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How ‘Unicorn Horns’ Became the Poison Antidote of Choice for Paranoid Royals

April 16, 2019 in History

By Hadley Meares

Elizabeth I, for one, was known to drink from a unicorn horn cup, believing that if poison touched it, it would explode.

Being a king or queen has always been a treacherous job. Between homicidal enemies, duplicitous courtiers and back-stabbing family members, royals had every reason to constantly fear for their lives. And there was one form of assassination that particularly terrified them: silent, invisible poison.

For centuries before the age of Enlightenment, paranoid royals sought protection in superstition, alchemy and quackery. They paid enormous sums—sometimes a proverbial king’s ransom—for magical objects they believed would neutralize, expose or repel poison. The most coveted of those? The mythical “unicorn horn,” also known as an alicorn.

“Before chemistry was a thing, people believed that many objects and foodstuffs had magical ‘virtues’ or properties,” says Eleanor Herman, author of the . After purchasing a particularly costly horn, James tried it out by giving poison to a servant, followed by an antidote made of powdered unicorn horn. When the servant died, James believed he had been hoodwinked.

An experiment involving the use of unicorn horns against poison.

The most dangerous poisons were hiding in plain sight.

Horns weren’t the only antidotes royals employed against the dreaded poison. Some used stones etched with scorpions. Others placed gems such as emeralds and amethysts in their goblets. Still others sought protection from powders crushed from bezoar stones (hairballs and other undigestible solid masses pulled from animal stomachs) or toadstones (mythological gems embedded in toad’s foreheads that were actually fossilized teeth of extinct fish).

To stave off poisoning attempts, some royals took a daily antidote, or theriac, to build immunity. Theriac ingredients included common foodstuffs like parsley, carrots, black pepper, cloves, wine and honey, says Herman. Others ingested sulfur and garlic, now known to neutralize arsenic in the bloodstream. And, she added, “Some theriacs included real poison such as arsenic in minute amounts to get the body used to it slowly, so that a single large dose might not prove fatal.”

What’s ironic in all this is that royals—along with the general population—poisoned themselves daily in countless ways. Elizabeth I probably hastened her death by her constant use of lead-based white face paint; in her last year, she showed many signs of lead poisoning. Cosmetics and medications contained large amounts of mercury, lead, arsenic, animal and human feces and urine, and dead body parts, says Herman.

And that’s not counting all the banal, …read more


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