The Assassin’s Cabinet: A Hollowed Out Book, Containing Secret Cabinets Full of Poison Plants, Made in 1682

Has­n’t every child dreamed of a hav­ing a hol­lowed-out book on their shelf, inside of which they can hide what­ev­er for­bid­den objects of mis­chief they like with­out fear of dis­cov­ery? The idea sure­ly goes back many gen­er­a­tions, and pos­si­bly even to the era when not many adults, let along chil­dren, owned any books at all. A decade ago, a hol­lowed-out book dat­ed 1682 went up on the auc­tion block at Ger­man house Her­mann His­tor­i­ca, and these pho­tos of its elab­o­rate design have cap­ti­vat­ed the imag­i­na­tions of even we 21st-cen­tu­ry behold­ers. But what are all the spaces with­in meant to con­tain?

Her­rman His­tor­i­ca’s list­ing describes the item as “a hol­low book used as secret poi­son cab­i­net,” a con­clu­sion pre­sum­ably arrived at after exam­in­ing its draw­ers’ “hand­writ­ten paper labels with the Latin names of dif­fer­ent poi­so­nous plants (among them cas­tor-oil plant, thorn apple, dead­ly night­shade, valer­ian, etc.).” My Mod­ern Met’s Jes­si­ca Stew­art adds that “call­ing it an assas­s­in’s cab­i­net may be a bit exag­ger­at­ed,” not­ing that “many of these plants, while poi­so­nous, were also part of herbal reme­dies —mak­ing it equal­ly pos­si­ble we are look­ing at an ornate med­i­cine cab­i­net.”

Book Addic­tion breaks down the nature and uses of the plants meant to be stored in the draw­ers, includ­ing Hyoscya­mus Niger, which in medieval times “was often used in com­bi­na­tion with oth­er plants to a make ‘mag­ic brews’ with psy­choac­tive prop­er­ties”; Aconi­tum Napel­lus, which in ancient Roman times “was a such a com­mon poi­son of choice among mur­ders and assas­sins that its cul­ti­va­tion was pro­hib­it­ed”; and Cicu­ta Virosa, which some have spec­u­lat­ed “was the hem­lock used by the ancient Greek Repub­lic as the state poi­son but as it is a native of north­ern Europe this may not be true,” but “is so tox­ic that a sin­gle bite into its root can be fatal” regard­less.

Strong stuff, whether for killing or cur­ing. The ambi­gu­i­ty between those two pur­pos­es has sure­ly stoked our mod­ern inter­est in this secret­ly repur­posed book, as has its nature as what Her­rman His­tor­i­ca calls an “elab­o­rate­ly worked Kun­stkam­mer object” — a “cab­i­net of curiosi­ties” of the kind that has long fas­ci­nat­ed mankind — “with strong ref­er­ence to the memen­to mori theme.” That ref­er­ence comes chiefly in the form of not just the proud-look­ing skele­ton on the inside cov­er, but the label on the bot­tle pro­vid­ed its own com­part­ment in the book: “Statu­tum est hominibus semel mori,” or “It is a fact that man must die one day.” But did the own­er of this book and the tools hid­den with­in want to has­ten that day, or delay it?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Napoleon’s Kin­dle: See the Minia­tur­ized Trav­el­ing Library He Took on Mil­i­tary Cam­paigns

1,000-Year-Old Illus­trat­ed Guide to the Med­i­c­i­nal Use of Plants Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online

Wear­able Books: In Medieval Times, They Took Old Man­u­scripts & Turned Them into Clothes

Old Books Bound in Human Skin Found in Har­vard Libraries (and Else­where in Boston)

Dis­cov­er the Jacobean Trav­el­ing Library: The 17th Cen­tu­ry Pre­cur­sor to the Kin­dle

Behold the “Book Wheel”: The Renais­sance Inven­tion Cre­at­ed to Make Books Portable & Help Schol­ars Study (1588)

Won­der­ful­ly Weird & Inge­nious Medieval Books

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (5)
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  • Petteri says:

    Sure looks like a mod­ern fake…

  • GregH says:

    My thoughts exact­ly. The print­ing on the labels, and the end-paper on and around the draw­ers look like late 20th C scrap­book­ing.

    What should raise more doubts is the use of Lin­naean tax­o­nom­ic sys­tem (bino­mi­al) names for the plants. That sys­tem was invented/published in 1735, and was­n’t wide­ly used until the 19th C.

    I hope some­one paid big bucks for it; there’s noth­ing bet­ter than see­ing a (wealthy) fool part­ed from his or her mon­ey.

  • Vegar says:

    Well spot­ted! Thanks for men­tion­ing that.

  • E says:

    Well that goes with­out say­ing, Greg. But why stop there? Why not fur­ther wish that his unwise pur­chase leads to a down­ward spi­ral of addi­tion­al debt and mis­for­tune — ulti­mate­ly cul­mi­nat­ing in his sui­cide? This is sim­ply what peo­ple less edu­cat­ed than our­selves deserve.

  • Eddy Yeti says:

    You know it is ABSOLUTLY NOT from 1686. Google “poi­son book” and you can clear­ly see near­ly all the fakes have the same pic­ture on the fly­leaf and all have the exact same labels. I can’t believe peo­ple fall for this kind of chi­canery.
    Isn’t this type of fraud ille­gal?
    Caveat emp­tor indeed!

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