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

by Deborah Blum


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

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.

In 2014, PBS's AMERICAN EXPERIENCE released a film based on The Poisoner's Handbook.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143118824
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/25/2011
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 59,024
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)
Lexile: 1190L (what's this?)
Age Range: 18 Years

About 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.  She is the author of Ghost Hunters, coeditor of A Field Guide for Science Writers, and has written about scientific research for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Psychology Today, and Mother Jones. She is the president-elect of the National Association of Science Writers and serves on advisory boards for both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences.

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."

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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The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 76 reviews.
thesoundofherwings More than 1 year ago
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.
JcDean More than 1 year ago
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!
Ludwigvan1952 More than 1 year ago
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.
dpoo More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent. 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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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. .
LAT72 More than 1 year ago
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.
Nigai More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!
Jude_Elizabeth More than 1 year ago
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.
SuperDuperSarah More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Deborah Blum makes an incredibly engaging story of the birth of modern forensic toxicology. Her explanations of the poisons chemistry took me nostalgically back to my days as a chemist. As a medical doctor the clinical descriptions are especially interesting (there have been times in my 40 year career that I have had to consider such types of poisoning’s). All mixed with innumerable stories is gripping reading for everyone.
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