25 Apr 2017

Bargain Hunt for Henbane

Bruce Langridge

I’ve just pieced together a link between the murderer Dr Crippen and our Apothecary’s Hall

We had BBC1’s Bargain Hunt filming at our Antiques Fair at the weekend and they wanted a filler piece about medicinal plants.

Everyone loves a good poisoning story so, with the help of our Apothecary guru Bob Edwards, I followed the trail of henbane Hyoscyamus niger, the plant that the murderer Dr Crippen used to poison his wife in Edwardian London.

First, Bob showed me the drug run drawer (labelled Hyoscy: Fol) that once held dried henbane leaves – inside it has a packet of Kwells, a sea sickness drug that contains the chemical hyocine which is derived from henbane.

He then brought out a green bottle marked Hyoscyam, a reference to the chemical hyoscyamine in the plant that can either be used medicinally for good or, in the case of Crippen, to sedate then kill his wife. The bottle was ribbed to let Edwardians know that it contains poison – a handy thing to feel in the dead of night when you’re reaching out for an unribbed bottle of milk of magnesia, perhaps, so that that you don’t sip from the wrong bottle.

On the counter is a large prescription book, full of handwritten records of prescriptions given out by an apothecary. And what did we find being dispensed to a Miss Olive Picketts in September 1918? A concoction including morphine, camphor, peppermint and henbane – the poor girl (or woman) must have been in distress and pain. Hopefully, she listened carefully to the apothecary and didn’t poison herself.

Medieval witches were, it is rumoured, not so cautious. A side effect of henbane poisoning is that you feel like you’re flying. Could this behind the story of flying on broomsticks?

So what does henbane look like? Luckily, in the end room of the Apothecary’s Hall, I found a beautifully-made depiction of henbane created by Bernice Williams, part of a wonderful exhibition of medicinal plants by the Garden’s Stitching B group.

This came in very handy when, on Saturday, I told the story of Dr Crippen and henbane to Bargain Hunt presenter Charlie Ross and his camera crew. I’m not sure when the show is being broadcast but it will be sometime this summer.  It will also feature my colleague Carly Green talking about Victorian objects dug up in our Double Walled Garden during its restoration 15 years ago.  Carly later told me that she has a henbane coming into flower in our polytunnels. Doh! I should have asked.