The Poisoner's Handbook
Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
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Deborah Blum, writing with the high style and skill for suspense that is characteristic of the very best mystery fiction, shares the untold story of how poison rocked Jazz Age New York City. In The Poisoner's Handbook Blum draws from highly original research to track the fascinating, perilous days when 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.
Drama unfolds case by case as the heroes of The Poisoner's Handbook—chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler—investigate a family mysteriously stricken bald, Barnum and Bailey's Famous Blue Man, factory workers with crumbling bones, a diner serving poisoned pies, and many others. Each case presents a deadly new puzzle and Norris and Gettler work with a creativity that rivals that of the most imaginative murderer, creating revolutionary experiments to tease out even the wiliest compounds from human tissue. Yet in the tricky game of toxins, even science can't always be trusted, as proven when one of Gettler's experiments erroneously sets free a suburban housewife later nicknamed "America's Lucretia Borgia" to continue her nefarious work.
From the vantage of Norris and Gettler's laboratory in the infamous Bellevue Hospital it becomes clear that killers aren't the only toxic threat to New Yorkers. Modern life has created a kind of poison playground, and danger lurks around every corner. Automobiles choke the city streets with carbon monoxide; potent compounds, such as morphine, can be found on store shelves in products ranging from pesticides to cosmetics. Prohibition incites a chemist's war between bootleggers and government chemists while in Gotham's crowded speakeasies each round of cocktails becomes a game of Russian roulette. Norris and Gettler triumph over seemingly unbeatable odds to become the pioneers of forensic chemistry and the gatekeepers of justice during a remarkably deadly time. A beguiling concoction that is equal parts true crime, twentieth-century history, and science thriller, The Poisoner's Handbook is a page-turning account of a forgotten New York.
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."
“Blum illuminates these tales of Norris and Gettler and their era with a dedication and exuberance that reflect the men themselves. Not only is The Poisoner's Handbook as thrilling as any CSI episode, but it also offers something even better: an education in how forensics really works.” —The Washington Post
“Blum, a longtime newspaper writer and now a professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin, skillfully explains the chemistry behind Gettler's experiments. Her book is sure to appeal to mystery lovers, science nerds and history buffs. . . .”—Associated Press
“Fast-paced and suspenseful, The Poisoner’s Handbook breathes deadly life into the Roaring Twenties.”—Financial Times
“All the nitty-gritty about death by arsenic, by thallium, by wood alcohol, is here in precise, gruesome detail. It makes for a stomach-turning read. . . . .Ms. Blum’s combination of chemistry and crime fiction creates a vicious, page-turning story that reads more like Raymond Chandler than Madame Curie.”—New York Observer
“In this bubbling beaker of a book, [Blum] mixes up a heady potion of forensic toxicology, history and true crime. . . . The Poisoner's Handbook will get into your head. You'll find yourself questioning the chemicals in our everyday lives. What's really in our food, cosmetics, pesticides, cleaning supplies, children's toys and pet dinners? This isn't just a good read. It's a summons to study labels, research, think and act.”—Dallas Morning News
“The Poisoner's Handbook succeeds as science, as history, as entertainment and as an argument for the power and purpose of popular science writing.”—Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
“One thinks of Erik Larson's Devil in the White City . . . a book that gave splendiferously disgusting descriptions of horrible murders and did it so dexterously and intelligently that even readers who wouldn't normally read a true crime book were happily sucked in. Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York is that kind of book.” —New Haven Advocate
“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
“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
“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
“With the pacing and rich characterization of a first-rate suspense novelist, Blum makes science accessible and fascinating.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Caviar for true-crime fans and science buffs alike.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Formative figures in forensics, Norris and Gettler become fascinating crusaders in Blum’s fine depiction of their work in the law-flouting atmosphere of Prohibition-era New York.”—Booklist