Truth behind the Joker's Sardonic Smile?

posted Aug 4, 2009, 12:59 PM by Ms. Frega   [ updated Aug 6, 2009, 11:44 AM ]

In Batman (1989), Jack Nicholson's version of the Joker poisons Gothomites with a mysterious ingredient in cosmetics and household items, killing his victims and leaving them with a wide sardonic smile.  In the original comics, the Joker poisoned them with a gas that had similar affects.  Have you ever wondered what the Joker uses in his special toxic blend of compound that puts a smile on his victims' faces? Yes, it's purely fiction, but the writers of Batman may have hit on something that's very real.

In ancient times, assassins and murderers have used the hemlock water-dropwort (Oenanthe crocata) plant to incapacitate their victims slowly through the poisonous Botox-like effect of the extract and then do their heinous deed. The result are corpses with a smile on their face - which was already a clue to what was used. According to ancient reports, the plant was also used in pre-Roman Sardinia for the ritual killing of elderly people who were unable to support themselves. A burden to society, the people "were intoxicated with the sardonic herb and then killed by dropping from a high rock or by beating to death," Giovanni Appendino.

The Mediterranean hemlock water-dropwort, common in the island of Sardinia, is similar in appearance to the parsnip plant, which has carrot-like roots and is an edible vegetable. Anyone mistaking the hemlock water-dropwort for the parsnip can be lethally poisoned. Fortunately, the leaves of the hemlock water-dropwort taste terrible. The roots, however, although more pleasant, is no less toxic, and this makes them even more dangerous. The poison is an oenanthotoxin, which is related to the cicutoxin of the water hemlock.

Authorities became interested in the hemlock water-dropwort due to a string of smiling-corpse suicides that pointed to it's use. The ancient Phoenicians of Sardinia used the toxin in ritual killings of old people and those who broke the law. That's how Homer (of ancient Greece; not of the Simpsons) came up with the term "sardonic grin." Using the toxin is a gruesome way to go with a smile, which only takes three hours. Don't try this at home... or anywhere else for that matter.

Read Ancient Death-Smile Potion Decoded? for more details.