Watching the catalogues produced by auction houses is one of the real pleasures of a booksellers life. Often lavishly produced, the catalogues provide a visual, abundant feast of beautiful books to salivate any bibliophile. And just occasionally a wee oddity or curio turns up. I was reminded of this one this morning by a photo circulating on Twitter. It was offered for sale via the German auction house Hermann Historica back in 2008.

Poison Cabinet or Apothecary's Medicines in a Book?
Poison Cabinet or Apothecary’s Medicines in a Book?

Carved out of a real book dating from the 1600s, the pages have been replaced by eleven drawers, each with a small wooden and silver knob and a paper label identifying a plant, and a glass jar clasped into place.

The auction catalogue identified the book as a ‘poisoner’s cabinet’, and much of the press coverage centred on its potential as an assassin’s arsenal but many of the plants included have, or were reputed to have curative as well as toxic properties which leads me to think that it’s as likely to be a wise women’s or apothecary’s case as much as an assassin’s tool kit.

The labels (from left to right and top to bottom) are:

  • Hyoscyamus Niger – commonly known as Henbane, Stinking Nightshade, Hog’s Bean or Black Henbane. Common effects of consuming henbane include hallucinations and sensations of flight.  In medieval times it was often used in combination with other plants to a make ‘magic brews’ with psychoactive properties.  Henbane is thought by some to be the hebenon poured into Hamlet’s father’s ear in Act 1, Scene V.  Although it can be fatal in small quantities (it is so toxic that the smell of the flower alone as been known to cause giddiness, it was at one time (long ago) a common ingredient in gruit, used to flavour beer.
  • Papaver Somnif (papaver somniferur) – is the Opium Poppy, the source of many narcotics including morphine, its derivative heroin and codeine.  The Latin names translates as ‘sleep-giving’ or sleep-bringing’ poppy, referring to its sedative effects.  Traditionally used to treat asthma, stomach upsets and poor eyesight, opium is the route of many modern medicines and Opium Poppies appears on the coat of arms of the  Royal College of Anesthetists.
  • Aconitum Napellus – commonly known as Monk’s Blood, Aconite, Frair’s Cap , Helen’s Flowers, Monkshood and Wolfsbane. Monk’s Blood contains several poisonous compounds which are present in such concentrations that in ancient times it was used to poison the tips of spears other weapons of war.  In Roman times it was a such a common poison of choice among murders and assassins that its cultivation was prohibited.  In 1881 one Dr Lamson used it to poison his brother-in-law after encasing it in one of the ten newly-invented soluble capsules to remove its distinctive and unpleasant smell and taste.
  • Cicuta Virosa –  contains citutoxin which disrupts the workings of the central nervous system when ingested.  Some have speculated that Cicuta Virosa was the hemlock used by the ancient Greek Republic as the state poison but as it is a native of northern Europe this may not be true.  It is so toxic that a single bite into its root can be fatal.
  • Bryonia Alba – also known as Devil’s Turnip and Mandrake, all parts of the plant contain byronin, a poison which can cause illness and may be fatal.    Traditionally it was also used as a curative for dropsy and the eminent Dr Sydenham used it to treat fevers.
  • Datura Stram (Datura Stramonium) – commonly known as Devil’s Snare, Thornapple or Jimson Weed, For centuries it was used as a medicinally to relieve astham and as an analgesic during surgery and bonesetting. It is also a powerfully hallucinogenic.
  • Valerlana Off (Valerlana Officinalis)– also known as All Heal and Garden Heliotrope. Extracts from the root are said to have sedative and anxiolytic properties. It has long been used as a curative: Hippocrates described its properties and Galen prescribed it as a treatment for insomnia
  • Daphne Merzereum (presumably Daphne Mezereum) – February Daphne, Spurge Laurel or Spurge Olive.  It is highly toxic, producing choking effects when ingested. Skin exposure can cause rashes and eczema.  It was often used as an ingredient in cosmetics until the harmful effects of the rosy glow it produces where understood.
  • Ricinus Comm (Ricinus Communis) – The Castor Oil Plant, also known as the Palm of  Christ, probably because of castor oil’s reputed ability to cure ailments and treat wounds.  Some preparations have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties. The seeds of the plant contain the toxin, Ricin – a lethal dose for adults being between four and eight seeds.
  • Colchicum Autumnale – also known as Autumn Crocus, Meadow Saffron and  Naked Lady, it contains colchicine which is approved in the US for the treatment of gout.  But colchicine is also highly toxic if ingested, its symptoms resembling that of arsenic poisoning. There is no known antidote.  John Gerard, the 16th century, Nantwich-born Surgeon-Barber recommended mixing with breadcrumb, egg white and barley meal to make a poultice for the treatment of gout.
  • Atropa Bella – most commonly known as Deadly Nightshade or Bella Donna, Atropa Bella has a long history of use as a cosmetic, medicine and poison. The wives of the Roman Emperors Augustus and Claudius were both rumoured to have been poisoned with Deadly Nightshade and it was also used to make poison-tipped arrows.  The common name Bella Donna, which literally means beautiful women, stems from the ancient practice of using an extract as eye drops to dilate pupils to make them appear seductive.  Tinctures and powders from Bella Donna are still used in treatments for gastrointestinal disorders and motion sickness.


Inside detail of Poisons Cabinet inside a book
Inside detail of Cabinet inside a book

Closed, the book gives away nothing of its surprising interior furniture!

Closed binding of  cabinet inside a book
Closed binding of cabinet inside a book

The auction catalogue gave the following description: “A Hollow Book Used As A Secret Poison Cabinet. Historism, 17th century style. With original, finely embossed parchment cover. Intact book clasps, the pages glued to a solid piece with a central rectangular cavity. The inside finely worked, providing eleven drawers of various sizes and one open compartment. The front of the drawers covered with coloured paper and fitted with flame-carved frames, the knobs of silver and ebonised wood. Handwritten paper labels with the Latin names of different poisonous plants (among them castor-oil plant, thorn apple, deadly nightshade, valerian, etc.). Incl. greenish bottle bearing the label “Statutum est hominibus semel mori” (“It is a fact that man must die one day”). Glued to the inside of the cover an old etching of a standing skeleton bearing the date “1682”. Size of the book 36 x 23 x 12 cm.  Elaborately worked Kunstkammer object with strong reference to the memento mori theme”.

The illustration pasted onto the interior of the front cover, titled Humani Corporis Ossium, is from De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem by Andreas Vesalius (1514-64), which was originally published by Johannes Oporinus in Basel in June 1543, although the one in the book appears to be a later London printing as is dated 1682.

Humani Corporis Ossium
Humani Corporis Ossium