Deborah Blum, writing with the high style and skill for suspense that is characteristic of the very best mystery fiction, shares the untold story of how poison rocked Jazz Age New York City. In The Poisoner's Handbook Blum draws from highly original research to track the fascinating, perilous days when a pair of forensic scientists began their trailblazing chemical detective work, fighting to end an era when untraceable poisons offered an easy path to the perfect crime.
Drama unfolds case by case as the heroes of The Poisoner's Handbook—chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler—investigate a family mysteriously stricken bald, Barnum and Bailey's Famous Blue Man, factory workers with crumbling bones, a diner serving poisoned pies, and many others. Each case presents a deadly new puzzle and Norris and Gettler work with a creativity that rivals that of the most imaginative murderer, creating revolutionary experiments to tease out even the wiliest compounds from human tissue. Yet in the tricky game of toxins, even science can't always be trusted, as proven when one of Gettler's experiments erroneously sets free a suburban housewife later nicknamed "America's Lucretia Borgia" to continue her nefarious work.
From the vantage of Norris and Gettler's laboratory in the infamous Bellevue Hospital it becomes clear that killers aren't the only toxic threat to New Yorkers. Modern life has created a kind of poison playground, and danger lurks around every corner. Automobiles choke the city streets with carbon monoxide; potent compounds, such as morphine, can be found on store shelves in products ranging from pesticides to cosmetics. Prohibition incites a chemist's war between bootleggers and government chemists while in Gotham's crowded speakeasies each round of cocktails becomes a game of Russian roulette. Norris and Gettler triumph over seemingly unbeatable odds to become the pioneers of forensic chemistry and the gatekeepers of justice during a remarkably deadly time. A beguiling concoction that is equal parts true crime, twentieth-century history, and science thriller, The Poisoner's Handbook is a page-turning account of a forgotten New York.
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My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum is a 2010 Penguin Press publication.
Interesting history of forensic pioneers!
After some initial push-back, Charles Norris was named the first official Chief Medical Examiner in 1917 by the city of New York. He then brought in Alexander Gettler to create a toxicology lab. Although, forensic science was met with skepticism, Norris and Gettler were beneficial in uncovering deaths attributed to tainted alcohol during prohibition, and deaths caused by carbon monoxide, and radium poisoning. But murderers were also caught out as poisons such as arsenic, cyanide and thallium were discovered post-mortem.
There were so many common uses for some of these poisons and in some cases the dangers were not apparent until it was too late. Science has advanced, thanks to Norris and Gettler, and we are much more aware of the dangers poisons present. The work these gentlemen pioneered has both acquitted and convicted criminals and helped to prevent further illness and death.
The spotlight on prohibition is a bit long winded, as other consequences of the era get a share in the examination. Still, the number of deaths from tainted alcohol was shocking!
The Radium Girls story was already familiar to me, but it is still one of the most powerful segments in the book. Incredibly sad and difficult to read about.
The entire book is interesting and fascinating, but what propelled me to bump this one up on my list was a recent Dateline episode in which a man was poisoning his wife with Thallium and used this book as a guide!! (She survived- miraculously- just by the grace of God!)
Thallium is a poison I was not all that familiar with. During the 1930s it was used in dyes, and women, in particular, used it as a depilatory agent.
It was also used to treat certain ailments. It is known as the ‘Poisoner’s Poison’ and ‘Inheritance Powder’ as it is odorless and tasteless.
Overall, an incredibly interesting book. The only complaint I have is that we didn’t really get to know our hero scientist in a more personable way. A bit more biographical information might have been nice, but certainly not necessary.
Thank goodness Norris and Gettler stayed strong, sticking to the science and facts, despite all the forces working against them. Some of Gettler’s toxicology tools are still in use today. I shudder to think how many people would have gotten away with murder, or how many would have been wrongfully convicted, or how many substances would continue to sicken and kill, without their brains, and their determination to keep corruption out of their work.
True Crime readers will enjoy this one as well as those interested in the history of forensics, pathology, toxicology.
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After high school, Blum received a journalism degree from the University of Georgia in 1976, with a double minor in anthropology and political science. She worked for two newspapers in Georgia and one in Florida (St. Petersburg Times) before deciding to become a science writer and going to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. A University of Wisconsin fellow, she received her degree in 1982 and moved to California to work for McClatchy newspapers, first in Fresno and then in Sacramento. During her 13 years, at The Sacramento Bee, she won numerous awards for her work, culminating in the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in beat reporting for a series investigating ethical issues in primate research.
The series became her first book, The Monkey Wars (Oxford, 1994), which was named a Library Journal Best Sci-Tech book of the year. Three years later, she published Sex on the Brain: The Biological Differences Between Men and Women (Viking, 1997), which was named a New York Times Notable Book. Her 2002 book, Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection, (Perseus Books) was a finalist for The Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She followed that with Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death (Penguin Press, 2006). Her latest book, The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, will be published in February 2010.
Blum is also the co-editor of a widely used guide to science writing, A Field Guide for Science Writers (Oxford, 2006). She is currently the Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she teaches science journalism, creative-non-fiction, magazine writing and investigative reporting. A past-president of the National Association of Science Writers, she currently serves as the North American board member to the World Federation of Science Journalists. She also sits on the board of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and on the board of trustees for the Society for Society and the Public.