The mysterious root poison devil’s foot root (Radix pedis diaboli), first seen in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot, has not yet found its way either into the pharmacopoeia or into the literature of toxicology. Then again, it would not be as famous as it is today if it had instead appeared in the toxicological literature of the time.

The devil’s foot root remains fictitious – but it masks historical realities. As Dr Sterndale, the tale’s criminal-physician, reports, the poison is found nowhere in Europe “save for one sample in a laboratory at Buda”. The root is semi-anthropomorphised in that it is “shaped like a foot, half human, half goatlike; hence the fanciful name given by a botanical missionary”. According to Dr Sterndale, Radix pedis diaboli is “used as an ordeal poison by the medicine-men in certain districts of West Africa”, where it is jealously guarded. The doctor himself found his sample while travelling in “the Ubangi country”.

Through its very definition, the poison conjures spectres of an unseen land and its own unseen presence or liminality, like a ghost, as Jacques Derrida would say, that “never dies, it remains always to come and to come-back”. One of the ghosts that lurks in the devil’s foot root is the idea of the British Indian Empire.

 

 

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