Agilent Solves a 700-Year-Old Murder Mystery

What caused the medieval ruler of Verona, Italy, to suddenly die almost 700 years ago?  Thanks to Agilent, we now know the answer.

Cangrande della Scala was a member of the Scaligeri dynasty who ruled Italy’s Padua region in the 13th and 14th centuries.  He became lord ruler of Verona in 1311 at the age of only 20, and greatly expanded his family’s realm through extensive military campaigns.  He was also an arts patron of the poet Dante Alighieri.  (Dante is said to have dedicated the third canticle of the Divine Comedy to his patron.)

In 1329, following a successful siege of Treviso, Cangrande made a triumphant entry into the city.  But according to contemporary accounts, he suddenly fell ill after drinking from a polluted spring.  He died after four days of fever, vomiting and diarrhea.  Despite rumors that he had been poisoned, nothing was ever proven.  After a grand funeral, Cangrande was entombed in the church of Santa Maria Antiqua.

In 2004, forensic scientists removed Cangrande’s body for scientific testing.  The body was in an excellent state of preservation and natural mummification, enabling a study of his internal organs.  Scientists examined samples of hair, liver and fecal matter using an Agilent high-performance liquid chromatograph with a MSD-ion trap mass spectrometer.  They identified the presence of chamomile and black mulberry.  They also found the presence of digitalis, a deadly plant commonly known as “foxglove.”

This discovery confirms that Cangrande was indeed poisoned.  It is likely that the digitalis was snuck into a mixture of chamomile (a sedative) and black mulberry (an astringent) administered to treat his illness.  Indeed, contemporary accounts say that one of Cangrande’s attending physicians was hung by Cangrande’s successor, Mastino II.  But whether the physician or Mastino himself was the true murderer, history may never know.

Agilent technologies and solutions are used extensively in forensics and toxicology, whether modern or historic.  As this blog has previously noted, Agilent equipment was used to analyze the stomach contents of Oetzi, the world’s oldest preserved mummy.

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