The Poison Ring
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A poison ring (also called a locket, pillbox, socket or box ring) is a type of ring with a container under the bezel or inside the bezel itself.
Poison rings, along with other types of lockets, are believed to have originated in Asia and date back at least to ancient Greek times. They replaced the practice of wearing keepsakes and other items in pouches or amulets around the neck and arm or at the belt. Used to carry items such as perfume, locks of hair, devotional relics, messages, pictures and keepsakes, locket rings were considered so useful that their custom rapidly spread to other parts of the world, reaching Western Europe in the Middle Ages. By then a huge demand existed for specialty caskets called reliquaries, created for the holy relic trade and used to house fragments of the physical remains of Christian saints and martyrs. Locket rings provided the perfect receptacles to keep such powerful items close-by.
Gold ring with concealed container. Swiss; undated, probably 16th or 17th century. Photo: Wellcome Images
The term poison ring became popular during the sixteenth century when it was commonly believed that locket rings were used by the aristocracy to facilitate the poisoning of the food or drink of an enemy, or even the suicide of a ring’s owner in order to escape capture or torture. Famously, Lucrezia Borgia was believed to favour the use of poison administered via locket rings, although these claims have never been substantiated. Her brother Cesare, it is true, owned a signet ring (still in existence) with a sliding panel, containing a small compartment, and he often boasted of using the power of the Lion on his enemies.
The wearing of rings containing painted miniatures was also popular at this time. During periods of religious (and therefore political) upheaval, for example during the reign of England’s Queen Mary and again during the time of the Restoration, locket rings were used to hide a wearer’s true political allegiance. In the 16th century, there was a craze for “funeral rings” shaped like miniature caskets, which served as mementos for mourners. This style of ring became popular again during the Victorian era, when rings and lockets containing portraits and locks of hair were worn to compliment lengthy mourning periods.
A locket ring belonging to Elizabeth I , taken from her finger on her death in 1603. Fashioned from mother of pearl, gold, pearls, rubies and diamonds, it was found to contain a secret compartment with two portraits; that of her mother, Anne Boylen and herself.
Few, if any, documented deaths by use of poison ring actually exist. The death of Demosthenes, a Greek statesman and orator who spearheaded a revolt against Alexander the Great, is a good example. As he was about to be arrested, he is said in one account to have committed suicide by way of a fast-acting poison hidden “in a hollow ring, which he wore by his arm” [a quote attributed to Plutarch]. However in Plutarch’s own Life of Demosthenes we are told that he took poison out of a pen reed, pretending he wanted to write a letter to his family. Hannibal is also said to have worn a poison ring and may have made use of it at his end; “he took poison, which, it was said, he had long carried about with him in a ring” (Cornelius Nepos, Hannibal 12.5; Juvenal, Satires X.164). CJS Thompson states in his Poison Romance and Poison Mysteries “Among the gems in the British Museum there is an onyx which has been hollowed out to form a receptacle for poison. The face of the stone is engraved with the head of a horned faun. To take the poison, it was only necessary to bite through the thin shell of the onyx and swallow the contents.” Thompson also states “When the gold deposited by Camillus (most likely he is referring to Furius Camillus, a Roman soldier and statesman) in the Capitol was taken away, it is recorded that the custodian responsible for it "broke the stone of his ring in his mouth," and died shortly afterwards”."
In 2013 Bulgarian archaeologists unearthed a bronze ring that might have been used for political murders some 700 years ago. Found at the site of a former medieval fortress in Cape Kaliakra, the finely crafted ring was probably worn by a male on the little finger of the right hand and features a round, hollow cartridge decorated with granulation and an artificial hole. Dated to the 14th century, the poison ring is unique amongst all of the other jewellery found at the site. Bonnie Petrunova, head of the dig and deputy director of the National Archaeology Institute and Museum in Sofia stated “It’s a unique ring. I have no doubts that the hole is there on purpose and the ring was worn on the right hand, because the hole was made in such a way so as to be covered by a finger, thus the poison could be dropped at a moment’s notice. Clearly, it was not worn constantly and would have been put on when necessary”.
The certainty of poison rings aside, the tradition of storing poison in this manner is so beguiling that today any ring containing an opening compartment is called a poison ring, no matter its intended purpose.
“The Princess wore on her finger a ring, under the gem of which, in the contemplation of such a crisis, had long since been enclosed a deadly poison: and she no sooner ascertained the identity of Amru, than she swallowed the poison, ring and all, with a contemptuous smile, exclaiming, “I shall die by my own hand, never by thine!”” (Essay Towards the History of Arabia: Antecedent to the Birth of Mohommed By Major David Price, 1824). Photo credit: Kay Nielsen, Scheherazade Telling the Tales, de One Thousand and One Nights, 1918–22.
References and Further Reading
Hesse, Rayner W 2007 Jewelrymaking Through History: An Encyclopedia. Greenwood Press, CT.
Huffington Post. Medieval Poison Ring Found in Bulgaria. Accessed 21st February 2015.
Lester, Katherine & Oerke, Bess Viola 2004 Accessories of Dress: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Dover Publications, Mileola NY.
Thompson, CJS 1904 Poison Romance and Poison Mysteries. George Routledge & Sons, Ltd, London. Ebook format, accessed 20th January 2015.
Wikipedia. Poison Ring. Accessed 10th February 2015
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