In 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
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)
Please send any questions or comments to Code 451 Reading Room.
For more Code 451 book reviews, check out our Reading Room.