Strychnine: the notorious but rare poison at the heart of a modern mystery

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Strychnine poisoning is a horrible and , nowadays, unusual route to succumb. But it was the fate of an unidentified man found on Saddleworth moor last year

On 11 December 2015, a man bought a return develop ticket to Manchester from Euston station, London. From Manchester he travelled on to Greenfield, Saddleworth and stopped at the Clarence pub, where he asked about how to get to the top of the hill. Despite warns from the landlord about the late hour and poor weather conditions, the man set off anyway. He was spotted twice constructing his way up the hill.

The following morning the man was found dead on Saddleworth moor, near Dovestone reservoir. He was found by a occur cyclist lying on his back with his arms by his side. His pockets held 130 in cash and three develop tickets. There were no items on the body, such as credit cards or driving licence, that could be used to name him. Despite the best efforts of the police, his identity remains a mystery. The circumstances of his death are also mysterious, but some light has recently been shed on this aspect of a puzzling case.

Preliminary toxicology results have identified traces of strychninein the dead mans body. Strychnine is a notorious poison, but outside of Agatha Christie fictions it rarely makes an appearance in the modern world. In Christies day strychnine was frighteningly easy to get hold of: you could buy it over the counter in any local chemists shop. Strychnine was available as a rat poison or as a medication. Little old dames, like Mrs Inglethorp in Christies 1920 fiction The Mysterious Affair at Styles, were prescribed strychnine tonics to increase their craving and invigorate their nerves.

Strychnine certainly invigorates nerves, but not in a medically beneficial style and has therefore been removed from the British Pharmacopoeia. Strychnine is working with chemical receptors on motor neurones, those that control movement. Electrical signals are sent along nerves but at the junctions between nerve cells, chemicals( neurotransmitters) are released to pass on the message. Two neurotransmitters are important in the case of strychnine: acetylcholine, which is the go message telling the adjoining nerve or muscle cell to fire, and glycine, the stop message, which tells the nerve not to fire. The balance of these two chemicals prevents false signals triggering nerves to flame and muscles to spasm. Strychnine attaches to glycine receptors and blocks the stop signals. The outcome is that the slightest stimulus can cause the nerve to signal or a muscle to contract.

An overdose of strychnine usually starts with twitching but progresses to horrific whole body convulsions as the nervous system careers out of control. The muscles on the back of the body are usually stronger than those on the front, so victims arch upwards with their arms clenched at their sides and only the heels and back of the head resting on the ground. There will be a period of convulsion followed by a period of calm before another bout of spasm begins. Most victims survive between two and five of these bouts before the muscles controlling their exhaling become paralysed and they suffocate. During the whole process the main victims is horribly and painfully aware of what is going on, as the nerves of the brain are also induced to give heightened perception. It is an agonising style to die.

Thankfully, strychnine rarely causes demise. Since Christie wrote her poisoning plots the rules around its buy have been stiffened considerably. A paper published in 1979 expressed the view that in the preceding 30 years there was on average one demise per year in the UK due to strychnine poisoning; all but one were suicides. Most of the individuals who took strychnine had obtained it in the form of pesticide. Until recently strychnine was still used by licenced pest controllers to exterminate moles, but in 2006 it was banned from this final employ because it causes the animals unnecessary agony. It is now illegal to purchase strychnine in the UK.

Where does this leave the case of the mysterious man on Saddleworth moor? Whoever he was, his body appears to have contained an illegal lethal substance. A second postmortem being conducted the coming week will hopefully disclose more details. As well as establishing the cause of death police are still working to identify the man. Hopefully someone will recognise the images of him captured on CCTV at Euston station, or know him from the police description – white, aged between 65 and 75, of slim construct, with a receding hairline with grey hair to the side and back. He had a large nose that may have been previously broken, and was clean shave. He wore a brown heavy coat, blue jumper, white long-sleeve shirt, blue corduroy trousers and black slip-on shoes.

What is genuinely tragic about this case is in the three months since this mans death no one appears to have missed him. Anyone with info should telephone police on 0161 856 8972 or the independent charity Crimestoppers, anonymously, on 0800 555 111.

This piece originally contained a line in the final paragraph implying that death in the Saddleworth moor example was suicide. The police investigation is ongoing and no conclusions have yet been reached.

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