A few weeks ago I watched ‘Murder is Easy’.
One of the many Agatha Christie stories which have been made into television programmes, it starred the late Geraldine McEwan as the elderly sleuth Miss Marple.
Setting aside the wonderful improbability of the young local Police Constable being left by his superiors to deal with five sudden and unexpected deaths in a small community over a matter of a few days … they were murders, of course, as Miss Marple suspected from the very outset …and ignoring the improbability of a stranger to the village … Miss Marple … being welcomed into its heart at this fraught time, the story hinged around ‘old Uncle Henry’, whom the residents of this idyllic rural community assumed to be an elderly relative of one of their number. Ah, had they but had Miss Marple’s suspicious and enquiring mind! She deduced that old Uncle Henry … who had assisted the mother one of the characters to render valuable service to young women in difficult times … was not, in fact, a person. Old Uncle Henry was … and is, for that matter … as the superannuated sleuth discovered during research carried out in the local library, one of the common names by which the plant Artemisia vulgaris is known. And Artemisia vulgaris was used in the past as an emmenagogue to cause an abortion or prevent pregnancy. In other words, the valuable service offered to young women at a time in our history when abortion was illegal was the termination of unwanted pregnancies. This dark secret in the family background of one of the characters went a long way to explaining the motive for the string of murders.
This is, to my way of thinking, one of the more ingenious threads in an Agatha Christie mystery. So what do we know about Old Uncle Henry apart from what Miss Marple discovered? Well, we know that its pukka botanical name is Artemisia vulgaris, a shrub named after the Greek goddess Artemis which is common – vulgaris. We know that the plant is most often called Mugwort, although it is also known as Felon Herb, Chrysanthemum Weed, Wild Wormwood, Sailor’s Tobacco, Naughty Man, Old Man, St. John’s Plant and, here in Scotland, as Mugger, Muggert and Muggons. We know, as one might suspect from its botanical name, that it is a very common plant, native to temperate Europe, Asia and northern Africa, which thrives in weedy and uncultivated ground such as that found in wasteland and by roadsides. We know that it grows to between one and two metres in height, that it carries small deep red or yellow flowers between July and September and that butterflies are attracted to these flowers.
Old Uncle Henry was used by our ancestors in what are called ‘sleep pillows’, which were said to bring the sleeper happier and clearer dreams; perhaps its use as a mild sedative explains this belief. In Scotland, there was an intriguing relationship between Mugwort and mermaids, who were supposed to use the plant to treat tuberculosis … ‘consumption’, as it was called by earlier generations … and persistent fever. Geoffrey Grigson, in his rather misleadingly-named tome The Englishman’s Flora, refers to the story of a mermaid saying, as she watched a young woman’s funeral procession pass along the bank of the Clyde, ‘If they wad drink nettles in March / And eat Muggons in May / Sae mony braw maidens / Wadna gang to the clay.’
More prosaically, Mugwort may have come by that name from the fact that the tops of the stems were formerly used in brewing before the use of hops became widespread, a ‘wort’ being any substance used in the production of beers and distilled malt liquors. So let’s say ‘Cheers!’ to Agatha Christie and Miss Marple for introducing us to Old Uncle Henry.