Two weeks ago, fans of the HBO show “Game of Thrones” watched with a mixture of surprise, horror, and satisfaction as one of the TV show’s best villains, the young King Joffrey, died a horrible death when poisoned at his own wedding.
Using details from the books the show is based on, the American Chemical Society decided to track down this mystery poison. For the latest of their “Reactions” video series, the ACS asked scientists: What was that poison made of, and could it be real?
Tracking down a fictional poison
There are a few things in the book and show that could help these scientists on their quest: the descriptions of what the poison does and how it is prepared.
In the books, the poison is called “the strangler.” It’s rare and unknown to most of Westeros, the fictional land that the series is set in. But there are a few clues in the text. The poison is made “from the leaves of a plant” that grows on an island in the “sea of jade.”
With plant leaves as a starting point, chemist Raychelle Burks of Doane College in Nebraska has a few ideas. The video explains that there are three plant-based poisons that make good candidates and feature prominently in murder mysteries: belladonna, also known as deadly night shade; poison hemlock; and strychnos nux-vomica, the strychnine tree.
All of the above plants are deadly, but Joffrey’s reaction to the poison makes one plant a far more likely culprit.
Burks matched these poisons up with the details of Joffrey’s reaction when dosed — a painful, suffocating death. Onscreen, he clutches his throat, falls to the ground, and his face turns purple. As he dies, he starts bleeding from the eyes and nose.
Two of the three plants make muscles relax, which wouldn’t cause the throat-closing asphyxiation response that killed Joffrey. The chemical derived from the third of these plants — strychnine — causes a different reaction that’s more similar to The Strangler than the others.
It affects the muscles in the face and the neck first — which matches Joffrey’s reaction, causing neck muscles to clench up.
A note in the book says that the deadly compound is extracted using a “wash of lime” and treated with a “rinse of sugar.” Does that match up?
Using a “wash of lime” to extract strychnine doesn’t make sense if you interpret lime as the fruit. If instead, “wash of lime” refers to a limestone product, calcium oxide, it makes perfect sense. Calcium oxide is used in one of the processes that can extract alkaloids (like strychnine) from plants.
There’s a simple explanation for the sugar rinse in Martin’s books. Alkaloids are bitter. For Joffrey to not taste the poison, it needs to be disguised. And what better way to hide a bitter taste than sugar? The sugar could even be responsible for the crystal that disguised the poison.
Here’s Burks with more details on the three poisons above:
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