As the organisation behind such publications as Departing Drugs and Five Last Acts II, Exit receives many queries about methods of suicide. Cyanide is one of those drugs that has been shrouded in mystery and drama since the days of World War II. While we do not offer one-to-one advice, the very public death of a former millionaire at the end of last month provides an opportunity to air some of the facts and fallacies about this little-known method of suicide. While it has been traditionally thought of as a ‘knock-out’ drug causing ‘instant death,’ complex concerns over its painlessness have dissuaded self-deliverance organisations from recommending it outright.
Michael Marin, a former Wall Street banker, is seen swallowing something in court as a verdict on an arson charge is read out. Minutes later, we see him collapsing. Investigations after his death indicate cyanide poisoning.
Cyanide is undoubtedly quick. Chemically, the action is potentially similar to the effect of suicides involving household chemicals. But speed of action is offset by a painful and unpleasant death as the cyanide burns the stomach and, chemically, prevents the cells of the body from using oxygen. In 1993, the International Drugs Consensus Working Party that assisted the authors of the seminal booklet, Departing Drugs, briefly considered how the unpleasant effects could be mitigated. The suggestion was to use a capsule enclosed within a larger capsule, to allow the cyanide to proceed further along the gastro-intestinal tract before being released. While feasible – empty gelatin capsules can easily be purchased on the Internet – variables and unresolved questions lead to cyanide being dropped as a method.
Michael Marin purchased sodium cyanide “for US$68” over the Internet from a company called Chemical-Supermarket.com. Millions watching him on television see him put something in his mouth and, seven minutes later, go into convulsions as he falls to the floor and can’t be revived.
Cyanide can kill in many ways. Inhaling the gas, ingesting it, or even injecting (the last one is hard to do as completing the injection oneself may be impossible). It has been used in warfare and, for a while, in executions. Suicide by cyanide was used by members of Hitler’s Third Reich; and by the father of computer science Alan Turing (after being hounded for his homosexuality). Symptoms after swallowing it include nausea, retching, convulsions, gasping (breathlessness) and collapse.
Its dramatic appeal may make it a drug of choice for those who are relatively healthy and want to make a colourful exit rather than people with an unrelievable and unbearable illness who want to make a sensible departure when all other options have been exhausted.
The Internet includes a wealth of speculation and misinformation on suicide by cyanide, so we are including some of the more reliable sources for those who wish to know more (and hopefully be dissuaded from using it) as well as news pages for those interested in seeing or reading about Mr Marin’s demise.
Daily News (report & video)
Digitraid (news report & video)
Further news coverage
Hydrogen cyanide in Compendium of Chemical Hazards
Cyanide toxicity (Medscape)
Chapter on cyanide poisoning (Baskin & Brewer)
Suicide by Cyanide (Forensics journal)
Is Execution by Lethal Gas Cruel?
General Principles of Poisoning (Merck Manual)