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Published on Sunday, September 27, 2020

Garden-variety ‘poison pen’ letters

Lots of people don’t like Donald Trump. But few dislike him enough to mail him an envelope containing a powder identified as ricin. 

            Ricin, despite the sound of its name, has nothing to do with rice. It comes from castor beans. Also the source of castor oil. If your mother gave you a dose of castor oil to cure various ailments when you were a child, you may consider that quite toxic enough. 

            But castor oil itself contains no ricin. The ricin is refined from the stuff left after all the oil is squeezed out of the crushed beans. 

            And it can be deadly. 

            Experts lined up on TV to remind everyone that a single pinhead-size granule would be enough to kill you. At one time, both the U.S. and Canada considered developing ricin as a chemical weapon. It’s as deadly as sarin, the nerve gas developed by the Nazis and used in terrorist attacks in Tokyo subway system  in 1995.

            The envelope sent to Trump, containing the powder, had been mailed from Canada. 


The alleged crime

            A few days later, U.S. Border agents arrested a 53-year-old Canadian woman, Pascale Ferrier, as she was crossing back into Canada. They told the media that Ferrier voluntarily confessed to sending six letters .

            She sent one to the White House. According to court papers filed Tuesday, the package sent to the White House included a threatening letter in which she ordered President Donald Trump to “give up and remove your application for this election.” 

            The letter also referred to Trump as “The Ugly Tyrant Clown” and called the ricin powder “ a ‘special gift’ for you to make a decision. If it doesn’t work, I’ll find better recipe for another poison, or I might use my gun.”

            The other letters went to Texas officers connected Ferrier’s detention in 2019. She had been charged with illegal possession of a gun and ammunition. The case hinged on whether her travel trailer qualified as a “house” under Texas law. 

            Court documents allege that the envelopes bore her fingerprints. 


Easy to make?

            The most baffling part of this story is how a bumbler like Ferrier managed to cook a batch of ricin (in a travel trailer?) without poisoning herself. 

            Weapons-grade ricin requires a professional laboratory level of processing, to avoid killing its producers. Ferrier’s ricin is, presumably, homemade.

            But “It can be made in your house very easily,” said Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

            An article in The Atlantic asserts that “the directions for making it are no more than a Google search away.” (I found detailed directions in a U.S. Patent application.) “The process takes only a few days, and it requires equipment no more complicated than a coffee filter and chemicals you can buy in a hardware store.

             “It’s so easy,” said The Atlantic, “that ricin mailers have not, historically, been a very competent bunch.”

            That description seems to fit Ferrier. Did she seriously expect the president himself to open and to read any envelope? He doesn’t even read reports by his own staff! 

            The story adds urgency to what used to be called “poison pen letters.”


Between two extremes

            What might I learn from all this?

            First, that there are deluded and misguided people everywhere. Even in line-ups at grocery stores. 

            Second, that even the most familiar elements of life have risks. Including politics, and health. Trump gets death threats; so does B.C.’s Medical Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry.

            We need to learn how to distinguish levels of risk. Castor beans and ricin join an extensive list of food plants commonly considered toxic. 

            Wikipedia’s lists of potentially poisonous common plants – such as larkspur, daphne, rhododendrons, and allium -- could you tearing out half your garden. 

            Bitter almonds also contain cyanide. In British murder novels of 50 years ago, the sleuth frequently bent over the dead body, sniffed, and declared, “Bitter almonds! Cyanide poisoning!”

            So does cassava, often called the “bread of the tropics.” It makes a coarse flour. But it can be made safe by crushing, soaking, boiling, and drying. 

            You’re not keen on cyanide? If you’ve eaten tapioca, you’ve consumed cassava. 

            Yet all these are safe if handled correctly. I grew up eating homemade rhododendron jelly, for example. But I wouldn’t risk homemade ricin. 

            As in so many other things, we need to find the safe middle ground between the two extremes of ignoring risks, and letting fear of those risks control our lives. 


Copyright © 2020 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.

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One of the first letters about last week’s column, lamenting the loss of congregational singing, came from Ron Klusmeier, who is an old friend and has been a powerful influence on church music for 50 years.

            He wrote, “Thank you for your insightful observations re: singing. I have long been convinced that community song -- whether ’sacred’ or ’secular’, in a chapel or a stadium -- is one of the most powerful unifying forces we can experience. It is frightening to consider a long-term loss of this gift.”

            Ron is one of those talented people who “'constructs a church choir alternative out of 15 or 16 individual singer submissions emailed to me each week, I find the task physically and emotionally daunting. That being said, I continue stitching each week’s musical offerings together as a way of honouring the incredibly faithful amateur singers who boldly sing alone to be a piece of the larger quilt which we, even now, continue to refer to as congregational song.”


Sandy Warren shared my lament “about the loss of group singing and agree about singing hymns together being a central part of worship. You are right that Zoom singing is impossible. At the start of a Zoom book club, we sang Happy Birthday to one of the members and ended up with snippets of different voices as the poor Zoom program hopped wildly from one to another trying to determine who was the current 'speaker'. Watching church services on YouTube or Facebook works better because it pays no attention to me, so I can happily sing along. I hope that not too far in the future we will be able to be singing together again. “


“Sad but true,” wrote Scott Johnson about the loss of communal singing.: “I founded World Singing Day in 2012 to bring people together all over the world through the simple act of singing together. It happens each year on the third Saturday in October. This year it’s Oct. 17.

            “Like at your church and most places around the world, public singing on World Singing Day (WSD) has been shut down too. So WSD is going to be more of an online experience this year. Here are some things people can do for WSD:  https://worldsingingday.org/sing/

            “I just heard about a newly formed non-profit organization called JackTrip that has created software that deals with the issue of singing online together.  https://www.jacktrip.org/index.html “


David Gilchrist: “I agree that singing is a unifying force -- which is why it becomes so much a factor in various kinds of rallies. And I also miss the community choir and the Church choir that I was singing with. But now we have been getting a live stream Service each Sunday morning, which has the words for the hymns displayed on a screen; and we sing along with the lone voice of the Service leader of the day.

            “But it might not be just the Virus. Grief has an effect on the voice, too. Shortly after losing my first wife, I lost almost a third of the top of my vocal range, and can no longer handle tenor for more than a few bars before it gives out. Also, if you’re into hearing aids, that sometimes makes it harder to be sure if we are on key or not. A concert pianist told me that as her hearing worsened, the music on the piano became distorted -- it upset her to play when the piano sounded out of tune. I’m getting there now; but keep singing anyway. 

            “So I hope you will soon be able to give with your voice whatever song is in your heart -- which is certainly easier with others singing beside you!


Candy Harvey put it briefly: “Not being able to sing is a great lament. ‘To sing is to pray twice’ said St. Augustine, I believe...”


Dave Buckna took a different viewpoint: “Your speculation on the origin of singing and worship is nothing more than a Darwinist trope, and a lame one at that.

            “If you had a high view of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures, you would have told your readers about Jubal. Robert Doolan writes in his online article "Music—evidence of creation": https://creation.com/musicevidence-of-creation ‘The theory of evolution can never postulate even a faintly satisfactory explanation for the origin of music or why it affects us. When we realise that God wants us to worship Him through music, we see God as the Master Musician — the conductor of all life. Musical instruments are mentioned early in the Bible. We are told in Genesis 4:21 that Jubal was the father of all who play the harp and flute. Without the Bible we are unable to identify the first musician or the earliest instrument makers.’


Bob Rollwagen drew a parallel between singing and reactions to Covid-19 prevention measures: “Singing is what a community does. We all need to stop and listen attentively until we can hear the singing and celebrating because we all need community. The louder the singing, the stronger the community, the better the health of all. While you should not have to be in a choir to understand the role of the conductor and the importance of everyone being on the right note, those that have and are not in sync with the Covid choir leaders must not have understood why there is a conductor.”


Michael Jensen: “The church I attend now allows us to attend in person, as long as we're all spaced out -- physically, that is. My wife plays the organ but the rest of us just sit there with our mouths closed. I have always enjoyed singing.  Now I'm mute. Sad. 

            “I have experienced spiritual experiences at church because of the power of reverent music. The music touches my heart at those special moments, and I know that I am more in tune with God because of the music.

            “Covid is teaching us much these days, not the least is who and what we miss--like singing. Congregational singing is more appreciated than ever now that it has hit a low note.”


Bob Mason: “Our daughter-in-law, Monica Mason, of Summerland, who's a soprano, recently sang in a virtual choir; [the performance] was released on U-Tube on July 19th. The song and the accompanying words were composed by its conductor, Eric Whitacre, [about the Covid crisis]. This one is probably the biggest-ever choir. Ultimately, there were 17,572 singers from 129 different countries.

            “If you go onto U-Tube and put in his name, this one is shown as ‘Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir 6’ and you are able to listen to the virtual performance, see many, if not all, of the singers.”


Laurna Tallman offered personal advice: “Your mental and physical health depends on your singing. Just do it. In the shower. Driving in the car. You have the benefit of an otherwise empty house so you can belt out tunes and holler. You will be glad you did.”






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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. (This is to circumvent filters that think some of these links are spam.)

                       Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” is an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca. He set up my webpage, and he doesn’t charge enough.

                       I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also runs beautiful pictures. Her Thanksgiving presentation on the old hymn, For the Beauty of the Earth, Is, well, beautiful -- https://www.traditionaliconoclast.com/2019/10/13/for/

                       Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)



                       The late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures now have an archive (don’t ask how this happened) on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. Feel free to browse all 550 columns.




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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Sharp Edges

Tags: poison, ricin, Ferrier



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