Conium maculatum. Hemlock.

Botanical name: 

Pl. 11. Conium maculatum. A PLANT bearing the name of Conium, κωνειον, has been noted as a poison from remote antiquity. In consequence of the power which it possessed when given in sufficient quantities, of destroying life in a certain and almost immediate manner, it was used at Athens as a mode of execution for those condemned to death by the tribunal of Areopagus. Socrates and Phocion were among the distinguished ancients, who suffered death by the agency of this mortal poison. The accounts which have been left respecting it would lead us to believe that its operation was speedy, and unattended with any violent or long protracted suffering. It was not only employed as an instrument of public executions, but was resorted to by those who sought to encounter suicide in its least formidable shape. Among other instances, that of the Cean old men is related by Aelian, who when they had become useless to the state, and tired of the infirmities of life; invited each other to a banquet, and having crowned themselves as in celebration of a joyous festival; drank the Conium, and terminated their existence together.

The description which has been left by Dioscorides of the Conium, only shews it to have been an umbellate plant, his character of which might apply to many species. The mention made of it by Latin writers under the name of Cicuta are not more satisfactory. Linnaeus, influenced by the noxious character of the modern officinal Hemlock, has appropriated to that plant the name of the Grecian species, and most subsequent botanists have followed his example. Haller, however, is of opinion that the ancient poison was not procured from this plant, but from the Cicuta virosa L. a poisonous aquatic, much more powerful and violent in its operation than the common Hemlock. Lamarck adopts the opinion of Linnaeus, and believes that the Conium maculatum was really the Grecian poison, and that its properties were rendered more active by the heat of the climate in which it grew. Guersent supposes that the poisonous draught used by the Greeks was not the product of a single species, but a compound prepared from several plants.

Were it not for the tranquillity and ease which attended death from the ancient hemlock, and which Plato has described with interesting minuteness, there would not have been much difficulty in supposing the Grecian plant to be the same with that known at the present day.

[Note H.] [The following account of the death of Socrates is translated from the Phaedon of Plato.
And Crito hearing this gave the sign to the boy who stood near. And the boy departing after some time returned bringing with him the man, who was to administer the poison, who brought it ready bruised in a cup. And Socrates beholding the man, said, "Good friend, come hither, you are experienced in these affairs,—What is to be done?" "Nothing," replied the man, "only when you have drank the poison, you are to walk about until a heaviness takes place in your legs. Then lie down. This is all you have to do." At the same time he presented him the cup. Socrates received it from him with great calmness, without fear or change of countenance, and regarding the man with his usual stern aspect, he asked, "What say you of this potion? Is it lawful to sprinkle any portion of it on the earth as a libation, or not?" "We only bruise," said the man, "as much as is barely sufficient for the purpose." "I understand you," said Socrates, "but it is certainly lawful and proper to pray the gods that my departure from hence may be prosperous and happy, which I indeed beseech them to grant." So saying, he carried the cup to his mouth and drank it with great promptness and facility.
Thus far most of us had been able to refrain from weeping. But when we saw that he was drinking and actually had drunk the poison, we could no longer restrain our tears. And from me they broke forth with such violence, that I covered my face and deplored my wretchedness. I did not weep for his fate, so much, as for the loss of a friend and benefactor, which I was about to sustain. But Crito unable to restrain his tears was compelled to rise. And Apollodorus, who had been incessantly weeping, now broke forth into loud lamentations, which infected all who were present except Socrates. But, he observing us, exclaimed, "What is it you do, my excellent friends? I have sent away the women that they might not betray such weakness. I have heard that it is our duty to die cheerfully and with expressions of joy and praise. Be silent therefore, and let your fortitude be seen." At this address we blushed and suppressed our tears. But Socrates, after walking about, now told us that his legs were beginning to grow heavy, and immediately laid down, for so he had been ordered. At the same time the man who had given him the poison, examined his feet and legs, touching them at intervals. At length he pressed violently upon his foot, and asked if he felt it. To which Socrates replied, that he did not. The man then pressed his legs and so on, shewing us that he was becoming cold and stiff. And Socrates feeling of himself assured us, that_ when the effects had ascended to his heart he should then be gone. And now the middle of his body growing cold, he threw aside his clothes and spoke for the last time, "Crito, we owe the sacrifice of a cock to Aesculapius. Discharge this and neglect it not." "It shall be done, said Crito; have you any thing else to say?" He made no reply, but a moment after moved, and his eyes became fixed. And Crito seeing this, closed his eyelids and mouth.]

It appears that a large quantity was requisite to insure death. The poison was swallowed in the crude juice, recently expressed from the plant. Of this the draught taken by Phocion was large enough to cost twelve drachmae [Plutarch, Life of Phocion.] Socrates was prevented from making a libation of a part of the contents of his fatal cup, by being told that the whole was necessary to produce the consummation of his sentence. A large quantity of the modern hemlock might probably have been equally fatal, though with more violent symptoms than those which, if Plato be correct, were experienced by the Athenian philosopher.

The plant, represented in our plate, undoubtedly came to us from Europe. It is now sufficiently common in the United States, about road sides and in waste ground, especially in those parts of the country which have been longest settled. It is usually found in bunches, and attains the full height of a man. It flowers from June until the arrival of frost.

The very natural order, called Umbellatae by Linnaeus and Umbelliferae by Jussieu, to which this plant and the following one belong, is found in the class Pentandria and order Digynia of the Linnaean artificial method.

The genus Conium of Linnaeus has both general and partial involucres, the latter being halved. The fruit roundish and furrowed.

The species maculatum, has the fruit unarmed with the ridges undulated.

Its more complete description is as follows. Root biennial, somewhat fusiform and generally branched. Stalk round, very smooth, striated, hollow, jointed, and more or less marked with purplish spots. Leaves two or three times pinnate, of a very bright green, with long, sheathing petioles inserted on the joints of the stem; the leafets pinnatifid and toothed. Flowers in terminal umbels, the general involucre with half a dozen lanceolate, reflected leafets, the partial involucre with three or four situated on the outside. Flowers very small, white. Petals five, oval with their points inflexed. Stamens five, spreading, about the length of the corolla. Germ inferior. Styles two reflexed outwardly. Fruit roundish-oval, compressed, ribbed, the ribs being transversely wrinkled or crenate; separating into two oblong-hemispherical seeds.

Hemlock when fresh has a strong nauseous odour and taste. If the green leaves are distilled, the water which collects in the receiver has an insupportably nauseous taste, while that which remains in the retort is comparatively insipid. This circumstance, and likewise the fact that the dried leaves become inert by age and exposure, render it probable that the chief medicinal efficacy resides in a volatile portion of the plant. Of the more fixed ingredients of Hemlock, a variety of analyses have been made. The most recent which I have met with is that of Schrader, who from a thousand grains of the plant obtained the following substances. Extractive 27.3—Gummy extract 35.2—Resin 1.5—Albumen 3.1—Green faecula 8.—He also detected various earthy and alkaline salts. These however are found to vary according to the soil in which the plant grows. The volatile portion, which I obtained in water distilled from the leaves, did not exhibit any essential oil, and effected no change in the colour of litmus. It was not altered by sulphate of iron nor acetite of lead.

The Conium maculatum is a narcotic poison, though not of the most powerful kind. Instances of fatal effects from it have been recorded by Dr. Watson in the Philosophical Transactions, and by several other writers. A remarkable case of this sort, which occurred in Spain, is cited by Orfila in his Traité des poisons. But there is scarcely any narcotic plant respecting the character of which such various and opposite testimony has been adduced by medical writers. Even the experiments of the same individual are apt to present different results from its use, unless great care be taken in the collection and preparation of the medicine. The truth is, the plant varies exceedingly at different ages, and in different places of growth, and the strength of its preparations is greatly influenced by external circumstances.

When the green leaves of a mature plant which has grown in the sun, or the juice of these leaves, either crude, or properly inspissated, is taken into the stomach; the following symptoms, if the quantity has been sufficient, will rarely fail to take place; viz. a dizziness of the head and nausea of the stomach, a sense of fullness in the eyes and diminished power of vision, together with a general faintness or muscular weakness of the whole body. These sensations usually begin in the course of half an hour. If the dose has been moderate, they will for the most part disappear in the course of half a day, and seldom continue beyond twenty four hours. Larger doses occasion more severe symptoms, as it happens with other narcotics.

The idiosyncrasies of different persons render them variously susceptible of the action of Hemlock. Some are but slightly affected by a quantity, which would prove dangerous to others.

The Hemlock has been for many years a subject of attention with physicians, and has been found a remedy of importance in several diseases. It would occupy a volume to state the whole of the evidences which have been given for and against its use. I shall only mention those complaints in which it has been most employed, and particularly in this country.

In Jaundice.—Dr. Fisher, President of the Massachusetts Medical Society, in his paper on the narcotic vegetables, bears unequivocal testimony in favour of the efficacy of Hemlock in this complaint. He was first induced to employ it with a view to its relaxing effect in facilitating the passage of biliary calculi. Afterwards it was given by him to many icteric patients, and with the exception of three complicated cases, it never failed in his hands or within his knowledge to remove the disease. Dr. Jackson, Professor of the Theory and Practice of Physic in our University, informs me that he has found it of great utility in jaundice, and that except in one or two instances, it has always effected the cure of those cases, which proved susceptible of relief from any medicine. I have repeatedly employed it in the same complaint with indubitable advantage. The dose should be gradually increased until its effects are distinctly felt in the head and stomach. This inconvenience is temporary, and will be preferred by most patients to the evil of a mercurial ptyalism. The yellowness of the skin and eyes, in favourable cases, begins to disappear at an early period, frequently by the second day.—The foregoing practice in jaundice is not new, having been employed in Sweden by Rosenstein, and in other places.

In tic doloureux. In a discourse on this painful disease by Dr. Jackson, published in the New England Journal, Vol. II. a number of cases are detailed, in which perfect relief was afforded by the Hemlock given in large doses, and rapidly increased until a decided effect upon the system was felt. Dr. Jackson recommends to begin with a single grain of the extract, and to increase to five grains for the second or third dose; afterwards to add five grains to every dose until a full effect is felt on the system. In this discourse he cites the experience of Dr. Fothergill, who had employed the Conium successfully in several cases of this disease under a different name. It appears also that some French physicians, whose writings I have not seen, as Chaussier and Dumeril, have confirmed the success of our plant in tic doloureux. It must be confessed however, although the Hemlock is more successful in this complaint than perhaps any internal medicine, which has been tried; yet there are cases of such obstinacy, as wholly to baffle the powers of its operation.

In schirrus and cancer. Since the time of Storck, this medicine has been long and abundantly tried, but without any increase of reputation. The experience of modern physicians, and among others of M. Alibert, who tried it in more than a hundred cases in the hospital of St. Louis, have pretty well established the fact, that it is wholly incapable of curing either schirrus or cancer of the confirmed and genuine kind. It is however still administered, rather with a view to its anodyne and palliative effect, than any expectation of radical benefit. In this way its external use is sometimes serviceable.

In old syphilitic affections, it is occasionally useful. It has been recommended in hooping cough, but it is not a perfectly safe medicine for children, owing to the difficulty of ascertaining when its constitutional effects take place in them.—I am informed on the best medical authority, that it is of great use in some cases of hemicrania, which are not regularly intermittent.

The most common form of preserving the Hemlock for use, as well as the most convenient for its exhibition, is that of the inspissated juice or extract. It is well known however, that the extracts kept in our shops differ materially in their strength, so that in beginning from a new parcel, the physician can seldom predict the degree of operation of his first doses. In some instances very great quantities have been taken without the least effect. The extract is apt to prove inert when the plant is gathered too young, when the evaporation is conducted with too much heat, when a decoction of the dried plant has been evaporated instead of the fresh leaves, and lastly when the extract itself has become old. To give the extract its due strength, the plant should be collected at full maturity, while in flower, or in fruit provided it remains green, and the juice or the decoction should be evaporated at the heat of boiling salt water. The stock should be renewed every year. A suitable dose for commencement is from one to five grains. This may be increased at every time of taking it, until its constitutional effects are felt. In beginning the use of a new parcel, more caution is requisite at first, than after its strength has been tested.

The Aethusa cynapium, an umbellate plant very common in Boston, has sometimes been mistaken for Hemlock, which it considerably resembles. It is a smaller plant, with its stalk not spotted. It differs also in having no general involucre, while its partial one is very long.

Botanical References.

Conium Maculatum, Linnaeus. Sp. pl.
Woodville, t. 22.
Curtis, Fl. Lond. i. 17.
Smith, Engl. Bot. t. 1191.
Pursh, i. 195.
Cicuta vulgaris, Morison, Umb. t. 6.
Parkinson, Theatr. 933.
Cicuta major, Lamarck, Encyclopedie Methodique.
Cicutaria vulgaris, Clusius, Hist. 200.

Medical References.

Murray, Apparatus medicaminum, i. 322.
Cullen, Mat. Med. ii. 263.
Fothergill, Med. Obs. iii. 400.
Hunter on the venereal, 108,175,199, 247, &c.
Home, Annals Med. iii. 66.
Butter, Med. Comment. i. 373.
Fisher, Mem. Mas. Soc. i.
Jackson, N. Engl. Journ. ii. 105.
Guersent. Dict. Sciences Medicales, v. 208.
Orfila, Toxicologie, iii. 279, &c. &c. &c.

American Medical Botany, 1817-1821, was written by Jacob Bigelow, M. D.