The untold story of how poison rocked Jazz Age New York City. 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. Chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler investigate a family mysteriously stricken bald, factory workers with crumbling bones, a diner serving poisoned pies, and many others. Each case presents a deadly new puzzle and Norris and Gettler create revolutionary experiments to tease out even the wiliest compounds from human tissue. From the vantage of their laboratory it also becomes clear that murderers aren't the only toxic threat--modern life has created a kind of poison playground, and danger lurks around every corner.
My quibbles on how many stars to give are based on the ending wrapping up a bit weaker than I'd hoped. I wish she'd concluded with some mention of chemical warfare being used in Europe and implications for US military research into chemical warfare for of WW2. That's an entire book of its own (that's already been written, I'm sure), but Blum gives enough time to mustard gas and other noxious WW1 experiments that a final look at that would have given a better sense of closure.
But apart from that, omg LOVE. All the original research shows, and the bibliography is fantastic. Life in the Prohibition Era, and this vast array of known unregulated poisons being available to anyone, is so fascinating. It's hard to imagine that the FDA didn't get any meaningful power until 1938.
Also, the bit on radium creeped me the hell out. What a horrific way to die.
Right, so, this book made my inner history geek and forensic pathology geek VERY happy. And I learned a little chemistry along the way.
Other bits: When I put this on hold in the library, there were sixteen people ahead of me in the hold queue. I don't want to return this copy.
Chapters on poisons include:
For me, the chapter on Radium was the most tragic. I have read about the "Radium Girls" before, the 1920s clock dial painters who licked their paintbrushes and ended up dying agonizing deaths as their bones splintered apart. There are a few points near the end where the book began to drag because of heavier science and fewer case studies, but overall the book was fascinating and highly readable. This isn't a read for anyone with a weak stomach as it often talks about pureeing brain matter or other cadaver examinations, and there is also testing on live animals. However, as an author, this is definitely a resource book I intend to keep on my shelf
It is written with a deceptively breezy style: there's a fair amount of science hiding in there but you barely notice it because the book is heavily laced with tales of nefarious doings and dastardly crimes, as well as tragic stories of ignorance leading to unexpected deaths. Mercury-laden tonics, ubiquitous arsenic distribution, beauty creams fortified with radium or thallium. Cyanide, mercury, carbon monoxide poisoning -- they all were deadly compounds attached to a roster of fascinating stories. But the dogged work of two uncaped crusaders of New York City -- Norris and Gettler, the first medical examiners and toxicologists -- helped create and define the field of forensic medicine. They brought science in to the light to show it could be used to solve crimes. They also tirelessly worked to demonstrate that Prohibition was deadly. It resulted in replacing legal alcohol with toxic alcohol alternatives, and blindness, paralysis and deaths skyrocketed.
They were public service heroes, battling corrupt politicians, lazy bureaucrats, public apathy, and venal greed.
Some battles are never won. Some things never change.
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."
Recommended: It's like toney true crime disguised as history, and very well-written.
Enter Charles Norris, appointed chief medical examiner in New York, and his toxicologist, Alexander Gettler. They did the hard work of turning around public opinion on scientific processes used to determine cause of death. They went from being openly mocked on the witness stand to being powerful allies to prosecutors (and occasionally defense attorneys - sometimes the accused really was innocent). Of course, that path wasn't an easy one, and they had to battle not only the public, but all too often the mayors of New York, who remained largely unconvinced that the office was all that useful. Why on earth would they need to get to a crime scene within 30 minutes? Why couldn't they just take a train or a cab and get there when they got there? Why did they need assistants, lab equipment, etc.?
In addition to the actual work done by the forensic scientists, the book covers a lot of what was going on in the time period. And if you know anything about the 1920s, you know that a big part of what was going on was Prohibition. Sometimes the connection between Prohibition and the rest of the narrative is a natural fit, such as when Blum discusses methyl alcohol (used to "denature" alcohol). People were desperate for something accessible and cheap to drink, and they tried just about anything. Methyl alcohol was a popular, if dangerous choice. But even in other chapters that have essentially nothing to do with drinking, Prohibition is shoehorned in. It adds to the atmosphere, but can seem jarring or like the author is sometimes really grasping for some sort of connection. The most interesting chapter to me was probably the one on radium. "It glows, so we'll put it in a drinkable patent medicine so your skin can also have a healthy glow!" Obviously, that didn't turn out very well.
Recommended for: viewers of CSI, people with strong stomachs, fans of Boardwalk Empire, anyone who wonders if the FDA is really necessary.
Quote: "Perhaps, scientists suggested, the health effects of the mineral hot springs came from radioactive elements in the ground. Spas in upstate New York rushed to compete by dropping uranium ores into their swimming pools."
In a city full of corrupt officials, one man manages to change the face of detective work, create what many might consider to be the modern medical examiner’s office, and invent ways to detect even the smallest amount of poison to prove murder. The story of Charles Norris is interspersed with his cases --- cases that all have one tie --- poison. Before his work as medical examiner, poison was easy to acquire, easy to use, and very difficult to detect. That soon changed when Norris’s methods were put to use.
What surprised me most was just how much poison was a part of everyday products: cosmetics, medicine, and in the case of radium, even considered healthy. People drank it which baffles me. Even Marie Curie used to carry a small vile of radium in her pocket believing it was completely harmless. I found the story about the women working in the clock factory painting watch faces with radioactive paint for the men on the battlefield especially fascinating. What happened to the women was absolutely horrific and the work of Norris and the men in his office to find out what was happening to them was sort of heroic in a way.
A good portion of the book focuses on alcohol and it’s replacements during Prohibition. What people will drink for a high is both disgusting and interesting. I would never in my wildest dreams ever even think of sniffing the stuff let along drinking it. It was a crazy time and I loved the fact that the New York Medical Examiner argued for a repeal of Prohibition in order to save lives. He was right; knowing that if alcohol didn’t once again become legal, more deaths would occur. Many of the people dying were not hard drinkers but casual ones trying to brew up something for a few nips here and there. Crazy times.
I found this a great read and Blum manages to take a subject that could easily get very boring and dry and intersperse it with unbelievable stories that make you wonder if you’ve accidentally picked up a fiction novel. If you’re looking for something different but very informative, pick up The Poisoner’s Handbook. One word of caution though --- you don’t want to read it while eating, descriptions of certain poisons and their effects can be rather off-putting.
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.
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.
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!
I had a hard time putting the book down. It is a fascinating look at New York in the beginning of the 20th century. Blum mixes together stories about murderers and innocents, descriptions of medical procedures and scientific experiments, political commentary and history. The book's eleven chapters, each named after a poison (chloroform, wood alcohol, cyanides, arsenic, mercury, carbon monoxide (with two appearances), methyl alcohol, radium, ethyl alcohol, and thalium), cover the time period from 1915 to 1936 and the two men -- Charles Norris, first Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York, and Alexander Gettler, New York City's chief toxicologist -- who laid the foundations of modern-day forensic medicine, toxicology, and made the office of the Medical Examiner a respected one, despite having virtually no support from the various Mayors of New York.
As a woman with a degree in the field, I adored this book and appreciated that she went back to the roots and explored cases in relation to the poisons that were used in the past. My favorite part was detailing the tests that were created in order to detect these poisons. Even if wet chemistry isn't used as much any longer, it's still important to know.
I've passed this book along to other friends in the field because I think it's an excellent read!
Each chapter is divided by poison, with stories highlighting real cases of its use, the damage it causes, and what it took for Norris and Gettler to be able to definitively determine deaths caused by the highlighted substance. The substances range from arsenic to cyanide to radium to wood alcohol, with detailed descriptions of the effect of each poison on the human body. They are as scary as it is spellbinding.
In addition to being a collection of medical case studies, The Poisoner's Handbook is also a history lesson about Prohibition. While almost everyone will agree what a significant failure Prohibition was at eliminating drinking and curtailing the alcohol industry, what most people do not know are the substances people were willing to put into their body in lieu of the illegal alcohol. This introduction to the true dangers of Prohibition provides some of the most captivating content in the entire novel.
Colleen Marlo was an appropriate narrator for this nonfiction audiobook that reads like fiction. Earnest and matter-of-fact, she details the horrors of certain poisons without becoming melodramatic. Her voice is pleasant and provides easy listening while maintaining the seriousness of the subject matter.
The Poisoner's Handbook was as entertaining as it was enlightening. Anyone interested in history, science, medicine or true-life crime stories will be delighted by Ms. Blum's presentation of one little-known aspect of the Jazz Age.
Not hooked yet? What if I told you that in addition to all of the above, the author includes detailed accounts of some of the most notorious poison murders of the era? And what if I told you that your journey would include a panoramic overview of New York City during the jazz age, including vignettes devoted to speakeasies, celebrities, and socialites, corrupt Tamany Hall politicians, drunken coroners, mobsters, tenements, ruthless industrialists, and body-snatching undertakers? And what if I told you that by the end of the novel you’ll be able to speak intelligently about the chemical properties that cause cyanide to be lethal, the physiological explanation for why alcoholics hold their liquor better than novice drinkers, an easy test that infallibly proves the presence of thallium in tissue, and the steps by which brain tissue can be mashed, steamed, mixed with various acids, distilled and separated in order to reveal the telltale markers of nicotine poisoning?
Honestly, haven’t enjoyed a non-fiction book this much in a long time. Yes, the author sometimes wanders off on tangents, and the depth/detail of her storytelling is necessarily constrained by the availability of historical records, but I doubt you’ll care. I certainly didn’t.
Just one caution: you may wish to consider the extent to which you decide to share your newly-acquired expertise with your spouse and close friends. They may find your new zeal and enthusiasm re. all things poisonous just a little offputting …!