The Poisoners Handbook by Deborah Blum

The Poisoner's HandbookIn the second decade of the 20th Century, a male nurse strolled into a New York City police station with something to say. Surrendering to police, the man confessed to murdering 8 nursing home patients with chloroform. It was plainly obvious he was guilty, but proving it turned out to be fiendishly difficult. Distressingly, the medical examiner’s office declared they could not test for chloroform in any but the most recently deceased. This lack of help from the medical establishment – the inability to deduce and prove the guilt of a poisoner – was a hallmark of early American forensic medicine. The problem was especially acute in New York, where the position of Chief Medical Examiner was routinely handed out as part of the spoils system to whomever had been a loyal party hack. At the time of the chloroform killings, the most pronounced characteristic of the current medical examiner was showing up to crime scenes intoxicated, assuming he showed up at all.

The public and reformers finally pushed through some needed improvements, and Charles Norris got the job. Norris was from a well-known Pennsylvania industrial family renowned for its civic accomplishments. Norris immediately set to work, toughening standards and demanding the utmost from staff, routinely using his own money to purchase supplies or even pay out extra salaries for talented workers. Foremost among these was Alexander Gettler, a close-mouthed man who loved to sneak away periodically to call his bookie about horse races, but also the greatest forensic toxicologist in America. Together Norris and Gettler would take the science of forensics and toxicology from the amateurish position it occupied in America to one of the foremost aides in solving crimes.

Trailer for The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

Their work was certainly cut out for them. Jazz Age America was literally filled with items that could poison you. It was not until 1938 that the FDA was even able to force companies to print the ingredients on the labels of their products. To that time, anything that could be advertised could be sold. Arsenic, lead, and mercury were routine ingredients in consumer goods. Thallium was advertised as a hair remover, which it did wonderfully, but often killed you in the process. Radium, a strongly radioactive metal, was placed in the health drink Radithor. Many people felt buoyant after consuming Radithor, until they drank enough and their leg bones literally snapped as they crossed their living room, or doctors discovered they were exhaling radon gas. The choice fumigation chemical for pest control in New York was cyanide gas. This also worked wonderfully, but had the unfortunate side effect of killing people in adjoining rooms. With Prohibition in full effect, thousands of deaths occurred from poisonous alcohol.

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All these catastrophic occurrences are wonderfully chronicled in Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook. Blum takes the reader through the trials and travails of Norris and Gettler as they battle a host of criminals bent on killing, as well as industries and even government institutions doing the same. Blum touches on all of these in a light and darkly humorous manner, reminiscent of Cait Murphy or Pope Brock. Each chapter is named for a poison – Arsenic, Methyl Alcohol – and focuses on how Norris and Gettler learned to detect them. “Wet” chemistry, as it was called in those years, was not a pleasant experience. Gettler often had to euthanize dozens of animals for experiments, or grind up a subject’s brains into a goopy smear in order to test for trace elements. Applicants were often asked to distill brains to see if they could cope with the nauseating process. Completing the task without running from the room was the first step into the medical examiner’s office.

Overall The Poisoner’s Handbook is a fun if somewhat shallow ride through a turbulent time when science was trying to catch up with the many advances of the modern world, andt o catch that most diabolical of killers, the poisoner. Blum’s work isn’t without flaws. The chapter titles may speak to a single poison, but each chapter bounces around quite a bit. Sometimes the subject changes can be quite jolting. Wood alcohol pops up throughout the narrative, as does arsenic. Blum could also provide more details on various trials or flesh out certain incidents. For this reason The Poisoner’s Handbook suffers from what a lot of narrative non-fiction promulgates, information but at a discount in order to keep the reader hooked. In the end though the good far out ways the poison, and The Poisoner’s Handbook is highly recommended to anyone interested in the True Crime genre or the history of science and technology.

Code 451 Rating: 7.5 (Good Read)

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