I'm Dead

Political Poisonings Through the Ages

by by Emily Gogolak & Kate Van Brocklin

illustration by by Robert Sandler

Yasser Arafat vomited during a meeting in Ramallah. His spokesman said he was coming down with the “flu,” but it soon proved to not be the 24-hour variety. In the following days, his condition kept deteriorating, and doctors were flown in from Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt to find a diagnosis. But they couldn’t.

By the end of the month, things were really bad, and Arafat was admitted to a French military hospital outside of Paris. He fell into a coma and never got out of it. On November 11, the 75-year-old Arafat was pronounced dead. Cause of death: hemorrhagic cerebeovascular accident (AKA stroke). But Arafat’s medical records were withheld by senior Palestinian officials and Mrs. Arafat refused an autopsy. The legend had died but rumors about his death were only beginning.

For the past eight years, the main rumor has been that Israel poisoned Arafat. Israel said this was ridiculous. There was no evidence. Until now.

This past July, Al Jazeera reported on an investigation carried out by the Institute of Radiation Physics at the University of Lausanne that found abnormally high traces of polonium on Arafat’s personal belongings. According to the report, the tests suggest that Arafat was poisoned.

The news sparked major hype. French authorities opened a murder inquiry into his death, and Arafat’s widow requested that her husband’s body be exhumed to test for polonium. She wanted to be “100 percent sure.” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas approved her request, and this week authorities began the process.

A big tarp went up on Monday around Arafat’s tomb at PLO headquarters in Ramallah and workers started digging. The details of the exhumation are being kept top secret, but a source speaking on condition of anonymity told the AFP on Tuesday, “Today they started removing concrete and stones from Arafat’s mausoleum and the work will last for almost 15 days. There are several phases.” First comes the removal of stone and concrete and the tomb’s iron framework until they reach the soil that covers the body. Arafat himself will not be removed until the arrival of the French prosecutors, Swiss experts, and Russian investigators on November 27.


Augustus, the founder of Rome and great-nephew of Julius Caesar, met his demise by figs on August 19, 14 AD while visiting the place of his father’s death in Nola, a town in southern Italy. Both Tacitus and Cassius Dio, two of his Roman consultants, wrote that Augustus’s wife Livia poisoned him with fresh figs, though this allegation remains unproven. Augustus’s famous last words were, “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.”


King John of England reigned over his country from April 6, 1199 until his death by peaches on October 18, 1216. While suffering from a severe case of dysentery, King John overindulged in a “surfeit of peaches,” which, according to several accounts, were unripe, poisoned, and killed him.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart suffered many illnesses throughout his life—smallpox, tonsillitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, typhoid fever, rheumatism, gum disease and a few others. The official record states that Mozart died on December 5, 1791 of “hitziges Frieselfieber” (“severe miliary fever,” referring to a rash that looks like millet seeds), a description that does not meet the criteria of any modern medical diagnosis. One theory is that Mozart died as a result of his hypochondria and his predilection to taking patent medicines containing antimony, a toxic chemical element most commonly used in lead-acid batteries.


Napoleon Bonaparte might have been tiny, but he was surely mighty. He might not have been mighty enough to withstand a dose of Arsenic, though after being defeated by the British in 1815, Bonaporte was sent to St. Helena, an island in the South Pacific. On his deathbed six years later, at the age of 52, he uttered his last words, “Head of Army!” An autopsy at that time called the culprit stomach cancer. Some French forensic scientists in 1961, however, begged to differ when they found traces of arsenic in the emperor’s hair. Given that if Napoleon had escaped St. Helena, he could have shaken up the balance of power in Europe, murder suspicions make sense-but how The Little Corporal, as he was known, would have been able to escape the island without being part merman doesn’t.


A lot of people hated Joseph Stalin, even some of his own friends. And they may have hated Uncle Joe enough to poison him. In 2003, 50 years after Stalin’s (supposed) death by a brain hemorrhage, an exhaustive investigation of a long off-limits report suggested otherwise. Relying on a secret account by Stalin’s doctors of his final days, an American and a Russian historian co-authored Stalin’s Last Crime, a 402-page book that claims joseph stalin may have been murdered during a dinner with four members of his Politburo. The poison was apparently warfarin, a tasteless and colorless blood thinner that, in high doses, is also used as a rat poison. The rationale? Politburo comrade-murderers were convinced that Stalin was going to take the USSR to war with the US. “And it scared them to death,” one of the co-authors told The New York Times. So they cut to the chase and killed him first.


Pope John Paul I spent the evening of Sept. 28, 1978 alone praying in his private chapel in the Apostolic Palace. After he finished, he went to his bedroom next door, and was found dead in his bed by a nun early the next morning. The Vatican claimed that the pope—who was elected to the Papacy just 33 days earlier—died of a heart attack. But this was definitely fishy, and we’re not talking about Fridays here. In the 2009 book, Murder in the Vatican, historian Lucien Gregoire claims that John Paul I was murdered out of fear kthat he would make big-time changes in the Vatican, including the ousting of a number of powerful Masonic cardinals and an investigation into shady dealings at the Vatican bank. Though no official cause of death was ever declared by medical professionals, many feel that John Paul I died of poisoning by Aqua Toffana—a tasteless, colorless liquid composed of arsenic, lead, and the poisonous plant belladonna.




The former President of Ukraine, Kremlin critic, and Russian spy viktor yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin during the 2004 election campaign. One year later, it was confirmed that his blood contained an alarmingly high level of dioxin—1,000 times the acceptable level. To add insult to injury, to this day Yushchenko’s face remains badly pockmarked because of the chemical.