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Spy movies and novels have popularized the idea that CIA agents, or other spies, will carry cyanide pills, or other "quick and painless" suicide devices with them on covert missions, to use as a last resort to avoid torture in case of enemy capture.

Does anyone actually do this? If so, have such measures ever actually been taken (that we know of)?

  • 1
    The whole point of the pill is they are taken so that no one ever knows who someone was. Goerring took one prior to his trial at Nuremburg. but that is the most famous and probably one of the only well reported instances of it being used. – Chad Oct 10 '11 at 19:12
  • 007 would use a overdose viagra ;) – Hauser Nov 26 '11 at 19:58
  • LTTE Cadres used to take cyanide pills. – rest_day Feb 8 '12 at 22:10
  • Some means are more effective than others... – iamnotmaynard Aug 28 '14 at 20:55
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From BBC History- Training SOE Saboteurs in World War II:

... the 'L' tablet, which came in a little rubber cover, was a suicide pill.
If the agent bit down on it, he would be dead in 15 seconds.



From HowStuffWorks:

An L-pill is a lethal pill carried by spies to prevent them from revealing secrets if captured and tortured.

During World War II, some L-pills contained a lethal dose of cyanide encased in a glass capsule that could be concealed in a fake tooth and released by the agent's tongue.

If he bit into the capsule and broke the glass, he would die almost immediately.
But if the pill came loose and was swallowed accidentally while the agent was sleeping or chewing gum, it would pass through his system without causing any harm, as long as it didn't break and release the poison.



From the BBC documentary Hiroshima: Dropping the bomb:

The mission was so secret, Tibbets [the pilot of the Enola Gay ] was given suicide pills, in case they fell into Japanese hands.

"That evening, when I came out the mess hall, the Flight Surgeon gave me the pills. He told me what they were. I hope you don't need them, but, he said, if you do, they're cyanide.
He said, here, if you need them, one for each man of the crew. He said, you'll never know anything, within six minutes, you're gone. You never feel anything different, you never feel a thing.

And I told the guys outside the airplane, before we climbed up, I'll give any one of you the pill, if you want the pill. And no one said anything, but Captain Parsons, he said, I'd like to have one. And I understood his position, because he knew more technical stuff about that bomb than anybody."



From the New York Times (1987):

A man and woman who had been passengers aboard a South Korean jetliner before it left the Middle East and disappeared over Burma took suicide pills today as they waited for the police to question them, the authorities said.

The man died, but the woman was expected to live.

The plane, with 115 people aboard, vanished near the Burma-Thailand border, before a scheduled refueling stop in Bangkok. Officials in Seoul have said there are strong suspicions that a bomb destroyed the aircraft. Boarded at Baghdad

The man [...] died four hours after biting into a suicide pill concealed in a cigarette.



Related:
There is a belief that NASA gives out suicide pills to astronauts.

To quote Apollo 13's Jim Lovell:

Since Apollo 13 many people have asked me, "Did you have suicide pills on board?" We didn't, and I never heard of such a thing in the eleven years I spent as an astronaut and NASA executive.

  • 6
    Wow, that capsule in a fake tooth sounds awfully scary unless it has a really good latching mechanism. I once had a temporary crown come unglued from a tooth while chewing food and I didn't know it was loose until I had bitten down on it, breaking it into pieces. – Johnny Nov 1 '13 at 0:29
  • I believe Lovell also added that such a pill would be unnecessary because if it came down to it, they could just bleed the cabin atmosphere into space. Death by gradual decompression and oxygen starvation is allegedly a lot less traumatic than death by cyanide (though I wouldn't want to put that to the test) – GordonM Dec 21 '15 at 17:37
  • @GordonM No need to, aviation.stackexchange.com has some good info on what exactly happens during decompression and loss of oxygen even in atmosphere. – JAB Sep 29 '16 at 23:00

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