Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Poison: the preferred weapon of women, cravens and eunuchs

A couple of weeks ago I was watching something - can't remember what - and I heard someone casually mention that someone who had been poisoned was likely killed by a woman.  It's a trope I've heard before (both Sherlock Holmes and Ned Stark both assert this), but for some reason I'd never questioned it.  Anyway, I put it on my mental list of "things to google" before promptly forgetting about it until I saw this Wired magazine post.

In it, Deborah Blum (author of the Poisoner's Handbook) asserts that homicide by poison is much more likely to be committed by a man (60.5%) than by a woman (39.5%), and that therefore the idea that poison was a woman's weapon was false.  Her numbers come from this report...snapshot here:

Weapon          Male         Women
Gun homicide   92.1%      7.9%
Arson              78.8          21.2
Poison             60.5          39.5

So women are less likely than men to poison, but they are better represented in that group than the two others in the report.  But I got curious....what does this mean in terms of absolute rates?  From the way the data's presented, it does appear that if a woman murders, there's a good chance she used poison....but is this true?

I took a look at the FBI crime database to see what the absolute numbers were.  The numbers above are for the years 1980-2008, and this report is for 2006-2010, but my guess is the order of magnitude holds.  

For 2006-2010, there were 47,856 gun homicides, 505 fire/arson, and 49 poisonings.  So despite the lower percentage, women are still almost 200 times more likely to kill using a firearm than poison*.  So basically, there is no base rate fallacy going on here.  If you hear someone was poisoned, it's more likely a male did it (at least for the years listed), and if you hear a women killed someone, poison was not her most likely method.  

Of course poison may have fallen out of fashion a bit, so this trope could have been true in Sherlock Holmes' day, and all bets are off in the fictional world of Game of Thrones.  In case you're curious, the FBI does not appear to keep data on crimes committed by eunuchs, so I can't verify any of that.

*This may be skewed, as it is far more likely that some poisonings got missed by coroners than gunshots...but I doubt the missed cases would make up much of the difference. 


  1. Agatha Christie liked to work poison deaths into her stories, too.

  2. In literature, different murders and different deaths have a different quality. CS Lewis wrote that the feelings surrounding being enclosed underground in a cave (or pagan temple) is different from the feeling of death by exposure on the moon when one did not make it back in time before the airlock closed.

    So too with gun deaths and poison - and even poison by radioactive material on the tip of an umbrella or being bit by a snake feels literarily different from poisoning the soup.

    BTW, it has been my contention that murder mysteries are popular in inverse proportion to the number of actual murders in the country or region.

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  4. This kinda proven the point that woman can use poison more skillfully than men can, i mean lighter frame, sharper mental response,they are better thinkers as well, i mean just look at it statistically, in relative woman kill less people in general, other wise men will prefer is more sure skill way that outs themself to risk, yes in modern days this does not applies to everyone, but majority still stands true to their nature.

  5. Sherlock Holmes is also a fictional character....

  6. I believe you were watching Game of Thrones... season 1 episode 4