A couple of weeks ago I was watching something – can’t remember what – and I heard someone casually mention that someone who had been poisoned was likely killed by a woman. It’s a trope I’ve heard before (both Sherlock Holmes and Ned Stark both assert this), but for some reason I’d never questioned it. Anyway, I put it on my mental list of “things to google” before promptly forgetting about it until I saw this Wired magazine post.
In it, Deborah Blum (author of the Poisoner’s Handbook) asserts that homicide by poison is much more likely to be committed by a man (60.5%) than by a woman (39.5%), and that therefore the idea that poison was a woman’s weapon was false. Her numbers come from this report…snapshot here:
Weapon Male Women
Gun homicide 92.1% 7.9%
Arson 78.8 21.2
Poison 60.5 39.5
So women are less likely than men to poison, but they are better represented in that group than the two others in the report. But I got curious….what does this mean in terms of absolute rates? From the way the data’s presented, it does appear that if a woman murders, there’s a good chance she used poison….but is this true?
I took a look at the FBI crime database to see what the absolute numbers were. The numbers above are for the years 1980-2008, and this report is for 2006-2010, but my guess is the order of magnitude holds.
For 2006-2010, there were 47,856 gun homicides, 505 fire/arson, and 49 poisonings. So despite the lower percentage, women are still almost 200 times more likely to kill using a firearm than poison*. So basically, there is no base rate fallacy going on here. If you hear someone was poisoned, it’s more likely a male did it (at least for the years listed), and if you hear a women killed someone, poison was not her most likely method.
Of course poison may have fallen out of fashion a bit, so this trope could have been true in Sherlock Holmes’ day, and all bets are off in the fictional world of Game of Thrones. In case you’re curious, the FBI does not appear to keep data on crimes committed by eunuchs, so I can’t verify any of that.
*This may be skewed, as it is far more likely that some poisonings got missed by coroners than gunshots…but I doubt the missed cases would make up much of the difference.
4 thoughts on “Poison: the preferred weapon of women, cravens and eunuchs”
Agatha Christie liked to work poison deaths into her stories, too.
In literature, different murders and different deaths have a different quality. CS Lewis wrote that the feelings surrounding being enclosed underground in a cave (or pagan temple) is different from the feeling of death by exposure on the moon when one did not make it back in time before the airlock closed.
So too with gun deaths and poison – and even poison by radioactive material on the tip of an umbrella or being bit by a snake feels literarily different from poisoning the soup.
BTW, it has been my contention that murder mysteries are popular in inverse proportion to the number of actual murders in the country or region.
Joan Wagar was having an affair with a Portland police officer named Eric Carlson while she was poisoning her husband Terry Wagar who was an active and long time plasma donor!
Officer Eric Carlson refers to Joan Wagar in love letters by the nickname Mrs Dash!
Joan Wagar tries to hide her affair with a cop and lies about officer Eric Carlson's true employment and tries to hide the fact she is a poisoner, and at the time Joan Wagar wrote this one of her daughters was pregnant by one of officer Eric Carlson's partners!
Joan Wagar outright admits to her affair with officer Eric Carlson in her diary and names off poisons she was using to poison plasma donor!
Joan Wagar outright admits she use's antifreeze as poison!
Portland police and OHSU hospital covers up Terry Wagar's 911 calls and all his emergency visits to the hospital and covers up Joan Wagar's written confessions of her being a poisoner and FAKES not knowing what is wrong with Terry Wagar while REFUSING to take toxicology tests!
Portland police and the OHSU hospital ADMITS to covering up Terry Wagar's calls for help and 911 calls and ADMITS to covering up EVERYTHING Terry Wagar ALREADY REPORTED about Joan Wagar being a poisoner and threatens Terry Wagar for contacting police/hospital thus making it known Terry Wagar is NOT welcome to report crimes and NOT WELCOME to help of any sorts by EMERGENCY SERVICES!
Multnomah county sheriff's are taunting Terry Wagar and making it known they are also covering up Terry Wagar's calls for help and demonstrating how they outright IGNORE complaints on law officer's and their girlfriends! it's impossible to report a murder to law enforcement when law enforcement are the ones responsible because law enforcement DOES NOT TAKE COMPLAINTS ON COPS!
No other hospital in Portland Oregon will help and refuses to take toxicology test and refusal of emergency services and officer Eric Carlson HIMSELF took part in covering up THIS 911 CALL Terry Wagar made!
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