In Brief

In Lotus Eaters, Hades, and Ithaca Bloom thinks of his father's death in 1886 from aconite poisoning. In Circe he mentally reenacts the suicide by imagining himself ingesting a “few pastilles of aconite,” drawing the blinds of the hotel room in Ennis, writing a letter to his son, and taking some soft breaths before asphyxiation.  Pastilles are small lozenges 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. The novel suggests not only that Rudolph deliberately used it to kill himself, but that he may also have inadvertently killed his wife through contact with the substance.

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Aconite is known by many names, including wolfsbane, devil’s hood, queen of poisons, monkshood, and (most interestingly) women’s bane. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica of Joyce’s time, in some varieties it is one of the deadliest substances on earth. 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."

In an essay titled “The M’Intosh Murder Mystery,” Journal of Modern Literature 29 (2005): 94-101, the last of three published essays on the man in the macintosh, literary critic John Gordon speculates that aconite may have caused not only Rudolph's death but also that of his wife Ellen. Gordon suggests that since Rudolph intermittently ingested aconite for his sciatica pain, and may have had sexual relations with his wife while doing so, he perhaps poisoned her accidentally, bringing terrible grief and guilt on himself.

Aconite 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. According to a 1944 article by Alfred Lewin Copley and Helen Boswell in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, It was sometimes called thelyphonon, meaning “women’s bane” or “women murdering.” 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).

Gordon cites this toxicity as one of many links between the mysterious macIntosh man and Rudolph Bloom. Someone in Oxen of the Sun who knows the stranger from his stay in an insane asylum says that he thought he had “a deposit of lead in his penis." Lead, like aconite, is a deadly poison, and if ingested can cause insanity. The stranger may feel that his poisoned penis killed the “maiden all forlorn” who "Slung her hook." Rudolph Bloom too is a mourning widower who lost his wits for a while. If the macintosh man is his ghost, as Gordon suggests, then the story recounted in Oxen suggests that he believed himself responsible for his wife's death. His son Leopold displays some awareness of this tragic history when he stands contemplating Emily Sinico's death in Hades: “Poor papa too. The love that kills.” Is he thinking only of Rudolph's suicide, driven by Ellen's premature death? Or does he also have some dim awareness that her death was caused by erotic embraces?

Morgan Lawrence and John Hunt 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: