Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison” as Want to Read:
The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison

3.82  ·  Rating details ·  407 ratings  ·  53 reviews
Was Napoleon killed by the arsenic in his wallpaper? How did Rasputin survive cyanide poisoning? Which chemicals in our environment pose the biggest threat to our health today? With The Elements of Murder, John Emsley answers these questions and offers a fascinating account of five of the most toxic elements--arsenic, antimony, lead, mercury, and thallium--describing their ...more
Paperback, 418 pages
Published September 1st 2006 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published 2005)
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The Elements of Murder, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about The Elements of Murder

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
3.82  · 
Rating details
 ·  407 ratings  ·  53 reviews

Sort order
Apr 10, 2018 added it

Went into this expecting to be told the history of poisons (where they came from, how they were used, invented?, comparison to today's poisons? anything?!?!) Instead what I got was a book filled with famous incidents where said poison was used over and over again....Not to mention the author only included incidents that occurred in England and America....Other countries where barely mentioned....

I don't have time to put myself in misery.
Aug 24, 2008 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I was expecting this to be a true crime book, and there are certainly aspects of that in the book, but really it's more than that. It's a scholarly look at several elements (mercury, antimony, lead, arsenic, and thallium) and their negative effects on the generations that either knowingly or unknowingly encountered them.

Emsley really did his research, this book overflows with details - both historical and technical. He seems like both a chemist and a historian, but unfortunately not a story tel
Katherine Addison
This is more chemistry than I've thought about since tenth grade.

The Elements of Murder is a much more scientifically in-depth book than Poison: An Illustrated History. In fact, I think it's rather misnamed. It's a history of the heavy metals arsenic, antimony, thallium, lead, and mercury; the uses human societies have put them to; and the (frequently horrifying) consequences thereof. Minamata Bay, anyone? And then it is also a history of the use of these heavy metals for murder. He discusses th
Mar 20, 2018 rated it liked it
This is a very weird book by someone who knows a lot of basic chemistry and BASICALLY NOTHING about how humans work. (And only some things about how sentences work. What happened to the editor on this, I dread to think.) I did finish it, because some of the facts were genuinely interesting, and I'd recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about exciting ways the world can kill you, but it's... not good.
Aug 12, 2008 rated it really liked it
This book is unique and very worthwhile to read! I would count it as a 'living book' about chemistry. Living because while it explains the chemistry behind many elements known now to be poisonous, it is told not from a dry technical perspective but within the context of people that were affected by living with medical treatments that were actually poisonous dosing and other situations where they came in contact with these various elements.

Each element is explained from a chemical structure pers
A.L. Butcher
This is not your run of the mill true crime book, it’s a good deal more – with scientific analysis of the poisonous elements and interesting chapters on other uses. Each element only has one or two murder cases discussed in detail, and the rest comprises of more scientific information, such as a particular element’s place in the natural world, whether we need it to survive and medical or industrial uses. There are cases discussed dealing with accidental imbibing, including historical hypotheses ...more
Dec 07, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
A very interesting book -- I mean, where else could I have ever learned about the guy who poisoned the Coke of his noisy neighbors with thallium? The breadth of the book was perfect for the sort of scope the author wanted to achieve, trying to reach the academically competent, especially those with a knowledge of chemistry. Tackling the biggest names in the history of poison, Emsley makes a valiant effort at balancing chemical information with human interest stories. My problems with the book ar ...more
Dec 19, 2007 rated it liked it
Each section focuses on a specific element/poison. Emsley discusses its place in history, how it affects the human body & describes famous cases of its use. He avoids getting overly-scientific, providing additional information in an appendix; and is very in-depth in the historical overview of each element so far.

This book has confirmed some info I already knew ("mad as a hatter" = mercury poisoning) as well as provided new insights (arsenic poisoning from green dye in wallpaper in Victorian
Dec 31, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2015, 2016
Reading this made Ryan nervous!
Oct 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
He was 32-years-old but had gone grey, which he jokingly said was due to quicksilver. Although there is no connection between the two, there is a link between the body burden of several metals and their level in hair. Mercury, lead, arsenic, and antimony, are particularly attracted to the sulphur atoms in the keratin of hair and so it is possible by the analysis of a strand of hair to show whether that person had been exposed to a large dose of these toxic metals. Newton’s alchemical experiments ...more
Colin Murtagh
This was, it has to be said, a bit of a struggle. It's advertised as the elements used as poisons, and it does sort of do that.
It starts off with a brief lesson on early chemistry, or alchemy as it was then, it’s from there onwards that it starts to get bogged down. It has to be said though that almost half the book is taken up with two elements, Arsenic and Mercury. That's one of my main issues. There's a lot of virtually identical stories about particular poisoning cases, which could easily h
Katie Bee
Aug 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018-books-read
This isn't as solely focused on murder as I expected it to be - while there are certainly murders by poisons *involved*, this is more of a science book than a true crime book. Not that is really a bad thing! It works well and learning about accidental poisonings from poisonous elements, as well as deliberate poisonings, was interesting.
Katie Anne
Aug 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
Fascinating look into the ways people have use different elements to poison others or have accidentally gotten sick. The author does an all right job at combining both science and stories. But the style is a little formal and I wish to have any more stories and a little less science. If you want to learn a little bit more about the elements and how they impact the body, then this book is for you.
Luis Brudna
Jun 04, 2017 rated it really liked it
Gostei bastante do foco nos elementos químicos tóxicos e perigosos. Pena que algumas histórias de assassinatos são bastante arrastadas e com muitos detalhes para quem está mais interessado na química.
Feb 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
Excellent history of poisons written for the layperson, similar to the Poisoner's Handbook but with a narrower focus solely on elemental poisons. Some additional information is referred to in the Glossary, but the references aren't as annoying as the ones in Vanity, Vitality, and Virility because they're much smaller, not bolded, and much less frequent. Emsley is a British author, so most of the monetary amounts are in pounds sterling. Aside from that nuance, this was a great easy read with lots ...more
Dec 27, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This is a terrific book. It's entertaining and easy to read. Elmsley manages to convey scientific information without ever getting difficult. I read this years ago and I'm still telling people about it.
Dec 28, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, science, nf
A history of murders committed with elemental poisons - Mercury, Arsenic, Lead, etc, as well as poisoning deaths that might have been murders or are just due to elements - the wonders of arsenic leeching out of Victorian wallpapers, etc. The facts were fascinating (even the parts that just descibed the elements & their effects on humans) although the writing isn't perfect. Fun to read.

As in his other books, Emsley could've used a good editor and a sense of humility. He states conclusions pre
This might be called "Elements of Murder: a History of Metal Poison," for those are the only kinds of poisons the author is concerned with. He goes in-depth about mercury, lead, antimony, arsenic and thallium, and pays lip service to other elemental poisons.

Contrary to what the title would have you believe, this is not a true crime book but rather, simply, a history of poison -- no matter how it was delivered and why. The author, a chemist, explains the uses and abuses of the various poisons thr
Seobin  Baeg
It was a very chemistry-related read( obviously). Though the book provided a very interesting read, I was expecting a somewhat more wider ranges of poisons including naturally occurring poisons from snakes or certain organisms. However, that was my fault; I failed to register that the "elements" in the title was not of definition for basics, but rather was the scientific term.

It was certainly not a disappointing read however, since the book explored( in depth) of the history and the scandals re
Sep 18, 2012 rated it it was ok
This book is a little hard to review, while I found it interesting at several points I found it reading too much like a dictionary at other points. Emsley shines when he tells stories of the ways in which these substances were used to poison, knowingly or unknowingly, people from all social strata from Popes to servants and the ways in which we found out about it. However the book lacked any elements that tied together the disparate chapters on different substances and this made the transitions ...more
Feb 17, 2009 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
Very interesting information about the various poisonous elements (arsenic, thallium) and how they have been employed for nefarious purposes, however the writing style was pedantic and uninteresting, not to mention in need of a good editor. As a chemist I appreciated the technical knowledge of the author, but as a reader it was almost painful to get through. Typos and confusingly constructed sentences abound and a good flow of concepts is absent, almost as if the author was writing a poorly plan ...more
Feb 25, 2013 rated it it was amazing
A very interesting book from start to finish, including the lovely cover work, which so convinced my Mother that she thought I'd torn her book.

A very thorough explanation is given of the uses of these poisonous elements, why they're poisonous, what damage they do and what remedies can be used against them. In the section on each poison there is also at least one discription of a case where it has been used to poison people, the process that the murderer went through and how they were caught.

I al
Jilly Gagnon
Mar 10, 2010 rated it really liked it
While I definitely enjoyed this book, I'd say the jacket copy is a bit misleading - while the science involved is never incomprehensible, it is definitely of great interest to the author, and he spends at least one of the few chapters assigned to each element talking about things like how a chemical methylates, or changes forms when coming into contact with X, or what-have-you.

At times, a bit more textbook than the fun pulp read I expected.

Interesting nonetheless, and if you are capable of legi
Aug 28, 2010 rated it liked it
this read a lot more like a book for science class than i had hoped. i wanted more murder and less elements but it was still an interesting read. it was fun to learn about the history of alchemy and just how far some people are willing to go to murder. also, interesting to learn about all of the "bad" elements that exist in our bodies and in our environment in general/naturally. a good read if you like science and history.
Jan 07, 2008 rated it really liked it
a long series of sometimes ironic, often chatty tales of the use of metals as poisons throughout history. from Napoleon and Mozart up to Castro and Saddam, you might be surprised at what you find. but i do admit to being "in science" and finding metals really interesting, which helps to get through this long book. Emsley's non-fiction works on elements are really good too, if you're in to that kind of goat.
Fernando del Alamo
Aug 20, 2013 rated it really liked it
Se trata de una historia de los venenos y de cómo han sido utilizados en la hstoria. Me ha gustado más que el libro "Historia del veneno" de Adela Muñoz Páez, pues hace más hincapié en los casos de envenenamiento, los productos utilizados y cómo afectan al cuerpo.

Ojo porque es un libro largo y el tema al final se hace un tanto pesado. Uno dice ¡basta ya de envenenamientos!

Para los químicos, biólogos o médicos debería ser una delicia.
Sep 09, 2008 rated it did not like it
Recommended to M by: NPR
Each section covers a chemical element. First Emsley explains how it interacts with the body, and then he recounts various murders from history using the element. Ironically, I believe the anecdotes were included to make the book more appealing, but I was often bored by them. I'd skip ahead to the next section on the chemistry and biology of the element and ignore the anecdotes. In the end, the book was too long and too uneven so I gave myself permission to stop reading it.
Feb 29, 2016 added it
DNF. More like 'could not finish' because Emsley is a great writer in the same way Amy Stewart is a great writer, but I just cannot handle it (I had to quit Stewart's Wicked Plants after several attempts, too). I'm a wuss, I guess? All these descriptions of horrible death by poisoning have me crawling out of my skin. So, if you loved Wicked Plants and want to read about poisonous substances, this is the book for you.
Jan 28, 2011 rated it liked it
Fascinating book, though it can get bogged down with numbers and quantities but the historical stories and anecdotes are amazing. it does become a bit a heavy read at times and quite challenging to read all in one go.
John Emsley certainly knows his subject and is his passion shows through. This is one to dip in to in between other lighter reading but if approached like that its brilliant.
Scarlett Pulsipher
Sep 04, 2015 rated it really liked it
Incredibly informative and fascinating read. I have read about similar subjects before, but still found new information in this book. It does however from time to time share irrelevant details, and the ending was rather abrupt; there was no summimg up of the book or take-away at the end. Nonetheless it has a space on my bookshelf and I would recommend it to history and chemistry buffs alike.
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »
  • 1888: London Murders in the Year of the Ripper
  • The Magnificent Spilsbury and the case of the Brides in the Bath
  • Poisons: From Hemlock to Botox to the Killer Bean of Calabar
  • Poison: An Illustrated History
  • London: A Life in Maps
  • The Great Starvation Experiment: The Heroic Men Who Starved so That Millions Could Live
  • The Maul and the Pear Tree
  • The World's Most Bizarre Murders: True Stories That Will Shock and Amaze You
  • The London Monster: A Sanguinary Tale
  • The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime
  • The Genie in the Bottle: 67 All-New Commentaries on the Fascinating Chemistry of Everyday Life
  • Erased: Missing Women, Murdered Wives
  • Scotland Yard's First Cases
  • Children Who Kill: Profiles of Pre-Teen and Teenage Killers
  • Elements of Chemistry
  • Mendeleyev's Dream
  • Undying Love: The True Story Of A Passion That Defied Death
  • In the Name of Science: A History of Secret Programs, Medical Research, and Human Experimentation
Popular science writer and chemist