Ricin

Ricin has become a popular poison with would-be poisoners. (Wes Bausmith / Los Angeles Times )

In April, a 30-year-old man in Oklahoma was charged with soliciting the murder of his pregnant girlfriend. According to court documents, it was actually the fetus he wanted to kill, but if his girlfriend died as collateral damage, he was "OK with" that.

Authorities say he cooked up a toxic powder at home and loaded it into a vial. He then tried to recruit a friend to carry out his scheme, impressing him with the scary vial. The idea was that they'd put the powder on a pizza, and the friend would pose as a pizza deliveryman and hand over the poisoned pie.

Instead, the friend went to authorities, and another nefarious plot was thwarted.

Or at least another poorly thought-out ricin plot, for that's what the white powder of this story was.

Ricin has become a popular poison with would-be poisoners, including angry television actresses, vengeful martial arts instructors, romantic rivals and many others who all came to believe that a dusting of ricin was the answer to their problems.

It's enough to make you wonder: How did an excellent toxin once taken so seriously that it was considered a potential chemical warfare agent become instead the routine choice of unhappy dreamers and incompetent schemers?

The German scientist Peter Hermann Stillmark first isolated the poison from the seeds of castor bean plants (Ricinus communis) in 1888 and went on to publish enthusiastic reports of its cell-killing qualities. (Ricin is a cytotoxic compound; it kills cells by destroying their ability to synthesize protein.)

It didn't take long for this grisly potential to catch the attention of military authorities. During the chemical weaponry craze of World War I, the United States explored using ricin as a battlefield agent. Researchers suggested that it might be used to coat bullets, which would then handily carry the poison into the body.

Others suggested packing it into a chemical bomb and detonating a murderous dust cloud. But there were problems. Ricin had no antidote, and it was feared that if the wind changed, the cloud would instead be inhaled by U.S. troops. Moreover, the poison was unstable in heat, so there were worried that it would merely break down into a sticky mess on the bullets.

That's not to say that ricin isn't an efficient poison. It is. But as government researchers came to realize, it is most dangerous when directly injected into the bloodstream. In its purest form, a mere whisper of an injected dose — something comparable to a few grains of salt — can kill an adult. The poison is still dangerous when inhaled or swallowed — it can neatly rend the lining of the lungs or the gastrointestinal tract — but it doesn't necessarily swirl through the body in the same relentless way.

One of the most famous cases of murder by ricin involved a 1978 Soviet attempt to eliminate a Bulgarian dissident. At the time of his murder, the dissident in question, Georgi Markov, was working for the BBC in London. On a damp September evening, as he was waiting for a bus, a man stumbled against him, catching the edge of his umbrella against Markov's leg. He apologized, dropped the umbrella and hurried away. Within hours, Markov was ill, and three days later, he was dead. The resulting investigation found that the umbrella had been engineered by the KGB to fire a pinhead-sized ricin pellet on contact.

It was this case, suggests John Robertson, an expert on poisonous plants and curator of the website the Poison Garden, that started us on the path to today's ricin craze. "The idea of a KGB killer walking London's streets touched a chord," Robertson says.

Still, it wasn't until this century that what we might call ricin enthusiasm really took off. In 2003, a chemically creative U.S. citizen — still never caught — sent two letters containing ricin to the U.S. Department of Transportation and the White House, apparently in protest of new trucking regulations. Although no one was harmed, the recognition that any crank could apparently make and mail ricin led to new protective procedures at post offices.

Of course, homemade "ricin" is at best a dumbed-down version of the true poison. Although you can find so-called recipes online, more honest information can be found in a cranky post from Ask.com titled "The Myth About Learning to Make Ricin From the Internet." It's written by a chemist who explains that these are lousy recipes, capable, at best, of making poison that is most dangerous to the maker.

The post appears to have been inspired by a 2008 incident in Las Vegas in which an unemployed graphic designer — who thought it would be "exotic" to make ricin — ended up in the hospital after being rescued from his contaminated hotel room.

More recently, Robertson notes, the television series "Breaking Bad" made brewing up the poison look far too easy. "The writers were a long way from the truth about ricin," Robertson says. Still, at least one viewer apparently found the show inspirational: Prosecutors in Washington blamed "Breaking Bad" for inspiring a Georgetown University student who cooked up a batch of ricin in his dorm room this year.

Other recent cases introduced us to a cast of misfits. There was the former martial arts instructor accused of mailing ricin to public officials to frame an Elvis impersonator he particularly disliked. And the Texas television actress who sent ricin letters to public officials trying to frame her husband. And a frustrated lover from Pennsylvania who allegedly rubbed ricin into a scratch-and-sniff birthday card and sent it to his girlfriend's new boyfriend.

Robertson says there's actually a theory circulating that governments and security forces aren't entirely opposed to the ricin hype, because it "diverts the demented into something less harmful."

The idea that the government is directing would-be poisoners toward ricin is a bit farfetched. But it's such a wonderfully devious idea that perhaps we just should enjoy it; consider it just another part of one of the world's strangest poison stories.

Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, is the author of "The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York." deborahblum.com