The usage of cyanide pills in history

Ivana Andonovska
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We’ve all seen a scene in a movie when a captured spy swallows a pill to commit a suicide to prevent torture and the extraction of important information.

These heroic acts of bravery are depicted in many spy movies, but there are also real cases where people have used a pill to take their life. However, they often did not die as fast as seen on the TV screens. The pills were first developed by the British and the American secret services during World War II.

The pea-sized tablets were given to agents who had missions behind the enemy lines. Filled with highly toxic potassium cyanide, the pills were hidden inside a fake tooth, which had to be crushed by the agent in order to digest the poison. In cases of accidental swallowing, the tooth would just go through the body, harmlessly. 

Space-filling model of the cyanide ion, CN−

Even though it was invented by the British and the Americans, the pill was really famous among their enemies, the Nazis. There are several cases when important Nazi representatives have used them, among them is the very leader of Germany, Adolf Hitler. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was one of the first to suffer death from a suicide pill as a consequence of being a member of the 20 July plot, which had the idea to assassinate Hitler in 1944. The murder was supposed to happen in Hitler’s headquarters, known as the Wolf’s Lair. Needless to say, the plot did not go well, and the conspiracy was discovered. Rommel committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide pill moments before he was arrested by the SS troops. Heinrich Himmler, the Chief of the German Police and Hermann Goring, President of the Reichstag, both close associates of Hitler, were also victims of cyanide poisoning. 

The cyanide ion, CN−. From the top: 1. Valence-bond structure 2. Space-filling model 3. Electrostatic potential surface 4. “Carbon lone pair”

Himmler committed suicide after he was caught by the British army, several days after Germany officially surrendered to the Allies. The Nazi official was captured during his attempt to hide and was taken to a British Interrogation Camp on 23 May 1945, where he was brought in front of a medical examiner. Himmler refused to open his mouth in front of the doctor and chewed on the cyanide ampule he had hidden in his tooth. 15 minutes later he was dead, only to be buried in an unknown location near the city of Lüneburg.

The other cyanide victim, Hermann Goring, was expelled from the Nazi party for treason and held as a prisoner by his former allies. After the war, Goring attempted escape but was arrested by the American forces, which only saved his life as there was an order for him to be executed if Germany lost the war. He was flown to an Allied forces camp in Luxembourg, before being taken to the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, where he was proclaimed guilty for his war crimes and sentenced to death by hanging. The Nazi officer asked to be shot instead of being hanged, but the tribunal denied his request. On 15 October 1946, just one night before the sentence was to be carried out, Goring killed himself with a cyanide pill. It is still unknown how he came to be in possession of it while in prison. 

Empty Zyklon B canisters, found by the Soviets in January 1945 at Auschwitz

Hitler himself had taken a cyanide pill, but this was not the cause of his death. After taking the poison, he also shot himself in the head. The suicide happened on 30 April 1945, after Berlin was conquered by the Russian army. Hitler was hiding in his Führerbunker and could not admit the defeat and allow the Allies to capture him alive. The decision for suicide was probably made after the notorious dictator learned that his ally, the Italian fascist Benito Mussolini, was executed right after his capture. Having married Eva Brown only a day before, he did not have the time to enjoy the marriage but made his last will and testament hours before he died.

His wife was also given a cyanide pill and died as a result of the poison. Another high-ranking Nazi who presumably committed suicide with cyanide is Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s closest associate and a witness to the Fuhrer’s wedding, but this theory has not been proved. Goebbels shot himself after shooting his wife Magda on the evening of 1 May 1945 and gave orders to his soldiers to shoot their bodies several more times after the suicide, to ensure he would not be captured alive. Even though he died by a bullet in his head, one usage of cyanide by Goebbels is recorded. Before he died, he had cyanide doses injected into all of his six children after he ordered the doctor to give them morphine so their deaths wouldn’t be painful. 



Other cases of cyanide usage are documented after World War II too. The American pilot Francis Gary Powers, who was caught in 1960 while flying a CIA owned U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union, also carried a cyanide ampule. The poison was hidden in a fake silver dollar which Powers carried around his neck. Luckily for him, the pilot never got to use it and was sentenced to prison by the Russian authorities. In later history, cyanide necklaces were also found on the bodies of the suicide bombers of the Tamil Tigers, the Sri Lankan separatist organization.

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The Tigers took part in the Sri Lankan Civil War in the period from 1987 to 2009 and carried the poisonous tablets which they would bite in case they were captured by the Sri Lankan army. From 1975, almost all members of the separatist organization wore potassium cyanide enhanced necklaces, while the women members had the poison adhered to their tooth. Some theorists say that NASA astronauts also carry a cyanide pill with them in case they get stranded in space, but these rumors were never confirmed by the space agency.