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

by Deborah Blum

Paperback, 2011




Penguin Books (2011), Edition: Reprint, 336 pages


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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member sageness
I have LOVED reading this book more than anything I've read in a while. It's so hard for non-fiction to be riveting -- and for chemistry of all things to keep me up late with a book! Awesome.

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.
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LibraryThing member ladycato
This book by Deborah Blum came out to great acclaim a few years ago, and I can see why it drew so much attention. The Poisoner's Handbook is an excellent example of creative nonfiction, a book that delves into intense scientific data yet is completely approachable by a layman. Most of the book revolves around two key figures in the New York coroner's office: chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler. These two wrote the book on forensic medicine--literally. Their medical studies were exhaustive as they tried to figure out how to measure a variety of poisons within the human body, creating a new kind of science. The background of the Jazz Age confounded their studies; people play up the allure of the speakeasy, but it was also a time filled with deaths by toxic wood alcohol and dangerous additives added (on purpose) by the Prohibition federal government.

Chapters on poisons include:
Wood Alcohol
Carbon Monoxide
Methyl Alcohol
Ethyl Alcohol

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
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LibraryThing member TheBookJunky
An unexpected treat! There are many kinds of poisons, but back in the early 20th century, there wasn't much knowledge about them. Often it was the case that a substance wasn't even known to be poisonous. Other poisons were known about but it wasn't known how to measure them or assess their action.
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.
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LibraryThing member delphica
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.
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LibraryThing member ursula
The book has a pretty unwieldy subtitle: "Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York." On the other hand, the subtitle gives you an idea of the amount of ground the book will try to cover. In the early twentieth century, the coroner's office was a place where the highest bidder, rather than science, often determined what went on a death certificate. And if the officials weren't corrupt, they were just ignorant. (The sorry state of medicine in the United States less than one hundred years ago would have shocked me if I hadn't already read The Great Influenza.) Not much was really understood about poison, its effects on the body, and how to find signs of those effects post-mortem. Each chapter is titled for the name of a poison, although some poisons do double duty, serving as the heading for more than one chapter.

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."
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LibraryThing member justabookreader
I read several reviews of this book, put it on my list, and promptly forgot about it. Unfortunately, this happens with many of the books I put on my list. They linger. Fortunately for The Poisoner’s Handbook, I came across it while scanning the shelves at my favorite bookstore one afternoon. It’s a fascinating recounting of the beginnings of the coroner’s office in New York City during Prohibition.

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.
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LibraryThing member cathyskye
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.
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LibraryThing member jrtanworth
The "history of forensic toxicology" isn't normally a topic of interest to the general reader, but Blum makes it come alive by focusing on Alexander Gettler and Charles Norris who developed their science in the face of scheming murderers, penny-pinching New York mayors, widespread use of poisonous substances in everyday life, and industry denials and cover-ups.… (more)
LibraryThing member 391
Loved it. LOVED it. The Poisoner's Handbook was an absolutely enthralling read, I ended up devouring in a few days despite this week being one of my busiest so far this year (I would read in elevators and the bathroom at work just to sneak in a few extra pages here in there). Though I did feel a bit conspicuous reading it in public - the title is such that when people would ask me what I was reading, they'd get a good eyeful and start subtly moving their food/drink out of my reach. It is such a good book, and I found it quite thought-provoking as well. To be honest, I have very little background with the history of that era, and while I was familiar with a lot of the chemistry I ended up walking away with a newfound appreciation for those who had to develop their techniques and process completely on the fly in a world brimming with unregulated chemicals. And the sobering statistics made me doubly appreciate what institutions like the FDA and the EPA regulate.… (more)
LibraryThing member lauriebrown54
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.
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LibraryThing member NellieMc
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!… (more)
LibraryThing member DivineMissW
This is a wonderful book especially if you a fan of the CSI shows on television. Ignorance of the truth killed thousands of people before science was allowed to step in and clear up the many mysteries. Deliberate poisonings, industrial poisoning, government poisoning, it's all in this book. Why do we have the law and regulations that control food, medications and industrial safety? The poor, the uneducated masses always suffer the most. Through the dedication of a few scientists who made it their life's work to protect the average consumer, to prosecute the wrongdoers and to document their research and their findings, every American benefits through safer foods, medications and household products.… (more)
LibraryThing member TheDivineOomba
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!
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LibraryThing member Knicke
Can't add much substance to the existing reviews and blurbs, but this was a thoroughly enjoyable read. A few healthy dashes of history, chunks of police procedures, a good dose of science, and of course, lots and lots of poison. My only beef was that the narrative felt a bit disorganized at times, but given the multidisciplinary nature of the book, this was probably inevitable. Fatally delicious otherwise.… (more)
LibraryThing member MaryWJ
Really interesting story! History, chemistry - all combined to illustrate stories about New York during the early 1900s.
LibraryThing member WeaselOfDoom
I first heard about "The Poisoner's Handbook" when NPR aired an interview with its author, Deborah Blum. She talked about the government deliberately poisoning alcohol during prohibition, about Frederic Mors, who confessed to killing eight people with chloroform and walked away, about young girls in New Jersey who painted luminous watches with radium paint. I was hooked.

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.
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LibraryThing member yarriofultramar
toxicology, criminal cases, New York, Twenties, prohibition, bootleggers, arsenic, Alexander Gettler, Charles Norris
LibraryThing member BrynDahlquis
Despite the fact that it took -forever- to read, I really enjoyed it. It included all the fascinating information about the time period and the poisons, but somehow managed to keep it reading like a good mystery (and just finding one of those is hard enough). Some of the cases it covers are truly bizarre, and the fact that it's all true is icing on the cake.… (more)
LibraryThing member SlySionnach
Deborah Blum weaves an interesting tale of Jazz Age murder in New York, and highlights two men who shaped forensic science - Alexander Gettler and Charles Norris.

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!
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LibraryThing member jmchshannon
The Poisoner's Handbook is a fascinating expose on the evolution of poisons and the forensic science behind exposing death by poison. Poisons were ubiquitous throughout the Jazz Age because of an inability to identify murder by poison. Through the use of detailed scientific experiments and conscientious deductive reasoning, Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler changed the face of the coroner's office and forensic science forever.

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.
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LibraryThing member Kara
I didn't know much about the 1920s beyond the speakeasy culture you see in movies and read in books, and this shows a completely different side of that. You learn why Prohibition was so deadly, that they used to put radium in water because people didn't realize the harmful effects of radiation, and how powerless the FDA used to be. There's corruption and murder and mystery, and this is just as exciting as a lot of fiction books even--maybe more so because it's true, and there's science.… (more)
LibraryThing member heyjude
Excellent read. History (NYC in the 1920s-30s), science (forensic science and toxicology), poisons (murder intended and unntended), biography (Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler - where would CSI be today without these men) - but done in such a way as to hold one's interest. Very readable (and listenable)!
LibraryThing member Dorritt
Thoroughly enjoyed this nonfiction account of poison, prohibition, jazz, justice, and the birth of forensic toxicology in America. The book is loosely organized by poisons, with chapters devoted to poisons from pedestrian (arsenic, cyanide, carbon dioxide, nicotine, various toxic alcohols) to exotic (mercury, chloroform, radium). Along the way the author, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, invites us on a leisurely stroll through a fascinating period in US history, an era in which thugs regularly chloroformed whole families in order to rob their house; arsenic was so commonly used to bump off rich relatives, it came to be known as “the inheritance powder”; cobalt-colored “blue men” poisoned themselves for profit; “radium girls” exhaled radium gas as their skeletons literally disintegrated; products sold over-the-counter regularly contained quantities of lethal substances; and the government knowingly poisoned alcohols that the bootleggers regularly sold to the unwitting public.

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 …!
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LibraryThing member hcubic
The central story of the Poisoner's Handbook is a war between poisoners and chemists working to detoxify poisoned beverages. The surprising thing is that the poisoners work for the US government and the detoxifiers for criminals. The setting is the years between 1920, when the 18th amendment started prohibition, and 1933, when the 21st repealed it. During Prohibition, the government used a variety of compounds to "denature" ethanol. A lot of nasty stuff was tried, including gasoline, benzene, cadmium, iodine, mercury salts, ether, chloroform, carbolic acid, and acetone, but the one that killed or blinded the most illegal drinkers was methanol, which is metabolized to formaldehyde and formic acid. The optic nerve is particularly susceptible to attack by formic acid, which is why victims who did not die often became blind. The death toll from denatured industrial methanol during Prohibition is estimated to be more than 10,000. Not every government official was happy with the policy, and the heroes of the book are Dr. Charles Norris, chief of laboratories at New York's Bellevue Hospital and toxicologist Alexander Gettner, who not only campaigned against the denature of industrial alcohol, but also laid the groundwork for forensic chemistry in the US. While the Prohibition story is the centerpiece of "The Poisoner's Handbook", there are chapters describing many of the other favorite chemical compounds of the poisoner, and their detection by forensic chemists. Blum is not a chemist, and there are places where she could have used a chemistry-literate editor, but the writing is otherwise good and the story is compelling.… (more)
LibraryThing member ldefillipo
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.… (more)


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336 p.; 5.5 inches


014311882X / 9780143118824
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