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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Overview

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: 36,506
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

Deborah Blum is director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT, and editor of Undark magazine, (undark.org). In 1992, she won the Pulitzer Prize for a series on primate research, which she turned into a book, The Monkey Wars. Her other books include The Poisoner's HandbookGhost HuntersLove at Goon Park, and Sex on the Brain. She has written for publications including The New York TimesWiredTimeDiscoverMother JonesThe Guardian and The Boston Globe. Blum is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a lifetime associate of the National Academy of Sciences.

Read an Excerpt



PROLOGUE

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."

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

Customer Reviews

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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. 98 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 9 months ago
History...chemistry...murder and mayhem...and a bit of humor. What more could anyone ask? Just don't get caught reading it....people may start avoiding you.
cathyskye on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
First Line: It would, of course, be in the cursed winter of 1915-- when ice storms had glassed over the city, when Typhoid Mary had come sneaking back, when the Manhattan coroner was discovered to be skunk-drunk at crime scenes-- that the loony little porter would confess to eight poison murders.For centuries, poisoners knew that they could commit murder and walk away scot-free because no one knew anything about how the evidence of poison could be proved without doubt in a body, or even exactly what the poisons did. Combine this knowledge with the fact that coroners in the United States had no real training and often got their jobs because they "knew the right people", and it was easy to see that things were rapidly getting out of hand.To the rescue came two men: chief medical examiner Charles Norris (who loved to get in the faces of his superiors and demand that things be done right) and toxicologist Alexander Gettler, who demanded perfection from himself and his staff, no matter how many times (or how many years) the research and experiments took. Both men had seen poisoners commit murder and get away with it because of shoddy investigative work. Both were committed to seeing an end put to it. No matter what it took.I am no expert in chemistry, so I can't attest to how accurate Blum's descriptions and facts are. (There are extensive notes and an index at the end of the book.) What I do know is that this book is fascinating. Ignoring poisoners who got away with murder, when you take into account that hydrogen cyanide gas was regularly used to fumigate buildings, that arsenic was commonly found in such things as cosmetics and wallpaper, and that workers were routinely expected to handle lethal poisons-- it's easy to wonder how on earth anyone survived the time period.Then along came Prohibition, and drinking and arrests for public drunkenness went through the roof. Evidently no one liked being told they couldn't have a beer now and then. As the "good stuff" came to be in very short supply, unscrupulous people looking to make a quick buck started turning out all sorts of booze-- a lot of which contained lethal poisons. If the stuff didn't kill you outright, you could go blind or walk funny the rest of your life. Towards the end of Prohibition, the lethal booze was mostly ignored by the government. After all, these people were breaking the law, so they deserved whatever they got. Nice, huh? The fledgling Food and Drug Administration couldn't do a thing because no one knew anything about proving how these toxins worked in the human body. No one, until Norris and Gettler, that is.This book fascinated me from beginning to end. Blum knows how to make facts and history come to life. If you like watching "CSI"-type programs, you should think about reading The Poisoner's Handbook. It's an eye-opening, and entertaining, experience.
MaryWJ on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Really interesting story! History, chemistry - all combined to illustrate stories about New York during the early 1900s.
delphica on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the story of the first scientifically qualified medical examiner in NYC (and also his chief toxicologist, who actually seemed to do more work, I noticed). Each chapter deals with a different poisonous substance, and how his office worked to identify how it caused death, and then translate that into convictions for crimes. The office was established during Prohibition, so many are related to additives to illegal liquor. There's also a fascinating chapter on radium, how it was believed to be harmless and people did the CRAZIEST things with it (to very sad result). I will note that, through no fault of his own, the medical examiner's name was Charles Norris, which inevitably led to me filling in bits of the book with observations such as "Charles Norris can detect a trace amount of arsenic with a single roundhouse kick."Grade: B+Recommended: It's like toney true crime disguised as history, and very well-written.
NellieMc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Fascinating book and very well researched. Really an eye opener on how far we've come forensically and how just a few dedicated individuals can make such a different. Especially informative about the idiocy of prohibition -- even to the point that the government purposefully poisoned industrial alcohol knowing that people were drinking it and would die. Nuts!
TheDivineOomba on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What a wonderful book! It has everything, murder, investigations, poisons, and Science! Its also a book about the birth of forensic medicines. I especially enjoyed the chapters devoted to alcohol - and how a it was denatured, only to be distilled into something drinkable by by gangsters, sold to poor people, only to have massive amounts of people die from alcohol poisoning. The chapter on radium is heartbreaking. I think the chapter on Thallium could have been expanded a bit.This is an very well written history of poison, the birth of forensic science, and the age of prohibition. It was well written, always interesting, included real life characters bigger than fiction, and most of all, the topic is absolutely fascinating! I highly recommend this book to anyone!
lauriebrown54 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Forensic medicine truly started in New York in 1918, with the appointment of Charles Norris as the first chief medical examiner. Together with toxicologist Alexander Gettler, he changed the face of how murder by poison was solved, creating tests to reveal the deadly substances. Prior to this, murder by poison was hard to detect and even harder to prosecute successfully. Each chapter of the book is devoted to a single poison, focusing on a case that the NYC lab solved. Blum describes the symptoms, the speed of death, the appearance of the internal organs and an exact description of the poison works, right down to the chemical level. She sets this against the history of the era, when poisons were much more readily available (rat poisons were abundant and could be had at any drug store; personal care products contained arsenic and other deadly ingredients, radium was in a health drink) and Prohibition made drinking wood alcohol seem a risk worth taking to some. One of the products of the lab was the correlation of blood alcohol to impairment-Prohibition turned out to be an excellent time for studying alcohol intoxication. The book is engrossing, like reading CSI: Roaring Twenties. The tests the lab used were not simple `place a swab of tissue on a slide, insert in machine¿ ones. The required large amounts of tissue, which had to be finely chopped and rendered down to a slurry, then placed in test tubes and subjected to various chemicals in precise series. The lab ran on a shoestring, with Norris frequently subsidizing it with his own funds. Norris used his position to lobby for change- he was anti-Prohibition, pro-FDA having the power to ensure that products were safe and even helped in a suit against the U.S. Radium Co. by some of the workers- the Radium Girls- who were dying of the effects of working with radium, their bones crumbling, leukemia weakening them and exhaling radon gas with every breath. If you have a bit of a morbid bent and like science and true crime, pick this one up.
Jubercat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Fascinating historical overview of the discovery and the nefarious use of poisons in the early 20th century. Blum explains both the early medicinal uses of substances like Chloroform, and specific cases in which they were used to kill. She also provides forensic details demonstrating how such crimes were found out, and gives a wonderfully entertaining account of corruption in the NY political system, and the ridiculous obstacles the new go-getter coroner and his talented toxicologist had to contend with. More enjoyable than I had expected.
ldefillipo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Well-told history of the birth and development of forensic medicine in NY, using poisoner's crimes as introduction to that history. Includes many details regarding our own government's days as poisoner of its own population during the so-called "noble experiment" that was Prohibition. Generally, the science is kept to a level that even less scientific minded can grasp and appreciate, though I suspect the more scientific savvy will appreciate it as well.