Friday, 20 July 2018

'Pure Poison': the bizarre and tragic case of the perfume bottle that wasn't

3D-Novichok ~ Source: Wikimedia Commons (ChiralJon)
When the news of the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia broke last March, it seemed like the most preposterously unlikely event ever to occur in the sedate cathedral town of Salisbury. The weapon of choice was the military-grade Novichok, a series of nerve agents first developed by Russian scientists back in the 1970s. Yes, this was the stuff of John Le Carre novels rather than a tale of everyday folk eating pizza on a Sunday afternoon in a shopping centre. As the story unfolded though, we learnt that Sergei Skripal was a former Russian spy / double agent, so (without naming names!) a possible motive for the attack was starting to emerge. Both father and daughter recovered, thankfully, after a long stay in hospital.

Fast forward to the end of June, and two more people were poisoned by Novichok, thought to be from the very same batch used against the Skripals, but at a much higher strength - at least ten times as concentrated. The victims on this occasion - Dawn Sturgess and boyfriend Charlie Rowley - were, however, random members of the public, who became exposed to the substance after Charlie picked up an abandoned perfume bottle in the Queen Elizabeth Gardens in Salisbury and took it back to his house in Amesbury.

Queen Elizabeth Gardens, Salisbury ~ Source: Geograph

Some reports say that only Dawn sprayed the contents onto her skin, while others state that both she and her partner did. And I say 'spray', but I have seen one newspaper account which describes the transfer method used by Dawn as 'dabbing'. All the papers agree that it was a 'small glass bottle'. None has mentioned the brand, so perhaps it was unbranded and just a recognisable perfume atomiser or dab bottle of some kind. Then unless this was an obviously unisex scent, it seems unlikely to me that Charlie would test it on himself, but the mere act of handling the bottle may have been enough to lead to serious levels of contamination.

I heard on the news tonight that Charlie Rowley was discharged from hospital this morning. Dawn Sturgess sadly died eight days after collapsing at her boyfriend's home, where the little bottle was recovered by police.

Coming hard on the heels of the Skripal case, this incident is equally if not more shocking, in that the attack was aimed at mere passersby, with no connection whatsoever to the Russian state and its apparatus. It suddenly makes you think that any found object, however innocent-looking, has the potential to be dangerous - or even fatal. And it seems horribly perverse that fragrance, the transformative power of which is invariably a force for good, should be subverted to these evil and destructive ends. As well as sadly making the names of Dior's 'Poison' range - that infamously groundbreaking collection comprising original Poison from 1985 and its flankers - sound like an unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy.

Would this incident make you more wary about found objects generally, and perfume specifically?

According to the Daily Mail, police have warned people in Salisbury: "If you didn't drop it, don't pick it up." So that appears to be the official line, at least locally.

But on the other hand, is there a danger we could become immobilised by fear from touching anything that doesn't belong to us? What if someone dropped their wallet...surely the public-spirited thing would be to pick it up and hand it in?  That said, the sheer audacity and inhumanity of this attack certainly gives you pause...
Source: Fragrantica


Bee said...

Well it certainly makes me wonder if I should give up leaving bottles of perfume in random places. It did seem a nice way to pass on bottles I don't love and can't be bothered to sell but I don't want to cause panic in the library or shopping centre.

Vanessa said...

Hi Bee,

Oh, I didn't know you had done that, but what a lovely idea! Or it certainly was in the past, but I can well understand that you might think twice now for fear of triggering a full blown 'bomb scare'-type incident. Back in the day, my mother managed to do just that simply by leaving her Peugeot 205 with Northern Irish plates in an otherwise empty car park in Swindon one evening.

Undina said...

Somehow I completely missed this story. But even without reading about it, it would have never occurred to me to pick up anything like that in a public place - leave alone spray it on my skin (or even on paper): I’m that paranoid ;) But I’m appalled at the sacrilege: of all the things they could have used for something like that, why perfume?!

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

Your paranoia would pay dividends in this instance. And 'sacrilege' is the very word to describe the enormity of using a perfume bottle as a deadly weapon.