From Sarah Weinman's "THE CRIMINALIST" column on Barnes & Noble Review
Murder provides the crux for a good many of the stories which fascinate us, whether the tale comes from the tabloids or a novelist's imagination. But the act itself often eludes narrative. A cloud of rage, a moment of opportunity, and a weapon in hand leads to death in minutes, even seconds, barely enough time to register that the victim has moved out of the land of the living. Add a dash of poison, however, rationed out in small doses over a long period of time, and murder leaves the realm of second-degree impulse for first-degree pre-meditation. Randomize the efforts and, in recent cases like the 1982 Tylenol murders and the 2001 anthrax attacks, the result is domestic terror, the lack of resolution lingering in the air like the bitter almond smell of cyanide.
Contemporary crime fiction's emphasis on verisimilitude and character favors more easily discernible death mechanisms like gunshots, stab wounds and ligatures, in large part because there are more such murders in real life. But the genre's Golden Age, from the turn of the 20th Century to World War II, ran amok with poisoners, whose crimes could be couched as debilitating sickness or the natural run of aging. Once unmasked by the likes of Agatha Christie -- who knew a thing or two about insidious chemicals thanks to an earlier job dispensing pharmaceuticals -- the handiwork of these villains were a testament to elegantly complex plotting and fiendish misdirection of the reader.
These parlor tricks of fiction also reflected what Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Deborah Blum describes, in her new bookThe Poisoner's Handbook as "a deadly cat and mouse game, [with] scientists and poisoners as intellectual adversaries." Although poison is as old as human culture (think of the death of Socrates) its operation couldn't be understood until the advent of modern chemistry. By the early 1800s it was possible to detect the presence of poison, and by the early 20th Century European toxicologists were staying in step with drug-happy murderers who thought they could get away with their crimes, only to be foiled by post-mortem chemical tests.
In America, these advances ran into somewhat greater obstacles. Forensic science practices were nowhere close to their counterparts across the Atlantic -- American states and towns were riddled with incompetent coroners, underfunded laboratories and indifferent politicians who could not keep pace with the "wealth of modern poisons" created by the innovations of industry. The clever poisoner, however, was about to meet his match in the two heroes of Blum's fascinating account of the dawn of modern American forensic toxicology; The Poisoner's Handbook offers a synthesis of societal forces and chemical advances with barely detectable seams.
On January 31, 1918, years after a scathing report indicted New York City's coroners for falling down on the job and despite endless delays by Tammany Hall-controlled state legislature, Charles Norris, Bellevue Hospital's chief pathologist, was appointed the city's first Chief Medical Examiner. The appointment was a watershed:
It would be imprecise to say that [Norris] loved the job...he lived and breathed it. He spent his own money on it. He gave it power and prominence and wore himself into exhaustion and illness over it. Under [his] direction, the New York City medical examiner's office would become a department that set forensic standards for the rest of the country.
Norris courted the public, which latched on to his "buoyant laugh and quick wit," and had a keen sense of the absurd ("We call this the Country Club," he would tell visitors) but never forgot his objective to overcome, as he described in an essay, "a system which fosters ignorance, prejudice and graft."
His partner in pathological crime, at least on the toxicology front, was Alexander Gettler. Unlike his boss, he didn't care for the media (reporters would grow frustrated at Gettler's tight-lipped answers, one memorably setting him down as "a personality as colorless as the sodium chloride that he works with" but shared a passion for medical research, extremely long hours and, most importantly, for devising new ways to catch previously undetectable culprits. Gettler, in essence, would have to invent the wheel, since New York's toxicology lab was America's first: "If a test didn't exist, he would invent it. If research methods didn't exist, he would develop them himself. If a new poison or drug came on the market, he went off to a butcher shop...and bought three pounds of liver."
Compared to modern machines that detect traces of substances down to parts per billion, Gettler's resources and methods come across as shockingly brute and quaint. But fields must begin somewhere, and Gettler's determination to beat poisoners at their own game forms the emotional core of The Poisoner's Handbook, which is otherwise a marvel of structural and narrative trickery. Each chapter is named for a particular chemical substance with the power to kill, the order carefully chosen to reflect the many balls Blum must juggle throughout: chloroform (CHCl3) and its oh-so-sweet smell kicks things off because it was used by a serial murderer unknown to the collapsing coroner system, while the two chapters bearing the same chemical formula of CH3OH comment on the inexorable but separate rise of cheap, deadly wood alcohol and its twin, synthetic methyl alcohol -- both boosted first by the onset of Prohibition, the set of booze-banning laws that helped define the Jazz Age's penchant for excess, and second by and the national despair brought on by the Great Depression. Not all poisons are elegant, and Blum's necessary emphasis on alcohol poisoning (which zoomed up 600% between 1920 and 1930) acts as a subtle reminder that Wars on Substances of any stripe prove to be more costly, inefficient, and damaging than the drug itself.
Other poisons get their moment as the m.o. of cases famous or forgotten. Cyanide's "murderously precise" action, binding tightly to haemoglobin molecules at the expense of oxygen, spurred Gettler and his liver meat-grinding to prove that an older couple's death in Brooklyn's Hotel Margaret was an accident, not murder. The "chemical thug" carbon monoxide's rise to prominence owed its thanks to the parallel rise in automobile usage, and its detection both fingered murderers and saved innocent men from execution. And the detection of arsenic reverses the fortunes of a poisoned-minded woman named Mary Frances Creighton, who twelve years earlier was acquitted when Gettler's painstaking techniques were mocked in court. It was, for Gettler and Norris, a triumph that "had, indeed, changed the poison game" and commanded respect for forensic toxicology.
Blum's extraordinary narrative alchemy fuses Gettler and Norris's painstaking, laborious undertakings with the birth of safety measures (the Food and Drug Administration wasn't much of one until the 1930s), the scandal surrounding workers' exposure to radium, and many other measures that bring home how volatile the transformation from prosperity to struggle really was. A few things get lost, like what debt both Norris and Gettler owed to colleagues in other cities and countries (Blum, to her credit, makes a note of this in supplementary material) or what clashes they had with law enforcement (though the ones with government are well-documented.) But these flaws don't diminish The Poisoner's Handbook's glorious depictions of the "coming-of-age party for forensic toxicology." The book is an unexpected yet appropriate open-sesame into a world that was planting seeds for the world -- with lethal toxins and cutting-edge tools -- that would later, darkly bloom.
The Poisoner's Handbook is an inventive history that, like arsenic mixed into blackberry pie, goes down with ease.
The New York Times
…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
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)
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.
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.
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.
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
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
“The Poisoner’s Handbook is aninventive history that, like arsenic, mixed into blackberry pie, goesdown with ease.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Blum illuminates these tales of Norris and Gettler and their era witha dedication and exuberance that reflect the men themselves. Not onlyis The Poisoner's Handbook asthrilling as any CSI episode, but it also offers something even better:an education in how forensics really works.” —The Washington Post
“Blum, a longtime newspaper writer and now a professor of sciencejournalism at the University of Wisconsin, skillfully explains thechemistry behind Gettler's experiments. Her book is sure to appeal tomystery lovers, science nerds and history buffs. . . .”—Associated Press
“Fast-paced and suspenseful, ThePoisoner’s Handbook breathes deadly life into the RoaringTwenties.”—FinancialTimes
“All the nitty-gritty about death by arsenic, by thallium, by woodalcohol, is here in precise, gruesome detail. It makes for astomach-turning read. . . . .Ms. Blum’s combination of chemistry andcrime fiction creates a vicious, page-turning story that reads morelike Raymond Chandler than Madame Curie.”—New York Observer
“In this bubbling beaker of a book, [Blum] mixes up a heady potion offorensic toxicology, history and true crime. . . . The Poisoner's Handbook will getinto your head. You'll find yourself questioning the chemicals in oureveryday lives. What's really in our food, cosmetics, pesticides,cleaning supplies, children's toys and pet dinners? This isn't just agood read. It's a summons to study labels, research, think and act.”—Dallas Morning News
“The Poisoner's Handbook succeeds as science, as history, asentertainment and as an argument for the power and purpose of popularscience writing.”—MilwaukeeJournal-Sentinel
“One thinks of Erik Larson's Devil in the White City . . . a bookthat gave splendiferously disgusting descriptions of horrible murdersand did it so dexterously and intelligently that even readers whowouldn't normally read a true crime book were happily sucked in.Deborah Blum's The Poisoner'sHandbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New Yorkis that kind of book.” —New Haven Advocate
“Blum has cooked up a delicious, addictive brew: murder, forensictoxicology, New York City in the 20s, the biochemistry ofpoison. I loved this book. I knocked it back in one go and now Iwant more!”—Mary Roach, author of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Scienceand Sex and Stiff: The Curious Livesof Human Cadavers
“The Poisoner's Handbook opensoneriveting murder case after another in this chronicle of Jazz Agechemical crimes where the real-life twists and turns are as startlingas anything in fiction. Deborah Blum turns us all into forensicdetectives by the end of this expertly written, dramatic page-turnerthat will transform the way you think about the power of science tothreaten and save our lives.”—MatthewPearl, author of The Last Dickensand The Dante Club
“The Poisoner's Handbook is awonderfully compelling hybrid of history and science built aroundeccentric characters. One scene reads like Patricia Cornwell and thenext like Oliver Sacks. From movie stars and aristocrats to homicidalgrandmothers and entrepreneurial gangsters, from the government'spoisoning of alcohol during Prohibition to the dangers of radiation andautomobile pollution, Blum follows an amazing array of poignanttragedies through the laboratory of these crusading public servants.—Michael Sims, author of Apollo's Fire and Adam's Navel
“With the pacing and rich characterization of a first-rate suspensenovelist, Blum makes science accessible and fascinating.” —PublishersWeekly, starred review
“Caviar for true-crime fans and science buffs alike.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Formative figures in forensics, Norris and Gettler become fascinatingcrusaders in Blum’s fine depiction of their work in the law-floutingatmosphere of Prohibition-era New York.”—Booklist
Read an Excerpt
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."