Castor oil plant, Ricinus communis, via khianti/Flickr
James Everett Dutschke of Mississippi was charged by the FBI with sending poisonous letters to President Obama and other public officials. The indictment—after charging Dutschke with developing, producing and stockpiling the poison, ricin—says that he mailed the letters to frame his former coworker, Paul Kevin Curtis. You might remember Curtis as the Elvis impersonator who was first linked to the crime back in April.
Mailing ricin to implicate your former coworker makes a lot more sense than doing it to actually harm the president, who definitely doesn’t open his own mail. But what’s the appeal of ricin itself? And what danger were the postal workers and mailroom clerks at the White House exposed to? What is ricin anyway?
Castor beans, via coshipi/Flickr
Ricin is a naturally occurring poison, found in the “mash” leftover from harvesting the castor oil from the castor bean. Chewing castor beans themselves can release the poison, but with some chemical treatment, ricin can be extracted in a concentrated and malevolent form.
It can be inhaled as a poisonous powder or slipped into food or drink, but isn’t likely to be absorbed through normal, healthy skin. Still, ricin is extremely toxic, "something like 1,000 times more toxic than cyanide,” as Peter Carrington, a toxic plant specialist at Michigan State University, put it.
Once eaten, injected or inhaled, ricin disrupts the body on a cellular level, preventing the cells from making the protein they need. Because of this, researchers are trying to find a way to use ricin to fight cancer. Getting ricin in you and getting healthier as a result would certainly be a dramatic change from what typically happens now.
If ricin is inhaled, the victim would likely start to have chest pain and trouble breathing a few hours after exposure, as the lungs fill with fluid, culminating in a drop in blood pressure and fatal respiratory failure. If eaten, ricin causes vomiting and diarrhea, which become bloody and might lead to seizures until the kidneys, liver or spleen gives out and within several days the person is dead.
And worst of all, there isn’t an approved antidote yet. In short, unpleasant doesn’t begin to describe it. Don’t ricin anyone, guys.
Back in 1978, though, ricin was utilized via means even less likely seeming than a postal poisoning: an assassination with an umbrella.
Screenshot from the PBS re-creation
The Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov left his homeland for London in 1969 and was working as a journalist for the BBC. Markov used this platform to become an out-spoken critic of Bulgaria’s communist regime.
While crossing the Waterloo Bridge to get to his BBC office in 1978, Markov felt a jab in the leg. According to the Daily Mail, Markov turned to see man pick up an umbrella, apologize in a foreign accent, then hail a cab and disappear.
Markov went to work, noticing only a small pimple-like mark on his leg, but within a few hours he fell ill with a high fever. He went to the hospital and died three days later.
The autopsy found a pinheaded-sized metal pellet, laced with ricin in the writer’s calf. Despite the investigation that followed, the killer was never caught, but following the collapse of the Iron Curtain, a Russian-British double agent said that the KGB provided the poison and the umbrella, while a Bulgarian agent delivered the fatal prick.
The FBI hasn’t revealed details about the ricin in the letters, but a Senate official said that it wasn’t “weaponized,” which, according to the Guardian, means that it wasn’t in an easily ingested form. Maybe Dutschke was just looking to get Curtis in trouble without actually harming anyone else. Maybe he’s innocent of the charges and someone else who doesn’t understand how the postal system works really was going after public officials. The only thing we do know is that while ricin is assuredly deadly, it's not advisable to try to use it to kill the president.