A Murderess Affair: Locusta of Gaul
Updated: Jan 5, 2020
Hello and welcome to A Murderess Affair! The podcast talking about women in history, known and not so well known, for the murders they’ve committed. Because as we know, women can be murderers too. This is the gender equality we’ve all been aiming for. Feminism: women can be murderers too.
Oh god, that’s getting deleted.
Anyway, my name is Gabrielle, your host, and I’m so interested in true crime I wanted to start a podcast about it.
This is the second episode of the podcast, and I wanted to start by thanking the people, especially those in the Murderino group, who supported by subscribing and downloading the first episode! You all rock, and I’d like to especially thank ____ and ____ for the book recs that they gave! They sound super interesting so if books are your thing then check them out. I will be, very soon.
Okay, enough with the nonsense already. Let’s get to the good stuff.
The murderess of the week is Locusta of Gaul. Fun fact, historians actually believe that she is the first recorded serial killer in human history. So, let’s learn about her.
Locusta’s early life isn’t so well known, but it’s thought that she was born in the first century A.D in a tiny town in outer Rome called Gaul, which is modern day France. During her early years, she learned about the plants around her and eventually became a well known herbalist.
Back then, especially in small villages, herb knowledge was really common. Oftentimes Greek doctors were expensive, so these towns relied on an herbalist to brew potions that would help with whatever sickness they had. And, obviously, to be herbalist, you should probably know which plants are good and which plants are bad.
So, let’s back up a little bit here. Rome, as you can imagine, was a pretty rough place. Even during the glory years, there was plenty of drama going down between politicians of all levels. And a common practice back then was, if someone was, politically, in your way, you looked up Locusta to help deal with them.
Locusta of Gaul had a really fun nickname, “Locusta the Poisoner.” She took her calling really seriously, and created hundreds of poisons to help dispatch enemies of her clients in new and interesting ways. Some common poisons in her arsenal were hemlock, belladonna, nightshade, arsenic, quinine, and even cyanide and opium. Really, she should be one of the ones talked about when it comes to the scientific method. Her approach was that of a mad scientist in the finest of frenzies. She, of course, tested all her poisons on animals to take note on what did and didn’t work, and how mixing different ingredients led to different symptoms and side effects.
At some point she ended up traveling closer to the capital, where her reputation began attracting rich and influential clients. Locusta was a professional poisoner at this point, and she was often arrested for her activities. But, because she had these powerful connections she was always able to get out of jail really quickly.
In 54 CE, Empress Agrippina reached out to Locusta. She was the wife of Emperor Claudius. She was also his niece, because one thing I’ve definitely learned from history is that the farther back you go the more acceptable incest is. So Claudius had a son from a previous marriage named Brittannicus, and Agrippina also had a grown son. His name was Nero, and Aggrippina had big plans for him. Agrippina wanted to see her son as Emperor of Rome, and there were two people standing in his way- Claudius and his son Britannicus.
Claudius wasn’t stupid. He knew that there were a lot of people out there who wouldn’t care if he died. He had two food tasters as well as a bodyguard. He also had a weakness for mushrooms, which Agrippina knew. She had Locusta first get rid of the bodyguard, by giving him something that made him uncontrollably sick to get him out of the way. Then, Aggrippina bribed food tasters to stay home. Claudius had a weakness for mushrooms, and of course he wouldn’t say no to some mushrooms brought to him by his wife. After eating the mushrooms, he became extremely sick. Agrippina, still playing the role of the “caring wife”, brought him a feather so that he could make himself throw up whatever he had eaten. But, he still died, tragically. Who knew, right?
But here’s where the genius of these two women kicked in. So, Locusta had poisoned the mushrooms, obviously, to make the emperor sick. However, she then laced the feather that Agrippina gave him with even more poison, and it was that that killed him.
To hide suspicion, Agrippina threw Locusta under the bus and had her thrown in jail for murder.
You would think that the craziness involved in this story would mean that we were at least almost done. But oh no, this is the middle. There is more craziness to come.
So, Locusta is thrown in jail, all evidence pointed towards her. And then, the strangest thing happens. Nero gives her a full pardon for any crime that she had committed in 55 CE, and a ton of cash and land. See, Nero was getting tired of his mother’s constant overbearing attitude. And she was turning to Brittanicus to try and see if he was more moldable. Since Brittanicus was also now 14, that meant that he had a claim to the throne.
So Nero freed her to help him kill Brittanicus. Her first attempt to kill him didn’t work, and Nero was pissed, right? He’s kind of famous for having a temper, and at that point he just lost it and beat her unconscious, before giving her one more chance. And that was all she needed.
One night, there was a family dinner. Wine was brought and poured, and each of the food tasters tried the wine before giving it to the family. It was Nero, Agrippina, Britannicus, and a couple of other relatives. Britannicus drank some of the wine, and then complained that it was too hot. And here’s some fun history context for you. Back then, Romans diluted their dinner wines with hot water. So the food taster added some cold water and then gave it back to Britannicus. And here’s where the food tester failed, he didn’t taste the cold water. That was where Locusta had slipped the poison.
So Brittanicus began to convulse. But rather than allow anyone to panic, Nero told everyone of how his younger brother suffered from convulsions, probably would be epilepsy nowadays, and that he did not need to call for assistance. It’s assumed that Agrippina realized what her son was doing but showed no reaction, out of fear of suspicion or becoming the next target. Nobody went against Nero, because of that famous temper, you remember? And the dinner continued as Brittanicus convulsed on the floor.
Nero soon called for servants to remove him from the room, and Brittanicus died a few hours later. He was actually buried that same night with no fanfare, but that didn’t stop the rumors that spread.
So Nero was extremely happy, obviously. Locusta was given even more land and a position in his empire as the Imperial Poisoner. He sent her students, and she trained them to become effective poisoners for the next generation.
So this is how it went for about 13 more years. In 68 CE, the Roman Senate condemned him to death. Now, usually, he travelled with a poison suicide kit that Locusta made for him, in case this event ever actually occured, but for some reason he either lost it or forgot to bring it with him and resorted to killing himself with a knife.
And after his death, Locusta completely lost her safety net and was sentenced to death. And okay, this is where the story has kind of been lost due to exaggerations and speculations from manuscripts during this time period. It’s pretty consistently reported that she was led through the streets of Rome in chains-very much a-la Cersei and the walk of shame, shame, shame- before being executed. But, there are stories that say she was killed in an arena, after having been raped by wild animals. And it’s, for some reason, specified that a giraffe was involved.
And I know that Ancient Rome was pretty well known for having brutal interactions with animals, but most people believe that these are just stories that were embellished later.
And that, is the story of Locusta of Gaul, the Imperial Poisoner and first ever thought to be recorded serial killer.
I hope you all enjoyed this episode. If you did, you can stay up to date with A Murderess Affair on Podbean and Apple Podcasts. Apple Podcasts does this really fun thing where you can leave reviews on podcasts that you enjoy, so if you wanted to do that it would really help out. Cookies for anyone who leaves a review, but not the kind that steal all your info.
If you’ve got any suggestions for murderesses in the future, or just some info about Locusta that you want to share, let me know on Twitter @frumiousreads. But for now, that’s all for today, talk to you more next week. Gooooodbye!
Leon, Vicki. Outrageous Women of Ancient Times .
New York : John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998.