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

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Video From "The Chemist's War" (Slate Magazine), by Deborah BlumPulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum follows New York City's first forensic scientists to discover a fascinating Jazz Age story of chemistry and detection, poison and murder.

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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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.
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
Publishers Weekly
Blum's spine-tingling thriller about early 20th-century poisoners, their innovations in undetectable killing methods, and New York City's first medical examiner and toxicologist who documented the telltale signs of poisoning is given a theatrical twist in Coleen Marlo's reading. Her voice is smoky and tinged with humor, irony, and light mocking as she revisits the rudimentary methods of the murder and equally rudimentary science of the Jazz Age. She's an able guide to the science and her voices are pitch-perfect—especially her humorously masculine characterizations of Blum's male subjects. A Penguin Press hardcover (Reviews, Dec. 14). (Mar.)
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
The Barnes & Noble Review

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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781410425126
  • Publisher: Gale Group
  • Publication date: 4/2/2010
  • Edition description: Large Print
  • Pages: 490
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Pulitzer Prize winner Deborah Blum is a professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin. She worked as a newspaper science writer for twenty years, winning the Pulitzer in 1992 for her writing about primate research, which she turned into a book, The Monkey Wars (Oxford, 1994). Her other books include Sex on the Brain (Viking, 1997) and Love at Goon Park (Perseus, 2002). She has written about scientific research for The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Discover, Health, Psychology Today, and Mother Jones. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers and now serves on an advisory board to the World Federation of Science Journalists and the National Academy of Sciences.

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Read an Excerpt



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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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 74 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 74 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 23, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Excellent for science nerds and history buffs alike.

    I'm a biology major who is wanting to work in the field of forensics, and I'm a bit of a history buff, too. So, this book was right up my alley. It was informative without being dry. People unfamiliar with chemistry should have no problem understanding it, but some of the descriptions of the chemistry of the poisons might get tedious. I found the case studies and personal anecdotes very interesting. If you enjoyed Mary Roach's "Stiff", you will probably enjoy this one as well.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 11, 2010

    Terrific Book! Great Read!

    I've already bought this book for myself, and after starting it, I could not put it down! It was so fascinating, I ended up buying two more copies for friends, and they also found it equally fascinating. Nonfiction that reads like fiction. I will keep my eye out for future Deborah Blum books!

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 10, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    A forensic spectacular!

    To all the fans of CSI, NCIS, etc., read this book! If you want to see what forensic criminology was like "back in the day" you could not choose a better book. The history of this subject is largely ignored by the popular press and it is fascinating (if a bit stomach-churning on occasion).

    I finished it in 3 days! And it left me wanting more, more information, more stories. The author did her subject proud.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 13, 2013

    The story is based in New York City in the early 1900's. It was

    The story is based in New York City in the early 1900's. It was the time of prohibition, and the beginning of what you could call a medical revolution. Mercury, cyanide, chloroform, wood alcohol, and more, stocked doctors' offices, homes, and pharmacies. With the beginning of Prohibition, each cocktail drank added to a game of chance.
    . The people of New York City knew something had to change, so pathologist Charles Norris was hired. Norris along with with chemist Alexander Gettler, founded the city's first toxicology laboratory. The main story though, starts before Gettler and Norris. It starts when an unlikely killer springs up and bares its nasty fangs.
    . This story is very believable and exciting. For people who enjoy television shows like CSI or NCIS, this book gives you a perfect combination of chemistry and forensics.
    . Norris, Gettler, and other characters in the story are all believable. I want to know why Charles Norris chose to become a pathologist, and why he wanted Gettler so badly on his team.
    . The science content is very accurate. I wouldn't necessarily want to learn more about the poisons, but I would be interested in learning more about the pathology and medical side to the story.
    . In my opinion, this book is for somebody who is interested in chemistry more than anything. It was an ok book, but probably not one I would choose to re-read.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 16, 2011

    Fascinating story!

    Now I know just enough about poisons to be dangerous, I definitely want to learn more. Blum has put together a well-researched and interesting look at Jazz Age New York....from an unexpected angle.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 5, 2011


    Authoratative and exceptionally well written? Ms Blum makes the 1920's come alive. She gives historians an excellent background as to why the 18th amendment failed and the government's ghastly hand in poisoning those people who just had to drink. Despite the politics of the time, she also brings to hand the hard work of Doctors Norris and Gettler. The state of forensic pathology is still catching up to Europe.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 21, 2014

    Interesting read about and unusual topic

    People will ask why are you reading a poisons book, but this book is an interesting history of forensic science. I really didn't know what to expect, but it kept me reading like any good murder mystery book does. I think anyone who enjoys all the CSI type shows would like this book so they can understand how the science of identifying poisons started with detailed accounts of cases & methods.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 11, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    Excellent. Non fiction book that reads like fiction. I found it

    Non fiction book that reads like fiction. I found it hard to put down once I started reading it. The beginnings of forensics and the chaos of New York in the 1920"s. Great book for fans of CSI and similar shows also good for mystery fans who like science in their mysteries, I think. I finished it and turned right around and read it again. Only four stars because i would have liked it to be longer. I didn't find the chemistry overwhelming as did one other reviewer and i am no chemist, believe me.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2013


    I'd been wanting to get this book for a while, and finally did. It's a great read - an interesting history book, with science tied in, and pretty easy and entertaining as well. I'm almost done with it, and will be sad when it's over. I would definitely recommend it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 17, 2012

    Such a great read!

    This is such a wonderfully weird, informative book. What could have been a dry read about the history of forensic science was a real page turner. The author intersperses scientific facts with human stories that highlight the social and emotional consequences of deliberate and unintentional poisoning, advancing forensic work, prohibition, and poverty to name a few.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2012

    Loved the ebook so much, had to buy it in "real" book form.

    Blum shows perfectly balanced writing skills by blending intricate science details with engaging storytellling. The amount of research is impressive. While reading "Handbook" a second time I kept imagining who I would want to see play these characters in a movie. The story of these forensic pioneers should be known to everyone.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 6, 2012

    A Morbid Curiousity

    I just finished this book in two days, it was such a page-turner! I loved how the author managed to evoke the creepy and sinister atmosphere around the times, places, and people she wrote about. I also have a new respect for early forensic pioneers. A deft mix of history, science, and criminal mysrery with a dash of the deliciously ghoulish.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 15, 2011

    Really interesting!

    Thank God for forensic science! This book was fascinating how it recounts the very beginnings of forensic science. It's amazing how far we've come in one hundred years in discovering dangerous poisons and solving murders. Truly interesting!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 25, 2011


    A long-time interest in forensics and a great title got me to pick up this book - I was not disappointed. The wonderful science details are accurate without being "too science-y" and there are true stories to show how valuable forensics can be in criminal cases. This book is never boring and, in an era where there is a CSI, NCIS, Criminal Minds, and similar shows all over our television, this book gives every reader a new appreciation for what the early pioneers went through to get this valuable science recognized. Excellent book - highly recommended to those interested in forensics, the 20s & 30s, and/or the interesting lengths criminals will go to get away with murder.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 17, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Intriguing & Informative

    I found this book to be interesting and very well written. The organization of the book was wonderful and made it an easy read. Chapters are laid out by poison and follow a timeline, solving the problem that many nonfiction accounts have of a wandering timeline.

    The author creates a vivid history and captures the scenery of Prohibition Era New York. The author also does an excellent job of describing chemical reaction in a simple, easy to follow jargon that would not be intimidating to someone unfamiliar with chemistry.

    I was not able to put this book down.

    I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys interesting in-depth looks at off beat topics. Fans of Mary Roach would certainly enjoy this book as well as those who enjoy True Crime.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Great history book that reads like a novel!

    Loved it! I love reading non-fiction and learning new things. I learned a great deal from this book. At times, the science talk was a little too much but over all it was easy to understand and I couldn't put it down! I just wish it had pictures!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2010

    Most Absorbing!

    I found this book to be riveting; it explains the history of different poisons. Far from being macabe, as it may first sound, it is a history lesson of how poisons came into use and how forensic medicine began to detect these substances.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 12, 2014

    I found this book fascinating! The detailed historical times, ev

    I found this book fascinating! The detailed historical times, events, politics and individuals involved made this a captivating book. My mom told me that my grandfather had developed a drinking problem during Prohibition, but that never really made sense to me until I read book. That happened to many people. The lack of credible products & information back then was appalling. Drs. Norris & Gettler are true "heroes" in shaping our national health protections and crime detection! If you like history, mystery, crime detection, forensics, or anecdotes, you'll enjoy this book. I highly recommend it!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2014

    Would definitely recommend it

    Anyone that enjoys nonfiction should enjoy this book

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  • Posted February 7, 2014

    As many of the review I read before reading this book mentioned,

    As many of the review I read before reading this book mentioned, "The Poisoner's Handbook" is non-fiction that reads like a who-dun-it novel. Engrossing and fascinating, it gives a lot of informationa bout poisons in the 19th and early 20th century, as well as a lot of useful and fascinating information about Prohibition. The birth of forensic science in the U.S. is covered, and it's extremely interesting to find out how this came about. i would recommend this to anyone who likes either history or fiction of this genre. I enjoyed reading it and will probably read it again once my memory fades and I need a refresher!

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