In Brief

In Lotus Eaters, Hades, and Ithaca Bloom thinks of his father's death in 1886 from aconite poisoning. In Circe, as he reflects on "Patriotism, sorrow for the dead, music," and paternity (the “future of the race”), he mentally reenacts his father’s suicide, imagining the drawn blinds of the hotel room in Ennis, a suicide letter, and the soft breaths before asphyxiation. He imagines that Rudolph committed suicide by ingesting a “few pastilles of aconite.” Pastilles are small candies or lozenges often used to deliver doses of medicine. Aconite is a poisonous plant of the buttercup family, but it was used medicinally as an herbal remedy for a wide-range of symptoms including fever, constipation, anxiety, and sciatica.

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According to the Encyclopedia Britannica of Joyce’s time, aconite is in some varieties one of the deadliest substances on Earth, and can be lethal with minimal exposure. According to the Review of Natural Products, as little as 2 mg of pure aconite or 1 g of the plant may cause death from paralysis of the respiratory center or heart. When used medicinally, aconite is administered with extreme caution. Ithaca says that Rudolph was being treated by "aconite, resorted to by increasing doses of grains and scruples as a palliative of recrudescent neuralgia." The episode also suggests that the fatal dose came in the form of a lotion, not lozenges: Rudolph has died "in consequence of an overdose of monkshood (aconite) selfadministered in the form of a neuralgic liniment composed of 2 parts of aconite liniment to 1 of chloroform liniment."

Aconite is known by many names, including wolfsbane, devil’s hood, queen of poisons, monkshood, and women’s bane. It has mythical connections to Hercules, Medea and Circe, among others, but is particularly famed for being a lovers’ poison. In many stories women and men regularly ingest aconite in order to kill their lovers instantly, with a single loving touch. It was sometimes called thelyphonon, meaning “women’s bane” or “women murdering” (Copley 425). The influential Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder thought that women were more susceptible to the poison, stating that “if the sexual parts are but touched by it” the female will “not survive a single day” (trans. John Bostock and Henry T. Riley, 1855). Similarly, English botanist John Parkinson, in his Theatrum Botanicum: The Theater of Plants (1640), says it “speedily killeth even within a day” if “put into the secret parts of females” (318).

In an essay titled “The M’Intosh Murder Mystery,” literary critic John Gordon speculates that because Rudolph intermittently ingested aconite for his sciatica pain, and assumedly had sexual relations with his wife near the time of at least one of those ingestions, he subsequently developed a guilty suspicion that he poisoned his own wife through sexual contact with a toxin particularly deadly to women. Perhaps while Leopold Bloom reflects on “poor papa” and “the love that kills” in Hades, he unintentionally mimics the guilty conscience of his dead father, who believed he caused his wife’s death.

Gordon cites the toxic link between the mysterious MacIntosh man and Rudolph Bloom as yet another example of their similarity by referring to the MacIntosh man’s belief (indicated in Oxen of the Sun) that he had “a deposit of lead in his penis." Lead, like aconite, is a deadly poison, and if ingested can cause insanity. Gordon observes that the MacIntosh man and Rudolph are both mourning widowers. Maybe the MacIntosh man, like Rudolph, felt that his poisoned penis caused the death of the woman whom Oxen of the Sun calls his “maiden all forlorn.” Perhaps, as Gordon suggests, the similarities between the MacIntosh man and Rudolph Bloom are not coincidence, but the anonymous wandering figure of the MacIntosh man is actually an unrecognizable, ghostly Rudolph Bloom.

Morgan Lawrence 2014
Tin of Allenbury's Throat Pastilles, produced ca. 1920-1940 by Allen & Hanburys Ltd., a British pharmaceutical firm. These pastilles contain cocaine, like aconite a plant-derived "Poison" meant to be used under medical supervision. Source:
St. Jacob's Oil, a pain-relieving liniment sold in the United States by A. Vogeler & Co., starting ca. 1880. The oil contained turpentine, camphor, ether, alcohol, carbolic acid, capsicum (to warm the skin), chloroform, and aconite (.0132%). Source: