Labeled as a “poison cabinet” when placed for auction in 2008, images of this hollowed out book have been causing a stir online ever since. Was it a computer-generated image? Or a modern fake? According to German auction house Hermann Historica—and the private collector who purchased it for €5,200 (about $7,000)—that’s not the case.
While calling it an assassin’s cabinet may be a bit exaggerated, the dramatically titled curio is a hollowed out book from the 16th century. In the pages’ place are eleven drawers of varying sizes with meticulous labels, each spelling out which plant each drawer contained. Of course, many of these plants, while poisonous, were also part of herbal remedies—making it equally possible we are looking at an ornate medicine cabinet.
Traveling kits were not uncommon at the time, as apothecaries would have needed to tote their items around with them. So just what was in the potentially deadly cabinet. Though empty at the time of auction, the silver-knobbed drawers would have contained everything from opium poppy and valerian to Castor Oil plant and Bella Donna. All of these have multiple uses—both in medicine and as a poison.
For instance, Bella Donna was famously used as a poison to kill several emperor’s wives during the Roman Empire, but was also used to ward off motion sickness and as a muscle relaxer. Opium poppy, which most know as the base for numerous narcotics, was also used in medicine to treat asthma and upset stomachs. So, if anything, this curiosity certainly shows us that one person’s poison is another’s medicine.