The suspicious case of Miss Sapwell

May 06 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

Some might call it a "girls' weekend", what Miss Marion Sapwell had planned for those few days in late July, 1960. Miss Sapwell, soon-to-be a bridesmaid in a friend's wedding, was travelling to Melbourne for a day or two of shopping and fun with the bride-to-be. Both women were nurses; Miss Sapwell at Wangaratta Base Hospital.

case bookOn Friday, July 22nd, Miss Sapwell drove the over 150 miles from Wangaratta to Melbourne and stayed the night with her friends, Mr. and Mrs. Etienne Mehari. Saturday should have seen Miss Sapwell and her affianced friend hitting the shops in Victoria's capitol. Instead, Miss Sapwell fell ill Saturday morning at the Mehari home.  A doctor made a house call, and by midday Saturday, Miss Sapwell was a patient at Melbourne's Box Hill Hospital.

An otherwise healthy woman of twenty-three, Miss Sapwell's sudden illness and presenting symptoms had Box Hill resident Dr. Robert Oliver suspecting poison.  Concerned with Miss Sapwell's rapid decline, and with his patient adamant she hadn't taken anything, Dr. Oliver called the Mehari home.  The couple had not seen Miss Sapwell take any pills or powders and even searched their home.  Nothing untoward was found.   Dr. Oliver thought Miss Sapwell had ingested a irritant or corrosive poison, but which one?  Another doctor would identify the poison, though too late to aid Miss Sapwell.  In the early hours of Sunday, July 24th, Miss Sapwell died.

In death, Miss Sapwell became a patient of Dr. James McNamara, assistant lecturer in forensic medicine at the University of Melbourne and assistant medical officer to the City Coroner.  Parchment-like abrasions on Miss Sapwell's skin, along with the state of certain internal organs, led Dr. McNamara to finger cantharidin as the cause of the young nurse's death.  Lynn Turner, deputy medico-legal chemist for Victoria, also determined the poison in question was cantharidin.

Cantharidin is produced by over 1500 species of beetles as a defensive measure, causing blistering to skin upon contact.  This vesicant action earned cantharidin-making beetles the moniker 'blister beetles'.  One particular beetle, Lytta (Cantharis) vesicatoria, is the source of cantharidin's much more popular name.  L. vesicatoria is the beetle known as 'Spanish fly'.

L. vesicatoria

While some Spanish fly preparations are simply dried blister beetles ground into a powder, fairly pure cantharidin can be easily isolated from these beetles.  Dissolved in alcohol, oil, or placed in various foods, cantharidin has been used as an aphrodisiac for thousands of years.  Incorrectly used, that is.  Catharidin does not increase sexual desire - though its physiological actions likely led to its aphrodisiac misnomer.


Within a certain dosage range, cantharidin causes pelvic vascular congestion.  Blood pooling in the pelvic vessels affects both men and women, with men often experiencing persistent erections (priapism).  For both women and men, pelvic congestion can be painful.

Ingesting a large dose of cantharidin causes significant internal damage.

…severe burning and blistering of the gastrointestinal and urinary tracts... abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting of blood, bloody diarrhea, painful and bloody urination, convulsions, rapid pulse, a drop in blood pressure, shock, and death.

[excerpt from Murder and Mayhem: A Doctor Answers Medical and Forensic Questions for Mystery Writers by D.P. Lyle, MD]

The kidneys, which would work to clear cantharidin out of the body, can also fall victim to its affects. Cantharidin causes acute swelling of the spaces between the kidney tubules (interstitial nephritis), which may lead acute renal failure.  Though consumption of cantharidin for medicinal has long been advised against, this irritant did find its way into treatments and tonics. Decades before Dr. McNamara named cantharidin as the chemical culprit in Miss Sapwell's death, there were no recognized legitimate medical use for cantharidin - save one.  Dilute cantharidin solutions (< 1% w/vwere - and still are - used topically to remove warts by causing the skin beneath a wart to blister.

Though there were blisters on Miss Sapwell's skin, Dr. McNamara asserted they were caused by cantharidin in Miss Sapwell's vomit coming in contact with her skin during her illness.  Miss Sapwell ingested a lethal dose of cantharidin (10 - 60 mg), which caused her death.  Who poisoned the young nurse?  Investigators focused on a single suspect based on a single word said by Miss Sapwell to Dr. Oliver. "Funny".  That is how Miss Sapwell described the taste of the coffee Mr. Mehari had served her Saturday morning.

Mr. Mehari was seven years older than Miss Sapwell in July 1960, living with his wife and young son in a residence above the chemist shop (pharmacy) managed by Mrs. Mehari. Working in the same general field as his wife, Mr. Mehari was employed with a firm of wholesale druggists (pharmacists).   The Merharis met Miss Sapwell through a letter of introduction brought with Miss Sapwell from  her native New Zealand when she first arrived in Melbourne to finish her nursing studies in 1959. The couple and Miss Sapwell had became friends.

In that summer of 1960, the police suspected that Mr. Mehari was no friend to Miss Sapwell. Two days after Miss Sapwell's death, on July 26th, police said Mr. Mehari came clean about the "funny" tasting coffee he served Miss Sapwell.

It’s no use denying it. I put something in it, but I can’t tell you what it was. I could not face my wife if she found out what I did… my marriage will be ruined if it comes out what I gave her.

[quote from "Young Nurse Poisoned in Home Where She Was Guest, Court Told"]

According to police, Mr. Mehari did not have murder on his mind when he'd slipped cantharidin in Miss Sapwell's coffee.  He sought a sexual encounter with Miss Sapwell, using the infamous 'Spanish fly' to enable an assault.  When Miss Sapwell fell ill, Mr. Mehari kept what he had given her to himself.

 I was in an awkward position. I could not tell the doctor what I had given here because my wife, and I did think she would die.

[quote from "Young Nurse Poisoned in Home Where She Was Guest, Court Told"]

On the evening of July 26th, Mr. Mehari was charged with murder and Australia's Crown Prosecution would bring him to trial that November. During his trial, Mr. Mehari denied ever making any confessional-type statements to the police and leveled an accustion of his own - police misconduct.  Mr. Mehari claimed a detective struck him, that threats of criminal prosecution were made against his wife, and that detectives even mentioned his son.  Detectives denied any wrong-doing in court, with the Crown and the defense doing battle over Mr. Mehari's supposed statements to police.  Another battle was to come. A battle of experts, common in today's high-profile murder trials.

Dr. McNamara posited Miss Sapwell's death was the result of cantharidin poisoning, a view shared by state chemist Turner. Miss Sapwell's statements prior to her death, as reported by Dr. Oliver, also seem to clear the nurse of administering cantharidin to herself.  Why might Miss Sapwell have taken cantharidin, but not disclosed doing so - even in the terrible throes of her illness?  In 1960, the use of cantharidin as a supposed sexual stimulant was embarrassing, likely scandalous, but not as much as this chemical's other use.  Cantharidin has a long history as a abortifacient, though this does not appear to have been explicitly acknowledged during the trial.  Dr. McNamara seems to imply this use of cantharidin by testifying there was no "possibility of pregnancy" in Miss Sapwell's case.  Testimony from Drs. McNamara and Oliver bolstered the Crown's claim that Miss Sapwell was a poisoner's victim - something the defense seemed to agree with or, at least, not deny.  What the defense did deny was that Mr. Mehari was the poisoner and that cantharidin was the poison.

Mr. Mehari, represented by Mr. Frank Galbally during his trial, protested his innocence in court, refuting the claim he put anything in Miss Sapwell's coffee. He rebuffed the idea he wanted a sexual relationship with Miss Sapwell, reportedly testifying  "...he and his wife were very happy and he had no desire for such a relationship." Along with refuting who poisoned Miss Sapwell, the defense called their own expert to refute what poisoned her.

University of Melbourne Professor of Pharmacology Dr. Frank Shaw disagreed with Dr. McNamara's and state chemist Turner's opinion that cantharidin was the irritant poison in question.  According to Dr. Shaw, the "parchment-like abrasions " on Miss Sapwell's skin were completely unlike the blisters cantharidin would cause - something Dr. Shaw set out to demonstrate in dramatic fashion.

Professor F. H. Shaw… showed the court two blisters and a scar on his arm, but declined to reveal their cause.  Professor Shaw was invited by Mr. Galbally to show the scar and blisters to Lynn Turner, State medico-legal chemist, who game evidence of a post-mortem examination. He formed the opinion that the girl had died of cantharadin poisoning.  Turner, after inspecting the blisters on Professor Shaw’s arm, was unable to say if they were caused by cantharadin.

[excerpt from "Police Deny Violence at Questioning Before Murder Charge"]

a blister beetle's work

State chemist Turner's ability to confirm or dismiss skin blisters as being due to cantharidin was key for one reason.  A skin test was how state chemist Turner identified the poison as cantharidin.  Rather than this being an oversight, it simply demonstrates the testing methods available at the time of Miss Sapwell's death.

In a 1954 British Medical Journal article Poisoning by Cantharidin, the authors detail the testing methods available.

It was found that only three tests could be relied on for identifying cantharidin: (1) melting point ; (2) production of characteristic pain and blistering when the material was applied to the arm by the method described in Taylor (1948) only the production of a blister was regarded as a positive identification; (3) x-ray diffraction pattern of the crystalline material.

In a poisoning case, these tests would be in addition to medical observations.  In the case of Miss Sapwell's poisoning, state chemist Turner testified to performing test (2).

An analytical chemist showed a Criminal Court jury yesterday a scar on his arm which, he said, came from the application of a substance he found in the postmortem examination of a young woman.

[excerpt from Jury in "Murder Case Told Poison Made Scar on Analyst"]

No other tests appear to have been conducted on this "substance" identified by state chemist Turner as cantharidin.  None of the noted tests for cantharidin were done on any other items of evidence, as the Crown presented no such evidence during the trial.  Though Mr. Mehari admitted to having access to cantharidin through his work, no cantharidin was found in the Mehari home or in his possession.  The chemist shop over which the Meharis lived did not carry cantharidin.

The defense was not done countering the Crown's claims of death-by-cantharidin just yet.  Dr. Shaw took issue with the idea that cantharadin in vomit would cause blistering at all. Under questioning from Mr. Galbally,  Dr. McMamara did not directly contradict Dr. Shaw assessment, going on to state ""...a great deal more would need to be known."  That "funny" tasting coffee was also criticized by Dr. Shaw. Puting cantharidin in his own coffee, Dr. Shaw noted nothing odd in the drink's flavor, though it burned his tongue.  Dr. Shaw also pointed out that coffee, being chiefly water by volume, was also a poor medium for cantharidin, a sparingly water soluble molecule.

Was it cantharidin or not? According to the defense, if it wasn't cantharidin, then the lecherous motive ascribed to Mr. Mehari by the Crown was no more.   Mr. J. Flannagan, appearing for the Crown, stated " does not matter twopence whether it was cantharidin which killed the girl, or whether it was some other irritant poison."  The trial's judge, Mr. Justice Gavan Duffy, seemed to agree with both the Crown and the defense - to a point.

On November 30th, the last day of the trial and the start of jury deliberations, His Honor told the jury there was "no proof" the poison was cantharidin and that "[i]t does not matter whether it was cantharidin in the coffee, or some other poison."  His Honor left it for the jury to decide if Mr. Mehari had made those confessional statements to the police. The jury went to consider Mr. Mehari's fate, returning five hours later with a verdict. Mr. Mehari was not guilty of murder, but was guilty of manslaughter.  His Honor stated he thought Mr. Mehari did not "intend harm, but "... was simply careless of whether he would do injury."  On December 3rd, Mr. Mehari was sentenced to five years imprisonment.

It has been nearly 54 years since Miss Sapwell death. Advances in the fields of analytical chemistry and toxicology have given us new detection methods for an array of chemicals and sample types (e.g. urine, kidney tissue, etc.).  A chemist today would likely rely on a liquid or gas chromatography- mass spectrometry (LC-MC or GC-MS) method to determine if cantharadin played a role in a suspicious death like Miss Sapwell's.  Would an assured poison identification have changed the outcome of Mr. Mehari's trial? Or did it truly "not matter"?


__________Image Attributions__________

Case book image from IGAS

L. vesicatoria from Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching blog

Bottle labeled cantharidin from l-milleri's Ebay site

Blisters on skin from University of Florida 'Featured Creatures' site


  • Nurse Poisoned; Murder Charge (July 27, 1960) The Age, 1
  • Young Nurse Poisoned in Home Where She Was Guest, Court Told (1960, November 22) The Age, 5
  • Jury in Murder Case Told Poison Made Scar on Analyst (1960, November 23) The Age24
  • Police Deny Violence at Questioning Before Murder Charge (1960, November 24) The Age12
  • Defense Will Claim Girl's Death Not Due to Cantharidin (1960, November 25) The Age12
  • Counsel to Address Jury in Alleged Poison Case Today (1960, November 29) The Age6
  • Judge's Charge to Jury Today in Murder Hearing (1960, November 30) The Age6
  • Mehari Remanded for Sentence After Manslaughter Verdict (1960, December 1) The Age7
  • For Manslaughter... (1960, December 3) The Singapore Free Press, 1
  • Craven, J.D. and Polak, A. (1954) Cantharidin Poisoning, Br Med J., 2(4901), 1386–1388
  • Chen, L. and Huang, G. (2013) Poisoning by toxic animals in China—18 autopsy case studies and a comprehensive literature review, Forensic Sci Int., 232, 12-23
  • Honkanen, R. (1993) Cantharidin, another natural toxin that inhibits the activity of serine/threonine protein phosphatases types 1 and 2A, FEBS Letters, 330, 283-286
  • Moed, L.; Shwayder, T.; Chang, M. (2001) Cantharidin Revisted, Arch Dermatol, 137, 1357-1360
  • Nickolls, L.C. and Teare, D. (1954) Poisoning by Cantharidin, Br Med J., 2(4901), 1384–1386
  • Polettini, A.; Crippa, O.; Ravagli, A.; Saragoni, A. (1992) A fatal case of poisoning with cantharidin, Forensic Sci Int., 56, 37-43
  • Sandroni, P. (2001) Aphrodisiacs past and present: a historical review, Clin Auton Res, 11, 303-307


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Chemistry and King Joffrey

Apr 15 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

HBO's King Joffery on the Iron Throne

Fans of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series and HBO’s Game of Thrones know two things...

1. don’t get too attached to any of the characters
2. not all weddings are happy occasions.

Sometimes the reason a wedding isn’t so happy is because people get dropped from the guest list during the event. The Red Wedding lost a few wedding guests in dramatic fashion.  In the fan-dubbed Purple Wedding, only one character is dispatched. However, that one character was important - and not just because he was the groom. He was also the king.  A nearly universally despised king, but a king nonetheless. King Joffrey meets his end at the hands of "the strangler" in Martin’s book A Storm of Swords. The strangler isn't a wedding quest with a criminally obvious nickname. No, the strangler is a poison made from a plant - plus sugar, spice, and everything not-so-nice - as described in Martin's book The Clash of Kings.

Do we have any poisonous plants here in the real world that could bring down a king? Oh yes – and more than one!  There are a number of plants that produce chemicals that can be both medicinal and murderous. Three plants are routinely cast in fictional and non-fictional murder plots - belladonna (aka “Deadly Nightshade”), poison hemlock, and Strychnos nux-vomica (aka “strychnine tree”).

belladonna (R), poison hemlock (M), and strychnine tree (L)

right: belladonna | middle: poison hemlock | left: strychnine tree

These three usual suspects all produce alkaloids that can be weapons in the wrong hands. Alkaloids share a loosely similar chemical structure – at least one nitrogen atom in a heterocyclic ring.  Belladonna, poison hemlock, and Strychnos nux-vomica all make more than one alkaloid, but each has an alkaloid it's best know for.  For belladonna, it's atropine and  for poison hemlock, coniineStrychnos nux-vomica's  heavy-hitting alkaloid takes its name from the tree - strychnine.

left: atropine  |  middle: coniine  |  right: strychnine

left: atropine | middle: coniine | right: strychnine

Could any of our usual suspects be a real-world stand-in for the strangler?  To determine that, the strangler's modus operandi must be examined. In Martin’s book The Clash of Kings, this poison is described as making "...the muscles of a man’s throat clench tighter than any fist, shutting off his windpipe."  Taking some creative license with Martin's description, a real-world strangler stand-in must cause airway and/or neck muscles to clench (contract) and death by asphyxia.  This requirement lets two of our usual suspects off the hook.

Both belladonna and poison hemlock can be stone cold killers, but their stand-out alkaloids tend to relax and paralyze muscles. Belladonna's atropine affects smooth muscle in a relaxation-to-paralysis way, including airway smooth muscle.  Atropine, typically as a sulfate salt, has seen used as a bronchodilator - something that decreases airway resistance and increases airflow to the lungs.  Atropine can certainly kill you, usually by messing with your heart, but it doesn't kill like the strangler does.  Coniine also works to paralyze muscle, but it targets striated muscles - like skeletal muscle.  This includes the ribs' intercostal muscles and the diaphragm, which are the respiration system's heavyweights.

What happens is that your body is slowly but surely paralysed while you're still fully conscious, starting at the feet and rising until eventually even the muscles surrounding the vital organs become affected. Death is caused when the diaphragm stops contracting and oxygen stops getting to the heart.

[excerpt from Chemistry World's Chemistry in its element on coniine]

Coniine, like atropine, isn't a good fit for the strangler role.  That leaves strychnine.

Like coniine, strychnine targets striated skeletal muscles - including those important respiration muscles.  Unlike atropine and coniine, strychnine does not relax and paralyze muscles.  Strychnine causes muscles to contract – violently and incredibly painfully. Within 10-20 minutes of ingesting a lethal dose of strychnine, the muscles of the face and neck convulse – fitting a bit with Martin’s description of the strangler.  Convulsions spread to all skeletal muscles, coming in waves. The periods of contraction grow longer, with breathing impossible during a convulsion. Death by asphyxia results. That death could be quick – say a few minutes from the start of convulsions - or a person may suffer in agony for 2-3 hours (or more!).

Muscle contraction and death by asphyxia - strychnine and the strangler have a bit in common.  Could strychnine play the strangler?  Back to Martin's description of the strangler from The Clash of Kings

It was made from a certain plant that grew only on the islands of the Jade Sea, half a world away. The leaves had to be aged, and soaked in a wash of limes and sugar water and certain rare spices from the Summer Isles.  Afterward they could be discarded, but the potion must be thickened with ash and allowed to crystallize.  The process was slow and difficult, necessaries costly and hard to acquire.

If we think of Joffery’s home as a sort of Europe, then the strychnine tree is definitely from half a world away being native to Southeast Asia. The most dangerous part of this tree isn’t its leaves, but the seeds of its fruit.  The leaves^ contain strychnine, but not nearly as much as the seeds.  It will take a lot of leaves, which seems like just the kind of hassle Martin is trying to convey in his recipe. Martin's recipe calls for the leaves to be dried (aged), followed by the extraction of strychnine with "a wash of limes".

What if Martin doesn’t mean lime, the fruit?  What if Martin means lime (aka "quicklime"), a product of treating limestone?  This type of lime is mainly calcium oxide and is alkaline.  This lime has been used as part of multi-step processes* to extract alkaloids from leaves – like the alkaloid cocaine from coca leaves or the alkaloid morphine from opium.  The non-fruit lime is just one interpretation* of Martin's recipe, but it could be part of a "slow and difficult" extraction process.  Sugar and spice is next, which is good considering that strychnine - like most alkaloids - has a bitter taste that will need to be disguised.  Leaving nothing to chance, a beverage that will also help disguise strychnine's bitterness should be used.   A beverage like red wine – which seems to be Martin's delivery beverage of choice and what King Joffrey is drinking at his end.

This strychnine concoction is nearly stage-ready, except… where’s the purple? The strangler is described as a purple poison.  Is strychnine purple?  No.  In fact, many alkaloids - strychnine, cocaine, caffeine, morphine – are white crystalline solids.  Here’s where Martin’s spices could help out again. Some spices pull double-duty as dyes.  If dried berries are in Martin's spice cabinet, purple strychnine wouldn't be just a fantasy.  Dyed strychnine isn't as weird as it sounds – some commercially available strychnine pellets for dispatching of rats, gophers, or other critters are dyed red or green.

In a pinch, purple strychnine could stand-in for the strangler.  To be sure, we have to try Martin’s recipe with the lots of Strychnos nux-vomica leaves and spices for color to see if we could make our purple poison. Given how nasty strychnine is, we’ll need to strictly follow lab safety protocols. For even greater safety, never let Martin plan your wedding.


^In 2011, a suicide attempt via ingestion of Strychnos nux-vomica leaves was reported in literature.

*Another interpretation of Martin's recipe is that his lime is the fruit, working perhaps an acid extraction.  The ash in Martin's recipe could be wood ash or soda ash, both of which are alkaline and could neutralize the acidic brew. Update 04/28/14: I'm of the view that lime juice simply isn't acidic enough.  An acid extraction with hydrochloric acid (HCl) would do the trick, and the resulting salt would be water soluble.  Subsequent treatment with base (non-fruit lime, lye, sodium carbonate, or wood ash) would return our lethal alkaloid to us.


Image of King Joffery from Wired

Image of belladonna plant from NC State University

Image of poison hemlock from NC State University

Image of strychnine tree from Caroline's Botanical Art Blog

All chemical structure images are from chemspider

Strychnine label from photobucket user Samantha Giedris

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