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Very old Hollywood myth – can a piece of cloth with chloroform knock out an adult man?

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Posted August 29, 2018

You‘ve seen it many times before. A bad guy is silently sneaking up to the hero of the movie. He is skilled and patient, inching forward bit by bit. His steps are light, but hands are busy – he is pressing a piece of cloth to the opening of a glass bottle. Then with one swift motion he jumps on the back of our hero and presses the cloth on his mouth and nose. Seconds later the good guy is unconscious. But does chloroform actually work like that?

Chloroform was used by criminals, but not like shown in movies. Image credit: Wellcome Collection gallery via Wikimedia (CC BY 4.0)

Chloroform, also known as trichloromethane with the formula of CHCl3, is a powerful anaesthetic, used in surgeries from 19th century. Of course, nowadays we know for its use in various movies – it is a very common motive. And there is quite a bit of truth – chloroform works by inhalation as well. This property has been used by criminals in order to subdue or even kill their victims. For example, Joseph Harris was charged in 1894 with using chloroform to rob people, while serial killer H. H. Holmes used chloroform overdoses to kill women.

In fact, there were many cases when chloroform was used to commit crimes. In the beginning of 20th century it was still widely used as an anaesthetic, which made it easier for criminals to acquire some of this substance. Hollywood creators were quick to create this image of a powerful weapon, which can sedate an adult man within seconds – that is how the era of damp cloths started. However, as you might imagine, chloroform simply doesn’t work like that.

If you sneaked up on someone and pressed a damp, sweet-smelling cloth to their faces, you would get kicked in the guts. And probably not just once. Scientists estimate that it would probably take around 5 minutes for an adult person to become unconscious from breathing though a cloth with chloroform on it. That is a long time, which would be filled with fighting. In fact, this method of sedating your victims is quite dangerous – you will eventually get tired from holding that cloth and you will be facing an angry person after he sets free.

But we already mentioned that chloroform was used as a weapon in a lot of criminal acts before – how was that possible? Well, chloroform was rarely used alone – usually it was matched with other drugs or alcohol. Furthermore, in many cases victims agreed to take chloroform as a recreational drug or were tricked into taking it orally. It is easy to overdose on chloroform, but some people died from simply swallowing their tongues and suffocating. That is why skilled anaesthesiologists were needed to use chloroform in clinical settings.

So, to sum up, chloroform works nothing like you see in movies. It is a slowly working substance, which takes minutes to kick in. Chloroform is also dangerous for both the victim and the attacker – it is really not the best choice for criminals.

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