The Herbology Theory

Among the effects recovered from the deceased hiking group were several bundles of roots and herbs. They were primarily Rhodiola rosea, commonly known as rose root, golden root, roseroot, Aaron’s rod, Arctic root, king’s crown, lignum rhodium, or orphan rose. There is no mention of herb collecting in any eyewitness recollections of conversations with Mercer, nor are they mentioned on the Smithson tape.

However, Patricia Mercer was a well-known devotee of herbal medicine and was an active customer at several mail-order pharmacies. Investigators found several pharmacopoeias in her home, and a field guide was among her effects at the campsite. Roseroot was listed in both sources as a good treatment for altitude sickness, depression, and a variety of other maladies.

The FDA, in the years since, has issued warnings to several manufacturers of herbal medicines for claiming health benefits for roseroot while offering the herb in dangerously high doses. This has led some to believe that Mercer had given roseroot to the group in an attempt to alleviate altitude sickness or other concerns.

Side effects of roseroot overdose or toxicity include irritability, agitation, anxiety, insomnia, headaches, increased blood pressure, and chest pain. These match fairly well with the maladies described on the Smithson tape, and increased blood pressure may lead to fatal arrhythmia or cardiac bleeding in some cases.

But this theory falls apart just as quickly as it comes together. The quantities of raw roseroot in the group’s possession were insufficient to cause any such toxicity, and no unusual polyphenols were detected in the postmortems. Furthermore, the root is very bitter when raw and needs to be prepared to make it palatable–there is no indication that this was done at any of the group’s campsites.

In fact, the presence of roseroot adds another strange wrinkle to the case–where did it come from? Roseroot is relatively rare in Idaho, which is at the southernmost extent of its range, and while it is not unheard of, the quantities found in the group’s possession far exceed any known concentration of plants in the state. A detailed examination of Patricia Mercer’s credit card records also reveals no major roseroot purchases, and the raw plant is relatively hard to find in stores even today.

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