The Perils of Mushrooms

The mushroom is a gift to the murder fiction writer. Mysterious, accessible... it’s perfect! Quite tasty on a pizza also, which a dagger tends not to be. Here are our top murderous mushroom facts...

Ding dong merrily on high (as a kite)

The Amanita muscaria is the red mushroom with the white spots that appears in fairy tales. It’s lethal if eaten raw (vomiting, bloody diarrhoea, then a coma) and cooking it releases muscimol, a hallucinogen. Once it’s cooked the remaining liquid is sometimes used as a ‘holiday drink’ in Russia and Scandinavia, and the images of Father Christmas zooming along behind a flying reindeer are attributed to its effects.

Two Amanita muscaria (fly agaric) toadstools

Doff your death cap

Roman emperor Claudius is believed to have been murdered with a death cap mushroom but there is academic argument over whether or not his symptoms match.

Curse of the mummy’s tomb

One theory proposes that the death that befell Lord Caernarvon, who opened Tutankhamun’s tomb, was caused by a deadly fungus whose spores were inhaled.

The deadliest of them all

The most deadly mushroom is amanita phalloides, or the death cap. Eating half its top, about 30g, can kill you – and the symptoms aren’t immediate, so by the time you realise, it’s all over. The death cap is responsible for the majority of mushroom poisoning fatalities in the UK.

The death cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides)

Pick your own

On average one-third of the calls received by the Health Protection Agency’s National Poisons Information Service are from NHS staff treating people who have eaten mushrooms they have picked themselves.

Fungus fiction

Agatha Christie was a big fan of the mushroom death. Florrie Gibbs in Agatha Christie’s Murder is Easy supposedly died of poisoned mushrooms that she picked herself. In The 4.15 from Paddington, Lucy Eylesbarrow creates a dish with mushrooms that is blamed for the entire household becoming ill. By the Pricking of my Thumbs has a poisoned mushroom stew and the Secret of Chimneys has a poisoned sage and mushroom soup. Basically, if a whodunnit fan offers to cook, don’t let them.

Deep breath

Fungal spores are so lightweight and compact that a single bracket fungus can release thirty billion of them a day. The air we breathe is thick with spores. In 1994, some Wisconsin teenagers snorted puffball spores in the hope of hallucinating. The spores promptly lodged in their lungs and they ended up in hospital.

The Famous French fungus furore

In 1918 a Frenchman, AM Girard, with either his wife or mistress, would make friends with other couples or individuals of around the same age. He’d then take out an insurance policy as the person, or as the couple with his wife or mistress, naming himself as the beneficiary. Once the policy was taken out, the couple was then invited to dinner where they were poisoned with deat hcaps. He was caught when a physician questioned why a healthy young woman would suddenly die and performed an autopsy. Girard was sentenced to death, but died of TB before he could be executed, and his wife and mistress were sentenced to life imprisonment.

There we are! Everything you ever wanted to... actually no, everything that’s going to put you off eating a mushroom ever again. Still. It was fun (gi).

More mushroom madness...