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POISONERS: Nessus tricked Heracles into wearing a jacket saturated with his own toxic blood but his plan backfired when Zeus took pity and made Heracles a god; the Greek state sentenced Socrates to drink hemlock in 399 BC for impiety and corruption of youth; the deranged Hamlet laced the wine of his mother, Gertrude, to avenge the death (by a toxic drop in the ear) of his father; Lucrezia Borgia, illegitimate daughter of a pope and patroness of Titian and Ariosto, reputedly poisoned her enemies; in 1910 Dr Crippen killed his wife with hyoscine before sailing off with his mistress Ethel le Neve; Prince Yusupov, husband of the Czar's niece, admitted killing Rasputin in 1916 by feeding him chocolate cakes laced with potassium cyanide; the KGB murdered Georgi Markov in 1978 by stabbing him with an umbrella containing a pellet of ricin; an explosion at Union Carbide's pesticide factory in Bhopal, India, killed 3,000 people in December 1984; Saddam Hussein used thallium against the Kurds in Iraq; Paul Agutter attempted to murder his wife with atropine and disguise the crime by spiking bottles of tonic water at an Edinburgh supermarket. Today is the feast day of Saint Agatha, 3rd-century virgin and martyr and patron saint of Malta and bell ringers. For defending her virginity against a powerful Roman she was sent to prison where her breasts were cut off (but by divine intervention restored). She was then put in a brothel, where her virginity remained intact; burned at the stake, but failed to ignite, and finally beheaded.

5 February 1679: Joost van den Vondel (above), whose name is to Dutch literature what Shakespeare's is to English, died in Amsterdam aged 91. As a youth he worked as a draper in Amsterdam, but spent most of his time educating himself in languages and classical literature and by the 1630s had established a reputation as a playwright. Much of his finest work, written late in life, is on sombre, religious themes: Adam in Exile, Lucifer, and Noah. Less-known outside the Netherlands, van den Vondel is as much a part of the 17th-century "Golden Age" as Rembrandt,Vermeer and Spinoza. The Vondelpark in Amsterdam, which acquired fame in the 1970s as a home to hippies, is named after him.

1924: The BBC first broadcast the Greenwich "pips" as a time signal.

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