When a medieval ring was uncovered by Bulgarian archaeologists excavating the remains of the medieval fortress on Cape Kaliakra, near the town of Kavarna on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, they were surprised to discover that it was not a simply a decorative piece but looked to have been designed for the far more sinister use of murder.
The ring, which was found in 2012, had a discrete container with a minute hole in where you would normally find the ring stone and its setting. The cavity is large enough to hold several drops of liquid, and it is thought that it would have been used to dispense poison into the intended victim’s food or drink.
When interviewed at the time of the find, Boni Petrunova, the Deputy Director of the National Archaeology Institute and Museum in Sofia proposed its grim function thus,
“I have no doubts that the hole is there on purpose and the ring was worn on the right hand, because the hole was made in such a way so as to be covered by a finger, so that the poison can be dropped at a moment’s notice. Clearly, it was not worn constantly and would have been put on when necessary.”
The ring is thought to be the first of its kind found in Bulgaria and was located in an area that was home to the local aristocracy. This leads to speculation that it was used in politically-motivated murders that occurred in the second half of the 14 th century. There was disquiet between the ruler of the independent, Dobrotitsa, and his son Ivanko Terter, a feud which was responsible for the death of many members of the nobility at the time.
Although the first found in Bulgaria, this is far from the first ring designed for this purpose to be known of. It is thought that the original use of poison rings was for people to commit suicide in order to escape torture or humiliation. Hannibal is thought to have used poison from a ring to evade deliverance to the Romans. It is also recorded that the ancient Greek orator Demosthenes committed suicide in 322 BC after escaping capture and reaching sanctuary on the island of Calauria. As he was about to be arrested, he drank poison concealed in a “hollow ring, which he wore about his arm,” as written in Plutarch’s Lives, a 1906 book. The means for secreting a lethal dose was clearly available and there are many other examples of rings of various designs for hiding the venom.
The use of poison as a weapon to use against one’s enemy was given a great boost in the 8th century by the brilliant innovation by Arabic chemist of a form of arsenic that was barely detectable. This odorless and tasteless version of this lethal compound made it a very attractive option for the would-be assassin. By the Renaissance, people were selling poison rings, knives, letters, and even poison lipstick. In this way, the ability to perform a relatively risk-free murder attempt was made accessible to the masses.
Back in Bulgaria, a famous case of murder by poison relates to the period of Kaloyan the Romanslayer, who ruled as emperor of Bulgaria from 1197 – 1207. After his death, Kaloyan’s consort, who had married his successor Boril of Bulgaria, took part in the assassination of her son-in-law Henry of Flanders, causing his death by poison on 11 June, 1216.