Witches smear monkshood root on their bodies and broomsticks, swallow a few drops of delirium-producing belladonna, and go flying.
Monkshood includes several species of plants belonging to the family Ranunculaceae. It ranges throughout Alaska and can be found in meadows, thickets, on rocky slopes, and along stream banks. It is common on Kodiak Island.
Monkshood plants grow two-to-six-feet tall, depending on the species and the habitat. The dark green leaves are palmate and lobed, and the vivid blue-purple flowers have five sepals, with one resembling a cylindrical helmet, or a “monk’s hood.”
All parts of the monkshood plant contain aconite, a deadly poison, and just three grains of the root will kill a hefty adult. Signs of aconite poisoning appear within less than an hour. Death occurs immediately if large doses of aconite are ingested, while smaller doses are usually fatal within two-to-six hours. Initial signs of aconite poisoning include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea; followed by tingling, burning, and numbness in the mouth and face and burning in the abdomen. If the poisoning is severe, the numbness and tingling will spread to the arms and legs, followed by motor weakness in the limbs. Other symptoms include an irregular heartbeat, sweating dizziness, difficulty breathing, a headache, and confusion. Death is usually caused by ventricular arrhythmia or paralysis of the heart or respiratory center.
No definitive treatment for aconite poisoning exists, but if the poisoned individual can be rushed to a medical center, drugs such as atropine can be used to treat bradycardia, and activated charcoal can be given within one hour of ingestion to decontaminate the intestines. In the field, an individual who has ingested monkshood should immediately be given Syrup of Ipecac to induce vomiting and then evacuated to more advanced medical care. The ancient cure for aconite poisoning was, “brandy blended with flies that had suppered on monkshood.” Unfortunately, this cure is not practical for most of us.
As I mentioned, all parts of the monkshood plant are poisonous. The roots are the most toxic, and ingestion of the roots or any part of the plant is extremely dangerous, but poisoning can also occur just by picking the leaves without wearing gloves. Aconitine toxin is easily absorbed through the skin, and when this happens, there are no gastrointestinal symptoms. Tingling starts at the point where the toxin was absorbed and spreads to the arm and shoulder before affecting the heart.
Probably the most common cause of monkshood poisoning is accidental ingestion of some part of the plant. It looks much like and grows next to edible wild geraniums, and the root of the monkshood plant has been mistaken for a parsnip. In 2000, a medical examiner listed aconite poisoning as the cause of a suicide. On July 30th, 2004, Canadian actor Andre Noble died after a camping trip when he was believed to have accidentally eaten monkshood, and in 2008, an individual died four hours after eating a few monkshood flowers.
Various cultures have used monkshood as a medicine. It has been given as a heart and nerve sedative, a pain reliever, and a fever reducer, but the problem with using monkshood as a medication is that safe doses of aconite are rarely effective, and effective doses are lethal.
Many cultures used monkshood as arrow poisons. The Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) people, the first inhabitants of Kodiak Island, concocted a poison made from the roots of monkshood to tip the darts and spears they used to hunt humpback and fin whales.
I explored the toxic effects of Monkshood in my novel, Murder Over Kodiak, but I am hardly the first author to use this plant as a murder weapon. Monkshood is mentioned in Greek mythology, and Shakespeare refers to it in Henry IV Part II. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Rudolph Bloom commits suicide with an overdose of aconite, and monkshood has been used as a murder weapon in TV shows such as Rizzoli and Isles, NCIS, Dexter, and American Horror story. In episode seven of the second season of the Game of Thrones, an assassin applies monkshood (or wolf’s bane) to his dart.
Next week, I will explore the poisonous attributes of water hemlock, a plant common along streams on Kodiak Island.
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