‘The Staircase’: What the Heck Is a Blow Poke, the Supposed Murder Weapon?

The item at the center of the prosecution’s theory about how Michael Peterson killed his wife Kathleen is an uncommon fireplace tool

the staircase what is a blow poke
The Staircase

(Note: This post contains some slight spoilers about Michael Peterson’s 2003 murder trial.)

Netflix’s update of the true crime documentary “The Staircase” asks the question, what is a “blow poke” and could it possibly have been the weapon that killed Kathleen Peterson?

Though nobody knows what really happened to Kathleen in her Durham, North Carolina, home in 2001, there are some very different theories to explain how she died – one of which is that her husband, Michael Peterson, killed her.

The early portion of “The Staircase” focuses on Michael Peterson’s murder trial and the defense’s theory of what happened to Kathleen.

The defense posits that Kathleen, who had been drinking with Michael earlier in the evening, went into the couple’s house from their pool, and slipped and fell on their narrow, poorly lit staircase. The autopsy revealed that Kathleen had seven lacerations on her head, which the prosecution thought disproved the idea that she accidentally fell down the stairs and died.

While the defense thought she might have fallen, tried to stand up, and fallen again, hitting her head multiple times, the prosecution says the amount of blood in the staircase and the wounds to her head suggested foul play.

In the trial, prosecutors suggested that Michael Peterson had beaten his wife with a blunt object, causing the cuts on her head and the massive blood loss. Although they had no murder weapon, prosecutors suggested the item in question could have been the couple’s “blow poke,” a gift from Kathleen’s sister that the prosecution claimed was missing from the Petersons’ house.

For some, a blow poke might be unfamiliar, even with all the time spent on it in the documentary. A blow poke is a fireplace tool, not dissimilar from your standard metal fire iron. Pokers for fireplaces are generally just long metal sticks with hooks at the end, used to move wood around to keep fires going.

A blow poke is also long and metal, with a hook at the end. The difference between standard fire irons and a blow poke is the “blow” part. A blow poke like the one in “The Staircase” is a hollow tube instead of a solid metal stick. The idea is that you can blow through the tube as you tend the fire like a bellows, sending oxygen to the flames in order to stoke them.

Tools for tending fires, and in particular or blowing on flames, have been around for hundreds of years. The blow poke from the case in “The Staircase” appears to be a Blo-Poke brand tool. They’re available the company’s website. The brass tools are made in Bristol, Connecticut, and according to the company website, were originally conceived by James Hopkins Smith in World War I, after he observed something similar being used by French farmers.

In “The Staircase,” the blow poke turns out not to be the murder weapon —  it was found in the garage, where it,  apparently, had  been left for a year. It wasn’t damaged and didn’t have  blood on it, which affected the prosecution’s case in Peterson’s 2003 trial.