]

The arrow may have been poisoned with aconite (monkshood). Indian Aconite, dakra, bish, was the dried root of Aconitum chasmanthum. Aconite affects both the heart and the central nervous system. Death may occur from paralysis of the heart or of the respiratory centre. Symptoms of aconite poisoning may appear almost immediately and are rarely delayed more than an hour. They include tingling and burning of the mouth and skin, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, agitation, collapse and convulsions. Death usually occurs in half to six hours. [Information from Martindale’s Extra Pharmacopoeia, The Pharmaceutical Press, 25th edition, 1967, p.50, and Henry Matthew and AAH Lawson, Treatment of Common Acute Poisonings, Churchill Livingstone, 1975, p.181.]

In “The Spring Running” (1895), Mowgli bit a blue-spotted root that Oo the turtle said was clean food. It made his throat “burn and grow small”. Possibly the juice in the root caused a local reaction in his mouth and throat, an inflammation of the skin and mucous membrane, or it could have been an acute allergic reaction that might have been fatal had he eaten the root.

In Captains Courageous, (1896), when Harvey was fishing with Dan, he hauled what appeared to be strawberries, aboard:

“The hook had fouled among a bunch of strawberries, red on one side and white on the other - perfect reproductions of the land fruit, except that there were no leaves, and the stem was all pipy and slimy.”
When he touched them “his fingers throbbed as though he had grasped many nettles”.

In “A Deal in Cotton” (1907) Adam Strickland had been Assistant Commissioner at Dupe in Central Africa. “An English-speaking nigger came in towing a corpse by the feet.” The “corpse” started sneezing, and Adam apparently knew from that that the man had been “sarkied”. He explains that sarkie was a sort of “gum-poison” which attacked the nerve centres. They “emptied out the corpse”, with shaving soap, trade gunpowder and hot water. He “lay like a log for a week” while they “massaged the paralysis out of him”. When the skin peeled off his feet and he stopped sneezing, Adam knew he would live.

Poison Gas

“...And ship our masks in case of gas
Beyond Gethsemane..."

(from “Gethsemane”(1919)
In “The Janeites”, (1924), Humberstall and Macklin refixed sand-bag screens to the dug-out passage in case of gas.

In “The Woman In His Life”, (1928), Burnea “died of pulmonary trouble, a by-product of gas-poison”.

In “Beauty Spots”, (1932), James Gravell had “a dusky, mottled complexion and a pleuritic stitch which he had got during the War through a leaky gas-mask”. He thought his “dusky colour gave an interesting clue to the composition of some gas which he had inhaled near Arras”. He went to France to see L’Espinasse, a speciaist in “his kind of trouble”. When he came home several weeks later his stitch and complexion were vastly improved.

The French were the first to use gas in the Great War when they fired tear-gas grenades (xylyl bromide) against the Germans in August 1914. In the capture of Neuve Chapelle in October 1914 the Germans fired shells at the French which contained a chemical irritant that would cause a violent fit of sneezing. The Germans used the first poison gas, chlorine, on 22nd April at the start of the Second Battle of Ypres. Within seconds of inhaling the gas it destroyed the respiratory organs, bringing on choking attacks. The Germans’ use of chlorine gas provoked widespread condemnation.

In January 1915, Kipling wrote to H.A.Gwynne with ideas about clearing out trenches. He said one man had suggested chucking packets of sneezing powder into the trench. The same man also “thought well of chlorine”. Another man had suggested generating “carbonic” and piping it into trenches at night resulting in “painless extinction”. But at the end of the letter, Kipling said that “manufacture and pipage of deleterious gases into trenches (was) out of the question”. [Information from Thomas Pinney, editor, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Vol.4, p.279-80.]

The British used gas, a mixture of smoke and chlorine, for the first time on 25th September 1915 at the Battle of Loos, where 20,000 British died, among them Kipling’s son, John. When the wind shifted, much of the smoke and gas was blown back into the British trenches and the exercise was a failure.

A mixture of chlorine and phosgene was used on the Somme. Phosgene caused less coughing than chlorine, so more of it was inhaled and it often had a delayed effect; apparently healthy soldiers became ill with phosgene gas poisoning up to 48 hours after inhalation.

Mustard gas (Ypertite) was first used by the Germans against the Russians at Riga in September 1917. It was almost odourless and caused serious internal and external blisters, several hours after exposure. The chemical remained potent in the soil for weeks after release, making the capture of infected trenches a dangerous procedure. Bromine and chloropicrin and a nerve gas obtained from prussic acid were also used at various times.

Early protection against gas was primitive. Following the first use of chlorine at Ypres in April 1915, cotton pads dipped in a solution of bicarbonate of soda were held over the face. Soldiers were also advised that holding a urine soaked cloth over the face would give protection against the effects of chlorine. By 1918 filter respirators using charcoal or antidote chemicals were in use. [Information from Michael Duffy, Weapons of War - Poison Gas]


“And Death is in the Garden,
A-waiting till we pass,
For the Krait is in the drain-pipe,
The Cobra in the grass !”
[from Nursery Rhymes For Little Anglo-Indians.(1884)
In “Reingelder and The German Flag” (1889) Reingelder and Hans Breitmann were collecting orchids and coral snakes in Uruguay. Reingelder examined a live snake called the 'German Flag', (so called because it was marked with the colours of the old Imperial German Ensign). Yates, an authority on the reptilia of South America, had written that it was not provided with poison-glands. The snake bit Reingelder. His companion, Breitmann, later told the Narrator how he had advised tying up the bitten arm, and told Rheingelder to drink as much whisky as he could, saying it happened before they knew the benefits of permanganate-potash injections. Reingelder’s arm became numb up to his collar-bone, and he developed symptoms of strychnine poisoning. “He vas doubled into big knots, und den undoubled, und den redoubled mooch worse dan pefore, und he frothed.” Breitmann thought he was unconscious as he didn’t answer his questions. Reingelder died having “wrop himself oop in von dremendous knot”.

In strychnine poisoning the body becomes arched backwards in hyperextension with the legs and arms extended and the feet turned inward. The jaw is rigidly clamped and contraction of the facial muscles produces a characteristic grinning expression known as “risus sardonicus”. [Information from Martindale’s Extra Pharmacopoeia, The Pharmaceutical Press, 25th edition, 1967, p.1374.]

Reingelder’s symptoms are similar to the general symptoms of snakebite recorded by William Moore in his Manual of Family Health and Hygiene for India, reprint Delhi 1989, 6th edition, 1893:

“There is immediate pain at the site of the bite. Faintness, loss of power in the legs, drowsiness, and sometimes nausea and vomiting, come next. Then the breathing becomes short and laboured, the pulse quick and irregular, the powers of speech and swallowing are lost, the tongue protrudes, and frothy saliva issues from the mouth. There are muscular twitchings, followed by loss of power to move the limbs. Cold sweats and convulsions often succeed, and the patient, becoming insensible, sinks, sometimes in a few hours.”
William Moore advised tying a tight bandage around the bitten limb, a few inches above the bite. Then “the wound should be well sucked”. Afterwards four or five punctures should be made with a sharp knife one across each bite and the others a quarter of an inch or so from the bite. If this was not possible he recommended that a live coal or stick, a red-hot iron wire, or a drop of nitric or carbolic acid, or a solution of permanganate of potash, be passed into the wounds. Bleeding was then encouraged by immersing the limb in hot water. The strongest stimulant to hand, brandy, whisky, rum, wine, sal volatile or liquor ammoniae was to be given at once and repeated every 15 minutes, “until the first depressing efffect of the poison subsides”. He went on to advise that forest officers and others exposed to the danger of snakebite keep a supply of antivenin to hand. “Injected freely and at once it may neutralise the poison and save life.”

The Indian Cobra, (Naja naja) is said to be responsible for hundreds of deaths in India each year. People who are bitten and do not die have probably been given an insufficient dose of venom. The cobra is a timid snake; by day it will often strike with a closed mouth; after dark it is more dangerous. The King Cobra (Naja hannah), is the largest poisonous snake known, reaching a length of 16 feet or more. It has the reputation of attacking man without apparent provocation. [Information from Chambers’s Encyclopaedia, 1959, Vol. 3, p.700(a).]

The severity of the toxic effects of snakebite depend on the type and quantity of venom injected. This in turn depends on the age, size and sex of the snake and bites occurring at night are more venomous than during the day. The venom is particularly potent immediately after the snake has come out of hibernation. [Information from Henry Matthew and AAH Lawson, Treatment of Common Acute Poisonings, Churchill Livingstone, 1975, p. 164.]

In “The Return Of Imray”(1891), Imray’s servant, Bahadur Khan, commits suicide by stepping on a karait. “At the end of an hour he died, as they die who are bitten by the little brown karait....” (Possibly the snake had fallen out of the ceiling cloth when Imray’s body fell down.) The krait is said to be a quiet and inoffensive snake and will only bite under great provocation. [Information from Chambers’s Encyclopaedia, 1959, Vol. 8, p.265 (b).]

According to another authority:

“in real life, as distinguished from romance, snakes are so seldom seen that no one who does not make a study of them can know one from another...I slay a poisonous snake when and where I find it, and if there is any doubt about its being poisonous, I slay it to settle the matter....a strong, supple walking cane is the prime weapon for encountering snakes.’ [Information from EHA, The Tribes On My Frontier, Thacker & Spink, 5th edition, 1892, p.197-8.
In “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”, (1893), there is a krait, and two cobras with a nest of 25 eggs, in the garden. Rikki-Tikki, the mongoose, kills the krait, almost kills Nag, the male cobra, (shot by Teddy’s father), destroys the eggs and eventually kills Nagaina, the female cobra. The common Indian mongoose, although naturally ferocious, is easily tamed and is a common household pet in India. It is famous as a destroyer of vermin and will attack and kill even the formidable cobra. It is not immune to snake venom but depends on its agility to avoid being bitten. [Information from Chambers’s Encyclopaedia, 1959, Vol.9, p.494(b).]

As far as is known, Kipling was never bitten by a snake, but in October 1888, in a letter to his friends, the Hills, Kipling wrote that he had had a nightmare in which he:

“was stung on the hand by a snake - a little snake that bit at me three times and on the string after many unpleasant matters followed the sickness of death which you have described. It was all I could do to wake and when awake to persuade myself that I had not been stung. I was sweating with apprehension and as wearied as though I had in real truth gone through the deadly faintness. Wasn’t that funny ? I wish I had written of it then.” [Information from Thomas Pinney, editor, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Vol.1, p.260.]
At some time Kipling must have been present when somebody was bitten by a snake. He recorded, in Brazilian Sketches, how, in 1927, when he was in Brazil, some of the models in the museum at the snake farm brought back to him:

“the memory of a night when a half-fainting man’s leg was examined by matchlight for certain signs, and he broke into helpless tears on being told that he would live.”
The bites of poisonous snakes, as a rule, show two marks. When there are more than two marks, it may be safely assumed that the reptile was not poisonous, or that the wound has not been inflicted by the poison-fangs. [Information from William Moore, A Manual of Family Medicine and Hygiene for India, reprint Delhi 1989, 6th edition 1893, p.538.]

In March 1913, Kipling saw some semi-poisonous snakes in the Cairo Zoo and wrote to John about them saying: ‘some.... were only semi-poisonous because their poison fangs are their back teeth - not their front fangs. Consequently, they have to have a good steady chew at you before they can fix their back teeth in you.’ [Information from Thomas Pinney, editor, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling ,Vol.4, p.172.]
“Time and time over we let them go;
Hearing and slipping aside;
Until they followed and troubled us - so
We struck back, and they died.

"Poison of asps is under our lips”?
Why do you wrench them apart?
To learn how the venom makes and drips
And works its way to the heart?

[from “Poison Of Asps” (1927).]
In Brazilian Sketches (1927), Kipling recorded how he was shown around a snake farm. This was where snakes were kept and their venom extracted and used to produce an antivenom serum. The snakes were brought in by collectors and farmers, who in return would be given a dose of serum in case they were bitten. The snakes were never fed because hunger apparently made the venom more poisonous. Kipling noted that the most effective serum was that made from the same type of snake as bit a person, but as people usually didn’t know what type of snake it was, a ‘general’ serum was made. He gave a detailed description of how anti-venom was made. When it was administered to a person who had been bitten:

“every muscle and nerve and blood corpuscle may be involved, as well as other powers that we know not of ; but normally, after the throes and disintegrations, the body recovers and - since it is sister to the soul - throws off and puts behind it in a very little while all that nightmare of experiences in restored health. But, they say, the process is not a pleasant one to watch; and men are thinking and working all their lives to make it less vehement.”
Antivenins may still provoke serious allergic reactions which may be fatal. They are still prepared much as Kipling described, using horse serum. No antiserum effective against all venoms is available because of the great immunological differences in the venoms of the snakes of different continents. The custom is for each country to prepare antisera able to neutralise the venoms of the indigenous snakes. In the Indian subcontinent an antiserum is prepared to neutralise the venoms of the krait, cobra, Russell’s viper, and the saw-scaled viper. [Information from Martindale’s Extra Pharmacopoeia, The Pharmaceutical Press, 25th edition, 1967, p.1485.]

Some interesting corpses | Murder
Accidental death | Decapitation | Mummification | Lightning
Another case of accidental death | Violent death | Undetected murder ?
Poisoning by Dhatura | Poisoning with arsenic | Indian Hemp poisoning
Opium poisoning | Lead poisoning | Poison from stinging plants
Carbon monoxide poisoning | Poison gas | Snakebite