A suicide pill (also known as an L-pill or lethal pill) is a pill, capsule, ampoule or tablet containing a fatally poisonous substance that a person ingests deliberately in order to quickly cause his/her own death. This is done in order to avoid an imminent and far more unpleasant death (such as through torture) or to ensure that he/she cannot be interrogated and leak sensitive information. As a result, lethal pills have important psychological value to persons carrying out missions with a high risk of capture and interrogation. Their main advantage is that, whereas a concealed pistol will very easily be discovered and confiscated when someone is overpowered and searched, a small pill more easily evades detection.
Traditionally, lethal pills are oval capsules, approximately the size of a pea, consisting of a thin-walled glass ampoule covered in brown rubber (to protect against accidental breakage) and filled with a concentrated solution of potassium cyanide. It is important to note that purpose-made lethal pills (of the rubber-coated type) are never swallowed whole. Instead, they are first crushed between the user's molars to release the fast-acting poison contained within. Brain death occurs within minutes and the heartbeat stops shortly after. A suicide pill swallowed without first being crushed would pass harmlessly through the digestive tract.
The concept of the suicide pill does not limit itself to pills, but rather may lend itself in a colloquial manner to anything that has fatal consequences when deliberately taken or done. Cyanide inhibits the mitochondrial electron transport chain.
The Central Intelligence Agency began experimenting with saxitoxin, an extremely potent neurotoxin, during the 1950s. According to CIA Director William Colby they issued a tiny, saxitoxin-impregnated needle (hidden inside a fake silver dollar) to each American U-2 pilot, with instructions to stab themselves with it if shot down over the USSR.
- Field Marshal Erwin Rommel committed suicide with a cyanide pill following his implication in the July 20 plot against Hitler. Additionally, Eva Braun, Adolf Hitler, and a number of convicted Nazi war criminals, such as Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Göring are known to have committed suicide using lethal pills containing a solution of cyanide salts. (Hitler also shot himself in the head.)
- William Sterling Parsons and several other crew members of the B-29 Superfortress bombers sent to drop atomic bombs on Japan in World War II were issued with lethal pills, though all aircraft returned safely and none of the pills were used. This was in case they were captured and then tortured by the Kempeitai to reveal classified information regarding atomic weapons.
- In 1987 two North Korean Agents bit into ampules hidden in the filter tips of cigarettes after they were detained in Bahrain as suspects in an airplane bombing. One agent died.
- During the Civil War in Sri Lanka between 1987 to 2009, the separatist suicide bombers of Tamil Tigers wore a potassium cyanide necklace. If they were captured by the Sri Lanka Army, they would bite in to the tablet at the end of the necklace. In addition to suicide bombers, since 1976 almost all separatists of this organization wore suicide pill. This is the most modern day wide scale use of potassium cyanide as a suicide tool.
In economics, a suicide pill is a form of risk arbitrage used by corporations to thwart hostile takeover attempts. As an extreme version of the poison pill defense, this crippling provision refers to any technique used by a target firm in which takeover protection could result in self-destruction.
- "Guard 'gave Goering suicide pill" BBC News February 8, 2005, retrieved April 28, 2006
- Molecules of murder: criminal molecules and classic cases By John Emsley ISBN 978-0-85404-965-3