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The Debate Over Count de Vecchj and Amanita Mushrooms

Count Vecchj and amanita mushrooms
Written by Sarah Friedman

The classification of ‘poisonous mushroom’ certainly does no service to the non-deadly hallucinogenic mushrooms out there with that designation. Amanita muscaria mushrooms fall into this category; and their name is accompanied by a single negative story, which may or may not be related in the end. So who was Count Achilles de Vecchj, why do people think he died from amanita mushrooms, and should we be afraid to use them?

Who was Count Achilles de Vecchj?

According to the traditional story, Count Achilles de Vecchj was an Italian diplomat who resided in Washington, DC in the early 1860’s. Prior to his death he was a part of the Massachusetts militia, but he resigned not long after entering, on Jan. 26, 1863. He was very into politics, a part of high society given his position, and supported the republican party. While there’s a lot more to say about him, the majority of his life is not relevant to the story.

What makes the Count most interesting, are the circumstances of his death. In 1897, it was reported that Count de Vecchj died from a toxic response to eating Amanita muscaria mushrooms, after a large breakfast of mushrooms with his friend. At the time, the mushrooms were not thought of as fatal as no prior stories of this kind existed.

However, even with no history of death from these mushrooms, an after-the-fact investigation by botanists from the United States Department of Agriculture, led to a story of this death by Amanita muscaria mushrooms. This spread, making the Count the go-to example for why its important to know how to identify mushrooms properly. Keep in mind, there was no autopsy, or way to test what the guy actually died from; and all information pointing to Amanita muscaria mushrooms was/is speculative at best.

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One of the things we know about mushrooms, is you really have to know what you’re doing. And if you don’t, you can get very sick, or even die. Berries have a similar issue in that they often look similar, but whereas some are perfectly safe to eat – even healthy; others will cause death in all kinds of horrible ways. Plenty of people through history have died from eating the wrong mushrooms, and the majority of the time this was a simple mistake in looking for food, not in looking to get high.

Anyway, back to Count de Vecchj. After the US government investigation into the case found Amanita muscaria mushrooms as the culprit, the idea that the mushrooms are dangerous, really took hold. The thing is, amanita mushrooms in general are responsible for the majority of mushroom toxicity cases, but only other species, not Amanita muscaria.

A video put out on Youtube by StoneAgeMen, counters the accepted story by bringing up that it was later found that the Count died of ‘amatoxins’, deadly compounds found in some amanita mushrooms, but not Amanita muscaria. The video gave no further information about how this information was found, and while it sounds possible, it does come with the problem of verification.

The narrator says that ‘modern science’ helped us learn this, but gives no references. It sounds like the video maker assumes by the death description that ‘amatoxins’ were the cause, which then implies a different mushroom. But amatoxins take much longer to kill, and de Vecchj died quickly, while his friend lived. At that time, mushrooms were regularly picked from the wild in batches by traders, and sold at markets. That mushrooms got confused, isn’t much of a stretch. According to the official story, de Vecchj confused Amanita caesarea mushrooms with Amanita muscaria. But maybe there was something else.

Do we know the final answer on his death?

There are a couple things to consider. The first is that, even what are considered generally non-deadly substances, can be deadly to the wrong person. Most people are cool to take penicillin. For a choice few, it leads to shock and death. Give 100 random people acid and most should have a spiritual experience, while a certain number will have a bad trip. So, I’d never say its impossible that the guy really did die because he had a bad reaction to something most people don’t have such a reaction to. Plus, its said he ate a couple platefuls (huge amount), and wasn’t in the best of health. And that complicates things more.

Another factor backing up that it was Amanita muscaria, is that de Vecchj had this mushroom breakfast with his friend Dr. Kelly, who became “incoherent and stupefied” leading to a hospitalization and subsequent recovery. This sounds like stories of people taking Amanita muscaria mushrooms without the proper prep work. Amanita muscaria mushrooms can cause sickness, mainly from the ibotenic acid, which decarboxylate into muscimol. Prep work involves a process called parboiling, where something is partially cooked via boiling, and which should be done to avoid sickness. There’s nothing saying the men did this.

Amanita mushrooms growing wild
Amanita mushrooms growing wild

On the other hand, there are some basic realities of the generally accepted story, which make no sense at all. For one thing, the lack of other deaths for these specific mushrooms, and their likeness to actual death-causing mushrooms, makes it automatically safe to reason that it could have simply been a different mushroom species that killed the Count and made his friend sick.

Then there’s the fact that whether Count de Vecchj ate Amanita muscaria mushrooms or something else, no sample existed later for comparison, and even if one of the batch that was bought was there, it would be impossible to know if the sickness came from the majority, or a bad one or two that got stuck in. Some mushrooms require only small amounts to cause sickness and death.

Last, there’s one more thing to consider. The answer came about from an investigation by the US government after the death. As in, a while after the death, the best that could be done, was speculate based on the story details. They didn’t have a mushroom sample or pictures. And while this statement might not be liked by everyone, I’ll say it anyway: the US government is known to come out with all kinds of stories with no basis in fact.

Think about Reefer Madness, and that psychedelics are illegal, and all those smear campaigns surrounding cannabis and vaping. I wonder if there was talk at the time of the medicinal benefits of the mushrooms, and a desire to warn people away from them, for the same reason people were/are warned away from weed. Just a thought.

The official story has never changed, but now people do question whether Count de Vecchj really was killed by Amanita muscaria mushrooms. All one needs to do is a quick investigation to understand it wasn’t based on any proofs, just assumptions. On the other hand, anyone who counters it is also only working off assumptions.

Perhaps if nothing else, the takeaway is that even if Count de Vecchj died from Amanita muscaria mushrooms, this is so far from the standard, that no other similar cases are spoken about, meaning not much reason for worry; especially when the mushrooms are prepared correctly. The other takeaway is that there are a ton of mushrooms out there, and prospective pickers should be careful.

Different mushrooms have different risks
Different mushrooms have different risks

What are Amanita muscaria mushrooms?

As psychedelics grow in popularity, the idea of the magic mushroom has become a much more accepted concept. The thing is, for the most part, this only includes psilocybe mushrooms, aka psilocybin producing mushrooms. In a place like North America, psilocybin mushrooms are the typical mushrooms if you’re looking to get high. However, there is another kind of hallucinogenic mushroom, just not one that used to be found in America.

Amanita muscaria, aka fly agaric mushrooms, are native to colder places like Siberia, and are in no way connected to what we generally consider ‘magic mushrooms’. Whereas typical magic mushrooms rely on psilocybin breaking down to psilocin to create a powerful serotonergic effect, amanita mushrooms rely on an entirely different compound, muscimol. Muscimol, while also producing a hallucinogenic experience, has wildly different modes of action, with the majority of its force centered on the neurotransmitter GABA.

Both types of mushrooms are hallucinogenic by nature, but only psilocybin mushrooms are classified as ‘hallucinogenic’. Muscimol mushrooms are classified as ‘poisonous’, and they certainly can be because of the ibotenic acid. But poisonous doesn’t equal deadly, it just means you’re not going to feel very good for awhile. When you think about it, that’s not different from a bad psychedelic trip.

One of the interesting things about these muscimol mushrooms, is that their image is the much more recognizable image when it comes to the idea of magic mushrooms. Even Super Mario Brothers popularized the image by using it in games. The red cap with white spots is certainly a ubiquitous picture, but the actual mushrooms it represents, are not.

Amanita highs are spoken about as being much more relaxed than psilocybin highs, but when not prepared correctly, they often do make people sick. They have been used in spiritual and shamanistic traditions for millennia, might be connected to many aspects of the Christmas story, and retain legality in the US; likely because they simply weren’t around when the government was in its flurry of illegalizing drugs.

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Sure, the story of Count de Vecchj dying from Amanita muscaria mushrooms could be true; but it’s not the only possibility. The other answer is that it was just another similar-looking mushroom. Unfortunately, sometimes official accounts of history get a few details wrong, and in this case, we’ll never know for sure.

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About the author

Sarah Friedman

I look stuff up and and write stuff down, in order to make sense of the world around. And I travel a lot too.