Water hemlock is said to be poisonous, and as luck would have it there was some growing outside the door of the house I was staying in that summer. I went to the library to find out more about it, unsure of what I was looking for. Here is what I found:
Water hemlock goes by many names, including cowbane, beaver poison, spotted parsley and Nebraska fern. The word hemlock itself means shore plant, a reference to its preference for boggy conditions. The Indians of North America called it musquash, for the muskrat, the little animal it frequently killed. One or two slices of the tuberous root, which resembles sweet potato, is enough to kill a man. A mere eight ounces can kill a horse. With its umbrels of white flowers, it looks like parsley, parsnip, wild carrot. It looks like wild fennel too, but it smells, not of licorice, but of mouse.
For a long time it was confused with poison hemlock, which the ancient Greeks used to execute malefactors humanely, most famously Socrates. One of its names, conium, comes from the Greek konas, meaning to whirl about, because its victims stumble like drunks. Socrates’s death, as reported by Plato, was quiet and painless, and left Socrates lucid into his final moments, when he reminded his friend Crito to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius in thanks for his peaceful departure. The signs of water hemlock poisoning, by contrast, are anything but peaceful, beginning with rapid, tetanic seizures and ending in respiratory paralysis and death. In its violent action it resembles strychnine, another deadly alkaloid.
Water hemlock, poison hemlock. Both are ubiquitous, both deadly, though very different in the death they produce. Two words in Plato, long misconstrued, suggested the more violent action of water hemlock in the case of Socrates. What was the truth about the great teacher’s death? Had it been more troubled than posterity liked to suppose?
In 1845, something happened which seemed to clear the matter up. The children of a Scottish tailor made him a sandwich from some wild parsley they found growing in a field. Duncan Gow was the tailor’s name, and he ate the sandwich gratefully because the family was poor and often foraged some of its food. Fifteen minutes later his legs began to numb, as Plato reports of Socrates. Socrates walked about for awhile until his legs grew heavy and he was invited to lie down. Duncan Gow tried to walk too, but when his legs became useless he fell down. The paralysis crept up his body as it had Socrates’, so that in two hours all of his limbs were affected, and in three his respiration began to fail. Three and a quarter hours after eating the sandwich, he was dead, having according to witnesses experienced exactly the same, slow, creeping but nevertheless painless death that Plato reports. With the confusion about that ancient event fully in mind, a doctor at the Edinboro hospital where Gow died removed his stomach. It proved upon examination to contain poison, not water, hemlock.
I thought about Duncan Gow all that summer. I thought of him in his many guises: poor Gow, tailor Gow, father Gow, and plain Duncan Gow, whose fate it was to unscramble the mystery of a great man’s death. He was an itinerant tailor, surely, too poor to own a shop in posh Edinboro. I saw him travelling from house to house with his wooden box of tools and his children, his only wealth. Perhaps he was a storyteller, like so many of the travelling tailors. Perhaps he sat on a rock by the side of the highway and told the children a story while they fed him the deadly sandwich.
Outside the door, the water hemlock lengthened, lifting its deceptive flowers and bringing into view its red-spotted stem, the red spots mistakenly called, I knew now, the blood of Socrates.
Michele Stepto lives in Connecticut, where she has taught literature and writing at Yale University for many years. In the summers, she teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont, which is where she first laid eyes on the beautiful water hemlock. “The Parsley Sandwich” is one of sixty-five brief stories written in as many days, one per day, in the summer of 2007. Some of the others have appeared in Mirror Dance Fantasy and Lacuna Journal. Her poems have appeared in Jewish Currents and online at Verse-Virtual and What Rough Beast. She is the translator, along with her son Gabriel, of Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World.
Top photo of Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata): Wikipedia Commons
Photos of Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) by Olha Solodenko