Ah, yes. Hemlock. The deadly plant that killed one of the world’s most famous philosophers. But how much do you really know about this ancient plant? And were you aware that it still exists today, and can be just as deadly?
Hemlock’s fame originates from one of the most famous trials in history—the trial and execution of ancient Greek philosopher Socrates in 399 BC. Accused and convicted of impiety, Socrates was sentenced to death by drinking a hemlock-based liquid. Accounts of the trial can be read in his student Plato’s dialogues and the historian Xenophon’s Apology of Socrates to the Jury. While some experts still debate how accurate these records are in terms of Socrates’ words as he died, it’s typically agreed that there’s no mistaking the accuracy of the description of how the poison acted once ingested.
Conium maculatum, or hemlock, is an herb that becomes toxic once ingested by humans or most domestic animals. The stems of the plant can grow up to two meters high, and are characterized by bunches of small, white flowers (known as umbels). The poison of the plant is a neurotoxin, which means it disrupts the function of the central nervous system, leading to respiratory failure and death. Muscular paralysis sets in at the feet & legs first, works its way up the body, and eventually paralyses the lungs & heart so that no blood or oxygen can circulate!
The ancient Greeks knew a thing or two about this poison, because not only did they use it for execution, but some evidence has shown that they may have used it in small doses for other ailments such as arthritis, as a sedative, or to prevent or treat muscular spasms. Unfortunately, this may not always have been a successful venture, because the difference between a helpful dose and a fatal dose is very small.
Either way, when it came to executions, it certainly kept the mess down!