Medicine: Rat Poison

Besides being a man of varied talents and striking personality, the late Robert T. Nelson was a great talker. Before his death in 1935, he awed his friends' by being able to discourse windily for hours on almost any subject. Among his accomplishments was his "discovery," around 1918, of an "element" now called vrilium, to which he attributed prodigious curative powers. Nelson did not explain exactly what he thought vrilium was, but he did claim that it was "radioactive."

In the early 20s, Nelson started packaging a pinch of vrilium inside an ordinary two-inch-long brass cylinder. Popularly called "The Magic Spike,"...

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