Fun Fact: What Remedy Saved a Man From Execution in the 16th Century?
In the 16th century, it was quite easy to obtain poison, as apothecaries were in the business of making customers happy and the opportunity to poison people was one such source of joy.
Question: What remedy saved a man from execution in the 16th Century?
Answer: Terra sigillata
In the 16th century, it was quite easy to obtain poison, as apothecaries were in the business of making customers happy and the opportunity to poison people was one such source of joy. In particular, it was common for royals to be targets of poisonings, making royals (accurately) concerned regarding the possibility of such unpleasantness occurring in their future.
In 1581, a prisoner in the town of Hohenlohe, Germany named Wendel Thumblardt was particularly aware of the concern among royals and decided to seize upon this knowledge with a plan, as he was to be imminently hanged.
His plan was hatched after coming across a traveling physician named Andreas Berthold who had recently arrived in town with a remedy he called terra sigillata, or sealed earth. Berthold claimed these tablets worked as a panacea for most anything that may ail a patient, but that they were specifically helpful as an antidote to poison.
Thumblardt proposed a deal with the prince of the region at the time, Wolfgang II. Thumblardt explained that he would agree to be poisoned with “the most deadly poison that might be devised,” and following this poisoning, he would consume terra sigillata to test its efficacy. If the tablets didn’t work, he would die as planned, and if they did, he would walk away a free man while the prince was prepared for any future poisonings that may arrive.
Wolfgang II agreed to the deal and Thumblardt was pulled from prison to fulfill his bargain. Thumblardt was given a fluid dram and a half of “mercury sublimate, mingled with the conserve of roses.” This amount was 3 times the dose necessary to kill someone, although it was also thoughtfully mixed with roses in order to make the poison go down a bit easier.
Thumblardt was then given some wine mixed with 4 grams of Berthold’s terra sigillata tablets. If the tablets didn’t work, Thumblardt would die a very painful death of critical renal damage mixed with the corrosion of his mucous membranes and stomach lining.
Although “the poison did extremely torment and vexe him,” Thumblardt survived. Wolfgang II released the prisoner into the care of his parents and then proceeded to buy a lifetime supply of terra sigillata from Berthold.
Although the tablets did not appear to be the general panacea that Berthold had claimed, before Berthold left the town of Hohenlohe, Prince Wolfgang II gave the traveling salesman a letter with his sealed stamp of approval so that Berthold could bring the benefits of these tablets to other royals living in fear of poisonings on the horizon.
Kang L, Pedersen N. Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. New York, NY: Workman Publishing; 2017.