If you loved the review for The Royal Art of Poison, then you are going to really enjoy this! I got an interview with the author!! Author interviews are thrilling!! I love being able to talk with the authors and get a little insight into the writing. I hope that ya’ll enjoy these few questions that I asked! If you have questions for the authors, please leave your questions in the comments! I will pass them onto the author!
Interview with Eleanor Herman
- Is there one area of poisoning that you enjoyed researching more than the others?
I’ve enjoyed working with doctors and researchers all over the world to understand fully not only natural illness but also the forensic techniques currently used to discover what may have killed someone years ago. For instance, scientists can study a random skeleton and determine where the person was born based on the chemical make-up of its teeth. And arsenic or mercury in human remains might not necessarily mean the person was poisoned. The poison could have been used in embalming or in medications or cosmetics. Scientists have ways of determining how it got there, and if the intent was murderous or benign. I worked with a scientist in Copenhagen who dug up famed astronomer Tycho Brahe, and a professor in Italy who found the long-lost intestines of a sixteenth-century grand duke, riddles with arsenic!
- Given that many royal bodies have been destroyed over the years, do you think that the notes alone from the doctors of the time will help to narrow down more cases of poisoning?
They already have. By the nineteenth century, for instance, the copious notes taken by doctors attending royal personages helped determine the cause of death of Edward VI in 1553 (tuberculosis) and Henry, Prince of Wales, in 1610 (typhoid fever.) Other cases are less clear. In his final illness in 1791, Mozart’s alarming symptoms, carefully recorded by those in the sick room, have resulted in a current list of 118 possible natural causes of death. No one can say for sure what killed the greatest musician of all time, just that it wasn’t poison but an epidemic that was killing a lot of people at the time.
- Are there other cases that you feel could fall into this list, that did not make the cut in this book?
I would like to pursue ancient poisonings among the Roman emperors: Caesar’s heirs dropping dead at banquets, and Nero’s poisoning school set up in Rome under the direction of a renowned sorceress named Locusta. Exploration of those stories didn’t make it into the Royal Art of Poison as there was a huge time gap between them and the next poisonings we know about in the fourteenth century, and less documentation to really do a deep dive.
- Which royal did you enjoy researching the most?
I enjoyed researching the mistresses of Louis XIV in the 1670s and 1680s and the Affair of the Poisons. Beautiful, witty, sexy, these women threw themselves at the king and then clawed each other’s eyes out. Stories of poisoned gloves poisoned gowns; a teenager wasting away at the hand of an older, jealous mistress; love potions of baby’s intestines and bits of bats and frogs slipped into the king’s wine… It was an almost unbelievable story.
- New information is discovered all the time, and it is possible that a cache of documents may turn up one day that would lead to more interesting cases. As historians, we have to view each document with discernment. I wonder at times if doctors did not “edit” their notes to save their own skins. What do you think?
There wasn’t just one doctor in a royal sickroom. There were several, in some cases a dozen or more. And the doctors were all watching one another and writing down what was done for (or to) the patient, and who did it, and what the symptoms and results were. After the death, they would often sit down and write up an in-depth report and all sign the document. Doctors took careful notes to protect themselves from charges of incompetence or intentional murder. Fortunately for the doctors, people of the time knew medical treatment often didn’t work and chalked the death up to either God’s will or some nefarious poison no physician could successfully treat.
- Is there one case in the book where you felt as though the person really deserved to be poisoned?
Yes! Russia’s Joseph Stalin, a mass murderer who threw shade on Hitler. Not only did he kill his political enemies, but millions of hapless citizens. There is some debate among historians and scientists as to whether he had a stroke—the official cause of death—or had been poisoned. His initial autopsy referred to extensive bleeding in the stomach, not a symptom associated with stroke but with the use of the drug warfarin, odorless and tasteless and easily concealed in food or drink. All mention of stomach bleeding was removed from the official autopsy report. Clearly, Stalin had many enemies, some of whom had dinner with him the night before he died.