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! ūüôā

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!!! ūüôā

Grade: B

More True Crime Reads!

Just in case you’re wanting more true crime reads this month, Cassandra over at Book Riot has a great post with some fantastic reads about the dead. As part of her commitment to reading more non-fiction (yay!) she’s listed¬†three books to check out:

The Girl with the Crooked Nose: A Tale of Murder, Obsession and Forensic Artistry, Ted Botha.

Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab The Body Farm, Where the Dead Do Tell Tales….Dr Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach

They sound so creepy! I will definitely check out Death’s Acre, as Dr Craig from Teasing Secrets from the Dead (review here) talked about working at the Body Farm with Dr Bass as part of her graduate training, and also the Mary Roach book, since Spook was so hilarious.

Titanic’s Last Secrets: The Further Adventures of Shadow Divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler….Brad Matsen

Divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler

I remember all too well the night I pulled an all-nighter reading Walter Lord’s classic A Night to Remember, a chilling, moment-by-moment description of the doomed voyage and sinking of the RMS Titanic¬†in the early morning hours¬†of April 15,¬†1912. This was way before Leonardo was ‘king of the world’, and was actually before Robert Ballard discovered the wreck of the Titanic on the ocean floor in 1985 (I’m dating myself here). I didn’t mean to pull an all-nighter; I just could not stop reading. I was horrified and yet fascinated by the story, my heart pounding as the inevitable tragedy unfolded and so many lost their lives in the freezing waters, and angered by the stupidity and greed of the designers who did not put enough lifeboats on board for everyone to escape, feeling there was no need for safety measures on an ‘unsinkable’ ship.

Ask anyone nine years old or older why the Titanic sank, and most everyone’s quickie answer would be “an iceberg”. Thanks to research, deep sea submersibles, and good old science, we’re finding out now that the iceberg was only part of the reason Titanic met its demise. In 1991, research divers Richie Kohler and John Chatterton made history when they discovered the wreck of a German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey. After a friend reported some interesting and¬†unfamiliar¬†debris surrounding the wreck of Titanic on the ocean floor, Kohler and Chatterton teamed up again to visit the site of the sinking in the famed Russian Mir submersibles. What they found there during three dives in the Mir crafts wasn’t the “Heart of the Ocean”, but pieces of the hull and keel of the ship, never before seen or photographed. Warping and damage visualized along these keel and hull pieces were the first crucial pieces of evidence for a new (and even more horrifying)¬†hypothesis for the ship’s sinking. Further research on land with Harland and Wolff’s (the shipyards that built Titanic and her sister ships, Olympic and Britannic) archives, as well as a visit to the wreck of Britannic, supported even more strongly the¬†idea that¬†not¬†only was Titanic not¬†“unsinkable” after all, but may in fact have been doomed from the start, with¬†her construction¬†flaws well-known to H&W’s builders and executives before she sailed.

Underwater picture of damage to Titanic's hull. The Chatterton/Richie expedition discovered two very large pieces of the doomed ship's hull.

Like anyone, I love a good conspiracy theory. I began this book with a pretty closed mind, thinking there was nothing new that could be gleaned from the wreck, since so many people (including even director James Cameron) have been down there in the deep sea subs taking a look at things. I was pleasantly surprised¬†by¬†all the new findings, and it really turned what I thought I¬†knew about the Titanic on end.¬†Along with Chatterton and Richie, many engineers, scientists, and historians were involved in the data analysis, and the scenario that best fit their findings¬†were in good agreement with many of the eyewitness accounts given by¬†survivors and crew¬†at the Senate hearings following the disaster. Although slightly¬†skeptical that a cover-up of that magnitude could ever have been successful, I’m not surprised by much anymore in the internet age. The book provides great photos of the people involved and of both wrecks.

We’ll never know what really took place on that awful April night, but this book gave me hope that scientists are inching ever closer to finding the real truth about one of the great mysteries of the 20th century. This book just goes to show that you can never close the book on a case like this, because as science and technology advance, more and more of the secrets of Titanic’s fatal night will be revealed. I can’t wait to see what we’ll discover in the next few years.

Grade: A-

Teasing Secrets from the Dead: My Investigations at America’s Most Infamous Crime Scenes…Emily Craig, Ph.D.

Dr Emily Craig, forensic anthropologist

It seems you can hardly turn the TV on these days without flipping to one of the many crime shows currently on air. NCIS, Bones, CSI-Miami, Cold Case…you can barely find a show whose premise doesn’t surround a murder. In real life, though, crimes can’t always be wrapped up in a quick 3o minute episode, you don’t always find the bad guys, and one¬†investigator rarely¬†solves the crime alone. Dr Emily Craig, a world and nationally-renowned forensic anthropologist, clears up the myth and mystery of real-life crime scene investigations in her amazing and fascinating book, Teasing Secrets from the Dead.

¬†Dr Craig’s career began as a medical illustrator, which involved making highly detailed drawings of the human body and surgical procedures for physicians. A man she was dating¬†who worked in law¬†enforcement¬†turned her on to the possibility of a new career in forensic anthropology, so Craig headed back to school to get her Ph.D. in forensic anthropology in her mid-forties. A forensic anthropologist’s job is to evaluate¬†bodies and/or¬†human remains¬†at crime scenes to help solve crimes. Dr Craig specialized in¬†skeletal remains¬†and what they can tell her about the identity of the victim and the nature of the crime. Amazingly, there is much information that can be found¬†from skeletal bones: the sex, race, and age of the victims can be determined from certain skeletal bones, and also how they died,¬† if knife marks or bullet holes are found in the remains. Dr Craig shares with us many of the trips she goes on as part of her job with the State¬†Examiner’s office in her¬†home state of Kentucky to help solve violent crimes, hanging off of cliffs, crawling into tiny mine shafts and sifting through ash at house fires to¬†locate and catalog¬†remains. Dr Craig’s expertise was also requested¬†in the aftermath of three of America’s most devastating crime scenes from the last twenty years: Waco and the death of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians; the Oklahoma City bombing; and the Sept 11 attacks on America. Dr Craig was there on site for all of these momentous and horrifying occasions to help coroners and medical examiners to identify the victims in order to return their remains to their families.

Most importantly and poignantly, although she is a scientist, Dr Craig shares early and often the need to remain human in the face of such tragedy.¬† It’s understandable that many protect themselves by putting up emotional walls to keep themselves immune to the¬†magnitude and horror of these violent crimes. However, Dr Craig¬†stresses the importance of staying in touch with the humanity of these crimes,¬†remembering that these victims were real¬†human beings who died violent deaths, with sad families that are grieving their loss. She opens up about the stress of working near Ground Zero for eight weeks after the Sept 11 tragedy, where the sadness and anger of the event hung over all of them as they sifted through the remains of the innocent victims. Yet she also finds resolve in her work, to help these victims to justice whenever possible, and to give closure to their families.

Dr Craig recently retired from the Kentucky State Examiner’s Office in late 2o1o after a distinguished career. This book was a completely engrossing read and I really enjoyed it. I hope you’ll check it out.

Grade: A+

Too Far From Home: A Story of Life and Death in Space….Chris Jones

Expedition Six's astronauts aboard the International Space Station: Nikolai Budarin, Don Pettit and Ken Bowersox.

As a child, I was fascinated by astronaut Sally Ride’s book To Space and Back, a book she wrote for kids about what it was like to be an astronaut and live in space. Her accounts of the day-to-day challenges of making something as simple as a sandwich in zero gravity and the amazing pictures that showed astronaut toilets and spheres of floating orange juice captivated me. It is this book I thought of when I began to read Chris Jones’ interesting (and at times,¬†nerve-wracking!) book Too Far From Home, which details what life was like¬†for¬†three astronauts during a nearly five-month stretch¬†aboard the International Space Station.

Ken Bowersox, Don Pettit and Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin’s stint on the ISS was to be just a routine few weeks living in space and monitoring the ongoing scientific experiments on the ISS. That all changed on January 16, 2003, when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart during landing, killing all seven astronauts aboard. Left with their grief and horror in the insulation of space, the astronauts would quickly come to realize that the Columbia disaster¬†also affected them in a more practical way. The¬† Space Shuttle was responsible for bringing up the replacement crew to the ISS team after the current team’s stay was complete,¬†and also provided the¬†current crew’s way home. NASA’s grounding of the shuttle fleet following the tragedy put the ISS astronauts’¬†return to Earth on permanent hold while their cohorts on the ground tried to figure out how best to get them back safely. They would later hitch a heart-stopping ride back to Earth aboard a small, Russian capsule called Soyuz, surviving 8g’s during a steep ballistic reentry (later found to be due to faulty software) and landing miles from their target destination. The Russians lost track of them during reentry and for several hours had no idea if the astronauts were alive or dead.

The International Space Station

Amazingly, the three astronauts were in no hurry to get back to Earth. Jones’ story details the minutia of orbital life, and his descriptions of the isolation and leisurely¬†pace¬†of life in space, compared to our hectic lives on¬†Earth, were really eye-opening. I could definitely understand the attraction of the ISS for these men and why they were reluctant to leave. Jones’ descriptions of how the astronauts strapped themselves down to a dinner table in order to eat in a quasi-traditional way, and how tasteless food can become for astronauts due to stuffed nasal passages were¬†hilarious. I loved how astronauts would use packets of taco sauce as collateral on board, sprinkling it even onto Rice Krispies just so they could taste something. His detailing of the Columbia disaster and its aftermath, as well as the dangers inherent in space travel and space walking were very vivid. I appreciated how brave astronauts have to be to help us learn more about how we can live and travel in space.

I really enjoyed this book overall. It wasn’t too technical and gave a great overview of what it would be like to be an astronaut and¬†live in space. Even after their traumatic trip home, Don Pettit has returned to space twice more and is currently residing again on the ISS.

Grade: A

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer….Siddhartha Mukherjee

Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee, oncologist and researcher

Every once in a while, I get lucky (no, not THAT kind of lucky….well, okay, that kind of lucky¬†too¬†:). I pick up a book that I’ve been putting off reading for ages, and become so completely captivated by it that by the end of it I am mentally beating myself for waiting so long to read it, and am also¬†left wondering how anything I read after it will even¬†stand a chance at being interesting. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies, a wonderful book about the history of cancer throughout the ages, is that book.¬†

Dr Mukherjee, a cancer physician and researcher, takes us on a whirlwind journey through the history of cancer, beginning with its first known description in the literature in ancient Egypt, all the way to the most cutting edge therapies currently being developed to fight cancer. It was amazing to see how far we have come in our knowledge about cancer cells and how to best combat them. Decades of research on cancer found that the cells that can cause cancer are in each and every one of us, located on genes in our DNA, which is one reason cancers can be seen in families, needing only a random mutation in a chromosome or an external agent like tobacco smoke, radiation or asbestos, to activate those dormant genes and begin the uncontrolled cell division that is cancer. It was amazing to see how even small discoveries that researchers spent their entire careers on helped to generate bigger and more important discoveries later on. It was like seeing pieces of a puzzle fall into place.

I was also fascinated by the newest drugs used to fight cancer, known as targeted therapies. In the olden days, cytotoxic (cell killing) chemotherapies were used to fight off cancer. The problem was that these drugs not only killed the cancer cells, but sometimes killed other cells too, and had yucky side effects. Some of these cytotoxic chemotherapies could also cause different kinds of cancers later on. Many of these older chemotherapies could not get into specific parts of the body where cancer cells would hide, so relapses would inevitably occur, and the cancer would come back worse than ever, AND resistant to the previous chemotherapy. Once researchers determined the shapes and chemical compositions of specific cancer cells, they could develop new drugs specifically made to bond with and kill the cancer cells only, leaving other healthy cells alone and with fewer side effects.

Scanning electron photograph of a cancer cell. Cancer cells build their own blood supply network and are sometimes able to move to different locations of the body, both properties of which make them difficult to treat.

We are in a race against the clock with cancer research. Many of us know friends and loved ones affected by or taken by cancer. Every day brings new discoveries and new hope that a cure can be found in the future. I honestly had no idea how much progress we’ve made in fighting cancer before I read Dr Mukherjee’s book, and once I finished it, I was humbled and grateful to those who have spent their lives working so hard to find treatments. I was amazed and astonished at how hard some of these drug developers had to fight to get their¬†products approved, and how lucky we are that they were approved, since they have saved so many lives.¬†It gave me new understanding and empathy for those who are survivors and victims to cancer. This book is so important on so many levels, but most of all, to show that progress is being made and there is hope for the future.

You don’t have to be a doctor or a science major to read and enjoy this book. Mukherjee does a great job of explaining the research in a way that anyone can understand, and it is more compelling and fascinating than the most suspenseful mystery novel. Read this book. Don’t wait like I did.

Grade: A+

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife….Mary Roach

Mary Roach

If you’ve ever wondered what kittens, leprechauns, fencing foils, gauze material and sperm all have in common, it’s this: they’ve all been used to help prove or disprove the existence of….well…. the end of existence.

Mary Roach’s highly entertaining and informative book, Spook, tackles a mystery everyone wants the answers to but no one seems to get until we die…the possibility of life after death. She flies all over the world, turning to actual scientifically published literature and interviewing researchers who are currently out there doing studies to try to find the answers. What she discovers is interesting, thought-provoking,¬†often hilarious¬†and sometimes a bit¬†unconventional. Who would have ever thought of putting a laptop computer on the ceiling to help prove¬†out-of-body experiences when the heart stops? Putting people (and sheep) on a scale as they die to see if they lose weight once their ‘soul’ leaves the body? Leaving modeling clay under the table during a seance to see if spirits leave a ‘footprint’ when they move the table? Committing suicide to¬†attempt to¬†contact research partners¬†from the other side? It’s all been done, and documented. Crazy, right?

I laughed out loud several times during this book, which was unexpected. I clearly expected this book¬†to freak me out, like watching Ghost Adventures with my husband in the dark on Friday nights. I was pleasantly surprised. Roach takes a light-hearted yet scientific viewpoint of¬†her subject¬†matter, so it was fun rather than scary. It definitely opened my eyes to how society and technology have changed over the last century. It’s amazing to see how we as human beings have become more cynical and proof-driven since the turn of the century…yet our fascination with the afterlife is at an all-time high, with the popularity of TV shows like Ghost Hunters and¬†The Haunted and movies like Paranormal State. It’s understandable that serious educational institutions like Duke University and the University of Virginia have departments and funding dedicated to this quest.

Having never read a Mary Roach book before, I will definitely be looking out for her other books. Highly recommended.

Grade: A+