Frontier Doc

Strychnine, Hollywood Style

Matt Dillon comes to the rescue again.


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In the Old West, the rancher’s cupboard contained a myriad of hazardous substances, ranging from rat poison and lye (caustic soda for making soap) to lead bars (to melt and cast into bullets) and patent medicines containing mercury, arsenic and even cocaine.

One of my favorite frontier “rat-killers” on that shelf (aside from arsenic, red squill and thallium sulfate) is the botanically-derived alkaloid compound strychnine.

In his 1845 classic A Treatise on Poisons, Dr. Robert Christison stated: “No poison is endowed with more destructive energy than Strychnia [strychnine].”

Describing strychnine’s effects during animal experiments, Christison indicated: “The symptoms are very uniform and striking. The animal becomes agitated and trembles, and is then seized with stiffness and starting of the limbs. These symptoms increase till at length it is attacked with a fit of violent general spasm, in which the head is bent back, the spine stiffened, the limbs extended and rigid, and the respiration checked by the fixing of the chest. The fit is then succeeded by an interval of calm, during which the senses are quite entire or unnaturally acute. But another paroxysm soon sets in, and then another and another, till at length a fit takes place more violent than any before it; and the animal perishes suffocated.”

Christison also describes the demise of a strychnine-poisoned human subject in terms similar to the agonizing final moments of “tetanus poisoning” or “lockjaw.” At the bitter end, the victim assumes a horribly contorted posture of complete muscle spasm, with arched back, clenched fists, grimacing jaw, curled toes and flexed arms. This classic posture, known as opisthotonos, is beautifully depicted by Sir Charles Bell in his 1809 medical painting of a patient with tetanus poisoning.

Interestingly, strychnine “co-starred” in a scene in the 1990 movie Gunsmoke: The Last Apache, in which the fabulous stage actor Richard Kiley mimics the symptoms of strychnine ingestion.

In a macabre game of “guts,” variant of Russian roulette, army scout Chalk Brighton (Kiley) and the evil scalp hunter Bodine (Geoffrey Lewis) alternate turns swigging down a total of six shot glasses full of mescal, one of which is laced with strychnine.

Having gone first, and drinking his final third round, Brighton pretends that he has consumed the lethal mix, when it really remains on the bar, the hopeful object of Bodine’s final gulp. While faking his own poisoning, Brighton puts on quite a show.

At first he smugly appears unaffected. After about 10 seconds that seem like an hour, however, Brighton suddenly grunts, grimaces, coughs and appears to lose his breath, while falling on the bar in front of him. In a moment, still grunting and appearing about to convulse, he spins around 180 degrees and falls onto a table behind him. There he remains perfectly still, as if he had “bought the farm.” Brighton’s ruse is interrupted by retired marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness), just when Bodine is about to drink the real strychnine-laced mescal in celebration of Brighton’s “demise.”

Dillon spoils Brighton’s fakery; but not before the audience was treated to Kiley’s melodramatic simulation of “death by rat poison.”

While it lasted, Kiley’s portrayal of the early acute effects of strychnine poisoning was fairly consistent with Christison’s observations. Although there can be tremendous variation, the onset of symptoms after ingesting even a fatal dose of strychnine (as little as five-10 milligrams) is about 15-30 minutes, with death ensuing after a few hours, from respiratory and then cardiac arrest. The ingestion of the lethal amounts in the Gunsmoke scene can result in more immediate gastric irritation and cramping that can appear within a minute or two.

Even though his accelerated onset of terminal symptoms were probably scripted just to keep the action going, I am going to give the “Man from La Mancha” (his best stage role) a medical B-plus for his fairly realistic, momentarily nail-biting depiction of an acutely “rat-poisoned” army scout.

On the other hand, I give Arness a “F” for his party crashing. I felt cheated out of the action that would have ensued after Bodine downed the real poison, a medical drama that would have really guaranteed the price of admission.

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