Killer or Cure? Poison through the Centuries
A touchstone of murder mysteries and historical intrigue, tactical warfare and political coups, poison looms large in our cultural imagination. An invisible agent of death, it might be hiding anywhere, stashed in a secret agent’s suitcase or mixed into a murderous martini.
Less glamorously, but even more palpably, it lurks in our everyday lives as well, creeping in through garden plants and exotic pets, household cleaners and rainwater runoff, medicine cabinets and art supplies. Broadly defined as any substance which can cause serious illness or death if introduced into the body (e.g.: ingested, injected, absorbed) if it’s administered in the right quantity and conditions, a deadly poison can be just about anything.
This exhibit traces major developments in medical, legal, and public knowledge of poisons in America as they have been used for both good and ill. Looking back through the lore of classical antiquity turns up mythical poisons and their antidotes: the paralytic stare of the cockatrice; the salvific unicorn horn. Poison plants and venomous vipers found fame in the ancient world as well (Socrates was supposedly poisoned by hemlock; Cleopatra by an asp)–though illustrated 19th century herbals, early 20th century pharmaceutical guides, and even 21st century textbooks underscore how many of these same toxins can also be used in life-saving medications. Other exhibit highlights include food adulteration and household poisons, developments in forensic toxicology, and even a 19th century New Haven murder trial. From cartoons and campy tunes to labwork and legal testimony, poison is everywhere–come see!
Curated by Sophia Richardson, doctoral candidate in English, Graduate School for Arts and Sciences 2022 curatorial fellow