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Poison Show Inspired My Thanksgiving: Manuela Hoelterhoff

The Mad Hatter
The Mad Hatter from Lewis Carroll’s "Alice in Wonderland." The exhibition "The Power of Poison" at the American Museum of Natural History includes a life-sized scene of the Mad Hatter -- because until hats went out of fashion, London was rife with hat makers driven mad by the mercuric nitrate required to loosen the fur from the skin. Source: American Museum of Natural History via Bloomberg

Just in time for Thanksgiving, there’s a helpful exhibition devoted to poison at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Up through Aug. 10, 2014, “The Power of Poison” takes us on a focused journey through the realms of myth, history, medicine, literature, murder and dementia starting with a glittering display of chocolates.

In the interest of domestic harmony, resist leaving an opened box of Godiva on the coffee table within reach of the yappy canine belonging to your annoying sister-in-law.

Like so many exhibitions at the museum, “The Power of Poison” is entertaining, illuminating, inspirational and definitely spellbinding.

Sit down and watch a film of a poisonous water snake take on a freaky Moray eel. It’s hard to know who to root for, but that toothy eel has my vote.

On land, the displays probe the different ways poisons were used from ancient times -- for good and bad. Socrates was condemned to drink a fatal brew of hemlock, but in lesser dosages, the plant functioned as a calmative.

In a gallery of life-sized cutouts devoted to villains and victims, Nero leads the parade. (Lucrezia Borgia, it seems, just had a bad press agent, most especially her brother Cesare). The Roman emperor and champion fiddler had a professional poisoner in his employ, a woman named Locusta, who was known for her mushroom dishes.

Mad Hatters

In a separate niche, the Mad Hatter presides over the tea party Alice crashes after sliding down into Wonderland.

Why is the Mad Hatter in a show about poison?

Because until top hats went out of fashion, London was rife with hatters driven mad by the mercuric nitrate required to loosen the fur from the skin. After laboring for decades, they ended up on street corners babbling to large rabbits and little girls.

Visitors can step into a popup laboratory to help investigate the mysterious deaths at a British dairy farm in the 19th century. The grandson did seem a little impatient. Arsenic, we learn, was once called “the inheritance powder.”

Three interactive tablets let you sift through clues and solve a puzzling death. For instance, what happened to Skippy the dog, who frothed up fatally in his back yard (without eating chocolate), though his thoughtless humans had ditched old batteries by the fence and allowed a cane toad to visit?

Happily, live creatures also beckon, among them a plump Gila monster who slumbers in his spare aquarium, keeping his famously forked tongue to himself.

Sugar Venom

Consumers of donuts and Big Gulps will want to wish the lizard pleasant dreams as they pass by: A component of the creature’s venom helps regulate blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetes.

Tiny yellow frogs and moody music transport us into the mysteries of the Choco jungle in Colombia. As so often in this show, beauty is lethal. Canny locals stick their arrows into the frog and then bring down supper with their blow-guns.

Which brings me to dinner and the exhibition’s most dramatic display: three witches huddling over a steaming cauldron.

And like these weird sisters from “Macbeth,” you too could stir up a thick, yummy soup tomorrow with no double trouble at all. You really don’t need an entire wolf for the tooth -- just wolf’s bane mixed in with a few ingredients like eye of newt and easily procured at your local organic market. Plus tongue of dog.

“The Power of Poison” was curated by Mark Siddall and designed by the museum’s exhibition department under the direction of David Harvey. For more information, go to

The theme continues in the shop where I picked up Joel Levy’s “Poison: An Illustrated History.” Levy includes a fascinating chapter on the two most famous poisonings in our own era: the murders of the Bulgarian activist Georgi Markov, who was pricked by an umbrella tipped with ricin, and Putin adversary Alexander Litvinenko, who somehow ingested polonium.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg News. Any opinions are her own.)

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