Reflections: the last sipper
Wee Kek Koon
In this day and age, murder by poisoning seems positively quaint, like something out of an Agatha Christie whodunnit. Gu Kailai, the wife of the disgraced Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, however, still chose this method when she had British businessman Neil Heywood killed, a crime for which she received a suspended death sentence.
Naturally, or perhaps unnaturally, countless individuals – many of high rank – have been disposed of by a variety of poisons in China’s long history. The premature death of the Guangxu Emperor (1875-1908) had long been a mystery, for he died just one day before his nemesis, the Dowager Empress Cixi (1835-1908), breathed her last.
The arch-conservative Cixi, the emperor’s aunt, had placed him under house arrest 10 years earlier for his liberal reforms, and took over the reins of government. Although it was never proven that she had her nephew poisoned so that he would die before she did, the young and fit emperor did expire in highly suspicious circumstances.
The mystery was partially solved in 2008, when forensic scientists, after extensive tests on the emperor’s hair, skeletal remains and clothing, determined that he had indeed died of acute arsenic poisoning. He was not poisoned over time; the arsenic was administered in a large, single dose. However, the verdict is still out as to who ordered his murder and who actually did it.