A Thousand Steps

A Thousand Steps
A Thousand Steps by T. Jefferson Parker

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Royal Art of Poison by Eleanor Herman- Feature and Review


The story of poison is the story of power. For centuries, royal families have feared the gut-roiling, vomit-inducing agony of a little something added to their food or wine by an enemy. To avoid poison, they depended on tasters, unicorn horns, and antidotes tested on condemned prisoners. Servants licked the royal family’s spoons, tried on their underpants and tested their chamber pots.

Ironically, royals terrified of poison were unknowingly poisoning themselves daily with their cosmetics, medications, and filthy living conditions. Women wore makeup made with mercury and lead. Men rubbed turds on their bald spots. Physicians prescribed mercury enemas, arsenic skin cream, drinks of lead filings, and potions of human fat and skull, fresh from the executioner. The most gorgeous palaces were little better than filthy latrines. Gazing at gorgeous portraits of centuries past, we don’t see what lies beneath the royal robes and the stench of unwashed bodies; the lice feasting on private parts; and worms nesting in the intestines.

In The Royal Art of Poison, Eleanor Herman combines her unique access to royal archives with cutting-edge forensic discoveries to tell the true story of Europe’s glittering palaces: one of medical bafflement, poisonous cosmetics, ever-present excrement, festering natural illness, and, sometimes, murder.



The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most FoulThe Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul by Eleanor Herman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul by Eleanor Herman is a 2018 St. Martin’s Press publication.

This book is so interesting and is so well researched I can’t help but recommend it, especially for history lovers. However, mystery and true crime readers might also find this book fascinating, because the author relies on past and current forensics to prove if well publicized accusations of ‘death by poisoning’ rumors were true or false.

However, before you begin reading this book, if you have a weak stomach, proceed with caution. It’s a wonder civilization ever survived to this point considering the filth people lived in, even those who were powerful and wealthy. The subject matter is often truly disgusting. So, consider yourself warned.

Poisonings were greatly feared amongst the aristocrats, and perhaps with good reason. However, despite all the great pains they took to avoid being murdered, they were often unwittingly poisoning themselves, either by ingesting prescribed remedies from ill-informed physicians or applying cosmetics with high contents of mercury, lead, or arsenic to their skin.

Often a suspicious death, believed to have been hastened by poison turned out to be from a physical ailment which mimicked the symptoms of poisoning. It was interesting to see which people were murdered and which were poisoned by their own hand, and which ones died of an entirely different malady altogether.

Cleanliness and sterilization were scoffed at. Anyone suggesting there might be a connection between the filthy conditions of the streets, the water, or air and various illnesses or untimely deaths were laughing stocks, maybe even considered insane.

The forensics are fascinating, and the wealth of knowledge and the obvious amount of effort and work done here is impressive. The author, however, does not merely present the facts and lay out her verdict via modern day studies, and exhumations, but she also injects humor and wry sarcasm so that the book occasionally carries a lighter tone, which also works to prevent the book from being overly dry.

Some myths are debunked, some proven, while some things remain a mystery, but one thing is certain, this book has doused any fantasies I may have entertained about traveling back in time. The very thought now makes me shudder!

Overall, this is a very informative book, which will leave one feeling eternally grateful for the modern conveniences and the scientific and medical advances we enjoy today.

*However, you may want to check the ingredients in your face cream, since it is entirely possible it contains traces of urine- although they claim it is now synthetic. 😲😲






Eleanor Herman is the New York Times best-selling author of Sex with Kings and Sex with the Queen, non-fiction works on the love lives of European royals through the centuries;Mistress of the Vatican, the biography of a woman who ran the Catholic Church in the 17th century for her reputed lover, Pope Innocent; and King Peggy, the true story of a Washington, DC secretary who became a king of Ghana. In 2015 her first YA novel came out. Legacy of Kings, Blood of Gods and Royals is the first of four books on the adventures of Alexander the Great at sixteen. It has been optioned by the WB network for a TV series. She has appeared on the National Geographic Channel, The History Channel, and the American Heroes Channel to comment about historical matters.

Eleanor is so immersed in the past she is sometimes surprised to find herself in the present. She lives in McLean, VA with her husband, four rescue cats, and a dog, and sneaks out to the movies periodically, not to see the movie, but actually to eat the hot buttered popcorn.


  1. Great review, Julie. Now we have the science to dream up weird ingredients to cut corners - then kill us. Roundup?

    1. Thank you, Roland! Some of those same thoughts occurred to me while reading this book. However, if given the choice, I will still chose indoor plumbing, clean, sterile surgical instruments and hospitals over chamber pots and human waste piled so high people literally had to change residences. Can you imagine the stench? We still have a lot to learn, of course, and someday, someone will write a book about us, and how we willing continue to poison ourselves, mostly due to the greed of politicians who refuse to regulate products like roundup, and promote coal over renewable energy.


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