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Toxin du jour
Claim: Ground glass is a deadly poison.
Origins: The use of finely-ground glass secreted in food is often mooted in murder mysteries and idle gossip as an effective technique for poisoning the unwary. Simply crush some glass into a fine powder, surreptitiously add the pulverized fragments to something your putative victim is about to ingest, then sit back and wait. It may take more than one glass-laden feeding, but eventually your target will fall to the floor, writhing in agony, before dying a grisly and painful death — and better yet, he'll expire in a manner which will baffle all but the most experienced of medical examiners.
However you describe it, though, the bottom line is that the "ground glass in the food" killing technique just doesn't work. The primary problem is that people really don't care to eat food full of hard, gritty nuggets, and they really don't like chewing on shards of glass that cut up their mouths. So, in order to make your glassified food palatable enough for your victim to eat it, you have to grind the glass very finely. But, as
The glass would have to be very finely ground, or the victim would notice it as he ate. As we chew, we sense even tiny pieces of gravel, sand, glass, gristle, and so forth. Salt dissolves but glass doesn't, so the food would seem gritty unless the glass was ground into a powder. But very fine glass is unlikely to cause any lethal damage to the GI tract. It would be more of an irritation, with minor bleeding if any at all.According to Dr. Lyle, unless your chosen victim had a serious heart condition which caused ongoing angina, and was extraordinarily resistant to seeking medical attention, it's unlikely that hiding ground glass in his food would kill him.
If you could get the victim to eat coarser glass, such as crushed instead of ground, the glass shards would damage the stomach and intestine and could cause bleeding . .. [but] a person would know something was wrong with the food, and if not, he would go to a doctor about the bleeding.
Even with coarser glass, the bleeding would probably not be massive or life-threatening but slow and lead to anemia and fatigue. The stools would become black from the blood, and the victim would see a doctor.
As a matter of fact, the belief in powdered glass as an effective poison remains prevalent even though doctors have been dismissing it for about two hundred years now. In 1967's The Prevalence of Nonsense, for example, we turn up the following:
Chances are that if you asked the next dozen people you meet tomorrow morning if ground glass is lethal if eaten, those who do not immediately hasten away from you will answer in a strong affirmative. This is one of those things we've always known. "Of course ground glass will kill a person if he eats it."Going back to 1941, we find in Doctors Don't Believe It — Why Should You?:
Actually, ground glass is harmless. One does not suggest a diet composed entirely of ground glass; it is said to be singularly tasteless and is generally eschewed by gourmets. But if you feed it to your rival and wait to see him writhing on the floor, you'll have a long wait.
Splinters of glass, now, provide a different story. Splinters and broken sections of glass may cut the esophagus, the stomach, and the intestines, with most unpleasant consequences, including death. But it is harder to get people to accept glass splinters: they begin to get suspicious.
That powdered glass can cause death when mixed with food, and that it can be used as a poison unknown to the victim, is a popular age-old belief. The glass, of course, must be very finely powderedAnd 1923's Popular Fallacies Explained and Corrected cites several articles from
The belief in powdered glass as a poison may be dismissed as just another popular fallacy.
POWDERED GLASS — This was long believed to act as a poison, and was even known as 'succession powder'; over a hundred years ago experiments in varied form were made showing that it is harmless. Details are given inIf you really want to use glass as a murder weapon, your best bet is to pick up a large shard and stab your victim with it.
A poisoner testified in New York City, in the spring of 1916, that he first tried ground glass; finely powdered glass, however, is harmless (see 'The Traumatic Causation of Appendicitis,' by
Sir Thomas Browne dealt with this fallacy in
Sightings: In the first season of the HBO prison drama Oz, two inmates kill another prisoner by secretly mixing crushed glass into his food until he begins to bleed from his ears and nose.
Last updated: 2 September 2006
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