The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York…Deborah Blum

Drs Alexander Gettler and Charles Norris, pioneers of forensic toxicology

I’m not known around my office for carrying around the world’s most upbeat books. While everyone else is reading lighter, fun stuff like The Help, some Janet Evanovich novel with a number in the title, or The Girl with the Whatever, I’ve got my nose stuck in books about cancer, dead bodies, and now poisons. So needless to say, no one, and I mean NO ONE, was sad to see me finish The Poisoner’s Handbook. I think I managed to freak out every single coworker and my husband by carrying this book around for a week (no wonder my husband kept wanting to eat out every night! 🙂

Had my coworkers taken a closer look at the book (the twelve word subtitle is in print so small you can barely read it up close, much less across the room), or even the book jacket, they would have realized that this is not a book about how to poison people. It’s more about the history of toxicology and forensic science, and the rise of its importance during Prohibition. Deprived of beer, wine, and hard liquor, people would turn to bootleg liquors made in someone’s backyard for their thrill. Sadly, this wasn’t the safe stuff home breweries crank out these days. It was much worse. Some of the bootleg liquors available then contained horribly toxic ingredients such as ammonia, gasoline, formaldehyde, and acetone….yet people drank it anyway.

Of course, poison wasn’t just showing up on the rocks in speakeasies. During the beginnings of the Great Depression, people apparently had no qualms killing off family members or friends if it meant getting insurance money, an inheritance, or decreasing the size of a large family to make ends meet. Back before today’s modern science, it was very hard to tell when/if someone had been poisoned intentionally, as no one had done any studies on how poisons act in the body or what physical signs different poisons might leave behind. In 1918, Drs Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler founded the very first forensics and toxicology lab in the country at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, and dedicated their careers to studying poisons and their effects on human physiology. Their findings would later help to convict criminals, pardon the innocent, and help those who became sick from different poisons.

Blum’s book devotes a chapter to many of the different poisons Norris and Gettler came across in their careers during the early 20th century. It was astounding to me that energy drinks available to everyone and some medications used to contain the radioactive element radium, which would cause people’s bones to crumble; and beauty creams used to contain thallium, which would eventually make people’s hair fall out.  I was also horrified that one of the ways the government fought against people who drank illegally during Prohibition was to further poison the alcohol that was out there, which could and did in many cases kill or sicken people.

Blum’s book was a bit choppy in places, but it picked up steam towards the end. Although the book has a chapter devoted to each poison, the story for that particular poison was rarely resolved by the end of the chapter, sometimes coming to its conclusion two or three chapters later. The book also jumped around in time quite a bit, so you had to pay attention. There was a lot about the party politics of Prohibition and the fights Norris and Gettler had to keep their lab going and gain credibility in the legal profession, which constituted the slower parts of the book for me. It was also pretty graphic in describing the effects each of the different poisons would have on their victims, and how the forensics team would chop up human tissue to use in chemical experiments to help isolate the poisons. There were also lots of animal studies where animals were intentionally poisoned and killed to help learn about the physiology of poisons in the body. This book was not for the faint of heart!

Overall an interesting read for those not too squeamish and those who like good murder mysteries. I ended the book relieved that Prohibition was repealed and that the FDA is there for us now.

This is my first book for the NonFiction NonMemoir Challenge!!! Only 24 to go!!! 🙂

Grade: B

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9 thoughts on “The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York…Deborah Blum

  1. Well, evidently there are a few of us as strange as you, because I think it sounds fascinating so I’m adding it to the wishlist too! 😉

    Over on LibraryThing there are two or three of us in my little circle of friends who regularly read books on viruses and plagues and medicine and the grotesque side of history – I’m used to being looked at sideways for my reading choices on occasion!

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