literary history / memoir
A compelling brew of memoir, true crime, botany and psychological investigation, The Poison Principle is a fascinating family history as well as a toxicology almanac. Gail Bell’s grandfather William Macbeth was said to have poisoned two of his sons with strychnine, and this horrible secret was family lore. A travelling patent-medicine salesman, the sharply dressed Macbeth toured small country towns posing as a man of medicine-cum-miracle worker, dazzling Bell’s grandmother into marriage on the way. But the family’ s fortunes soured, two little boys were lost and he died estranged from them all. What could have led a man to kill two of his children?
The author’s occupation as a chemist is an accidental connection with her grandfather, who she knew little about as a child. A few accoutrements with an alchemical whiff about them – a wooden treasure chest full of cures and curses, a monogrammed handkerchief case, and a bitter tale of regret. Fascinated with poisons from a young age, her knowledge of arcane medicines and healing plants as well as murder cases and poisonings in literature like Madame Bovary, make this book a really interesting one. As well as case histories and true crime cuttings, Gail Bell’s reflections on the idea of poisoning within caregiving and the connection with the feminine are part of a considered, consuming and elegant memoir.