The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

4.3 74
by Deborah Blum
     
 

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Equal parts true crime, twentieth-century history, and science thriller, The Poisoner's Handbook is "a vicious, page-turning story that reads more like Raymond Chandler than Madame Curie" (The New York Observer)

A fascinating Jazz Age tale of chemistry and detection, poison and murder, The Poisoner's Handbook is a

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Overview


Equal parts true crime, twentieth-century history, and science thriller, The Poisoner's Handbook is "a vicious, page-turning story that reads more like Raymond Chandler than Madame Curie" (The New York Observer)

A fascinating Jazz Age tale of chemistry and detection, poison and murder, The Poisoner's Handbook is a page-turning account of a forgotten era. In early twentieth-century New York, poisons offered an easy path to the perfect crime. Science had no place in the Tammany Hall-controlled coroner's office, and corruption ran rampant. However, with the appointment of chief medical examiner Charles Norris in 1918, the poison game changed forever. Together with toxicologist Alexander Gettler, the duo set the justice system on fire with their trailblazing scientific detective work, triumphing over seemingly unbeatable odds to become the pioneers of forensic chemistry and the gatekeepers of justice.

Editorial Reviews

Elyssa East
The Poisoner's Handbook is an inventive history that, like arsenic mixed into blackberry pie, goes down with ease.
—The New York Times
Art Taylor
…immensely entertaining…Blum illuminates these tales of Norris and Gettler and their era with a dedication and exuberance that reflect the men themselves. Not only is The Poisoner's Handbook as thrilling as any "CSI" episode, but it also offers something even better: an education in how forensics really works.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Pulitzer Prize–winning science journalist Blum (Ghost Hunters) makes chemistry come alive in her enthralling account of two forensic pioneers in early 20th-century New York. Blum follows the often unglamorous but monumentally important careers of Dr. Charles Norris, Manhattan’s first trained chief medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, its first toxicologist. Moving chronologically from Norris’s appointment in 1918 through his death in 1936, Blum cleverly divides her narrative by poison, providing not only a puzzling case for each noxious substance but the ingenious methods devised by the medical examiner’s office to detect them. Before the advent of forensic toxicology, which made it possible for the first time to identify poisons in corpses, Gettler learned the telltale signs of everything from cyanide (it leaves a corrosive trail in the digestive system) to the bright pink flush that signals carbon monoxide poisoning. In a particularly illuminating section, Blum examines the dangers of bootleg liquor (commonly known as wood, or methyl, alcohol) produced during Prohibition. With the pacing and rich characterization of a first-rate suspense novelist, Blum makes science accessible and fascinating. (Feb. 22)
Chicago Sun-Times
As a professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Deborah Blum has not lost the skills of good storytelling she honed as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. She put them to excellent use a couple of years back in Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, a wonderful account of 19th century investigations into supernatural and extrasensory manifestations, and they show no diminishment in The Poisoner’s Handbook.
Associated Press
Blum, a longtime newspaper writer and now a professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin, skillfully explains the chemistry behind Gettler's experiments. Her book is sure to appeal to mystery lovers, science nerds and history buffs drawn to a captivating story of two men whose skill and dedication helped transform the criminal justice system.
Newsday
Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who teaches science journalism at the University of Wisconsin, lays out an occasionally convoluted story with precision and suspense. "The Poisoner's Handbook" is as hard to walk away from as a "CSI" marathon.
Library Journal
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Blum (science journalism, Univ. of Wisconsin) has cleverly packaged her account of the birth of forensic medicine by addressing the use and detection of various poisons in the early 20th century. The setting is the Prohibition era, when the death toll rose with the widespread distribution of bootleg liquor containing lethal methyl alcohol and the addition of poisons deliberately added by federal government regulation to make alcohols undrinkable. Blum focuses on New York City's first chief medical examiner, Charles Norris, and his colleague, longtime chief toxicologist Alexander Gettler. Norris was relentless in his advocacy for the new profession, often railing against government policies (or the lack thereof) that allowed unregulated poisons to be blithely used in industrial products, cosmetics, and medicinals despite injuries and deaths. Gettler was the consummate workaholic professional, meticulously testing and developing new techniques for extracting the remnants of poisons in corpses. Blum interlaces true-crime stories with the history of forensic medicine and the chemistry of various poisons. VERDICT This readable and enjoyable book should appeal to history buffs interested in medicine, New York City, or the early 20th century generally. And of course scientists and true-crime aficionados will also enjoy it. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/09.]—Karen Sandlin Silverman, CFAR, Philadelphia
Kirkus Reviews
The rollicking story of the creation of modern forensic science by New York researchers during the Prohibition era. Pulitzer Prize winner Blum (Science Journalism/Univ. of Wisconsin; Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, 2006, etc.) focuses on two main characters. Charles Norris became chief medical examiner of New York City following an era of corrupt coroners with no medical or scientific training. With his head toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, Norris brought a new level of dedication to the job, developing techniques that were still cited decades later by professionals around the world. One of Blum's themes is the widespread alcohol poisoning caused by the ban on legal booze-unscrupulous bootleggers sold their thirsty patrons everything from wood alcohol to benzene, gasoline, iodine, formaldehyde, ether and mercury salts. "There is practically no pure whiskey available," Norris warned in 1926. At the same time, he and Gettler were perfecting the means of detecting increasingly sophisticated poisonings. Old-fashioned arsenic was still around, often in the form of Rough on Rats, a widely available rodent bait. But poisoners were now using cyanide, mercury, carbon monoxide and even rare metals like thallium to do in their victims. It was often difficult to distinguish accidents from murder or suicide, and medical experts often had to supplement their findings with more conventional detective work. Blum recounts the famous cases of the day, including the factory workers who painted glow-in-the-dark watch dials with radium paint, poisoned as they put their brushes in their mouths to touch up the point; and Mike Malloy, a homeless alcoholicwho miraculously survived poison, exposure and being run over by a taxi, before the gang who'd insured his life finally gassed him. One pair of murderers, exonerated by Gettler's evidence in 1924, was finally caught in 1936, when they killed again using the same poison. Blum effectively balances the fast-moving detective story with a clear view of the scientific advances that her protagonists brought to the field. Caviar for true-crime fans and science buffs alike. Agent: Suzanne Gluck/William Morris Endeavor
From the Publisher
"With the pacing and rich characterization of a first-rate suspense novelist, Blum makes science accessible and fascinating." —Publishers Weekly Starred Review

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780143118824
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
01/25/2011
Pages:
336
Sales rank:
132,758
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)
Lexile:
1190L (what's this?)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

PROLOGUE

THE POISON GAME

Until the early nineteenth century few tools existed to detect a toxic substance in a corpse. Sometimes investigators deduced poison from the violent sickness that preceded death, or built a case by feeding animals a victim's last meal, but more often than not poisoners walked free. As a result murder by poison flourished. It became so common in eliminating perceived difficulties, such as a wealthy parent who stayed alive too long, that the French nicknamed the metallic element arsenic poudre de succession, the inheritance powder.

The chemical revolution of the 1800s changed the relative ease of such killings. Scientists learned to isolate and identify the basic elements and the chemical compounds that define life on Earth, gradually building a catalog, The Periodic Table of the Elements. In 1804, the elements palladium, cerium, iridium, osmium, and rhodium were discovered; potassium and sodium were isolated in 1807; barium, calcium, magnesium, and strontium in 1808; chlorine in 1810. Once researchers understood individual elements they went on to study them in combination, examining how elements bonded to create exotic compounds and familiar substances, such as the sodiumchlorine combination that creates basic table salt (NaCl).

The pioneering scientists who worked in elemental chemistry weren't thinking about poisons in particular. But others were. In 1814, in the midst of this blaze of discovery, the Spanish chemist Mathieu Orfila published a treatise on poisons and their detection, the first book of its kind. Orfila suspected that metallic poisons like arsenic might be the easiest to detect in the body's tissues and pushed his research in that direction. By the late 1830s the first test for isolating arsenic had been developed. Within a decade more reliable tests had been devised and were being used successfully in criminal prosecutions.

But the very science that made it possible to identify the old poisons, like arsenic, also made available a lethal array of new ones. Morphine was isolated in 1804, the same year that palladium was discovered. In 1819 strychnine was extracted from the seeds of the Asian vomit button tree (Strychnos nux vomica). The lethal compound coniine was isolated from hemlock the same year. Chemists neatly extracted nicotine from tobacco leaves in 1828. Aconitine— described by one toxicologist as "in its pure state, perhaps the most potent poison known"— was found in the beautifully flowering monkshood plant in 1832.

And although researchers had learned to isolate these alkaloids— organic (carbon-based) compounds with some nitrogen mixed in— they had no idea how to find such poisons in human tissue. Orfila himself, conducting one failed attempt after another, worried that it was an impossible task. One exasperated French prosecutor, during a mid-nineteenth-century trial involving a morphine murder, exclaimed: "Henceforth let us tell would be poisoners; do not use metallic poisons for they leave traces. Use plant poisons… Fear nothing; your crime will go unpunished. There is no corpus delecti [physical evidence] for it cannot be found."

So began a deadly cat and mouse game—scientists and poisoners as intellectual adversaries. A gun may be fired in a flash of anger, a rock carelessly hurled, a shovel swung in sudden fury, but a homicidal poisoning requires a calculating intelligence. Unsurprisingly, then, when metallic poisons, such as arsenic, became detectable in bodies, informed killers turned away from them. A survey of poison prosecutions in Britain found that, by the mid-nineteenth century, arsenic killings were decreasing. The trickier plant alkaloids were by then more popular among murderers.

In response, scientists increased their efforts to capture alkaloids in human tissue. Finally, in 1860, a reclusive and single-minded French chemist, Jean Servais Stas, figured out how to isolate nicotine, an alkaloid of the tobacco plant, from a corpse. Other plant poisons soon became more accessible and chemists were able to offer new assistance to criminal investigations. The field of toxicology was becoming something to be reckoned with, especially in Europe.

The knowledge, and the scientific determination, spread across the Atlantic to the United States. The 1896 book Medical Jurisprudence, Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, cowritten by a New York research chemist and a law professor, documented the still-fierce competition between scientists and killers. In one remarkable case in New York, a physician had killed his wife with morphine and then put belladonna drops into her eyes to counter the telltale contraction of her pupils. He was convicted only after Columbia University chemist Rudolph Witthaus, one of the authors of the 1896 text, demonstrated the process to the jury by killing a cat in the courtroom using the same gruesome technique. There was as much showmanship as science, Witthaus admitted; toxicology remained a primitive field of research filled with "questions still unanswerable."

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What People are saying about this

Michael Sims
"The Poisoner's Handbook is a wonderfully compelling hybrid of history and science built around eccentric characters.. One scene reads like Patricia Cornwell and the next like Oliver Sacks. From movie stars and aristocrats to homicidal grandmothers and entrepreneurial gangsters, from the government's poisoning of alcohol during Prohibition to the dangers of radiation and automobile pollution, Blum follows an amazing array of poignant tragedies through the laboratory of these crusading public servants."--(Michael Sims, author of Apollo's Fire and Adam's Navel)
Mary Roach
"Blum has cooked up a delicious, addictive brew: murder, forensic toxicology, New York City in the 20s, the biochemistry of poison. I loved this book. I knocked it back in one go and now I want more!"--(Mary Roach, author of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers)
Matthew Pearl
"The Poisoner's Handbook opens one riveting murder case after another in this chronicle of Jazz Age chemical crimes where the real-life twists and turns are as startling as anything in fiction. Deborah Blum turns us all into forensic detectives by the end of this expertly written, dramatic page-turner that will transform the way you think about the power of science to threaten and save our lives."--(Matthew Pearl, author of The Last Dickens and The Dante Club)
From the Publisher
"With the pacing and rich characterization of a first-rate suspense novelist, Blum makes science accessible and fascinating." —-Publishers Weekly Starred Review

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