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

Deborah Blum

(Penguin; US: Feb 2010)

A warning: For all readers who once winced and befuddled their way through a high school chemistry course, the chapter headings of Deborah Blum’s new book may cause heart palpitations, sweaty palms and premonitions of intense confusion.


However, those former students may rest assured. Despite the cryptic formulas they’ll find adorning the table of contents – CHCl3, NaCN and CH3OH, oh my! – for The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, Blum’s history of the marriage between chemistry and crime fighting keeps the science lessons simple and accessible, focusing instead on the juicy case studies and hard work that formed the backbone of modern toxicology.


Luckily for the reader – and for Blum, of course – the early years of forensic chemistry were gushing with robust theatricality; at the dawn of the field’s development, there was “as much showmanship as science,” Blum tells us in the prologue, with one chemist resorting to killing a cat in court in order to prove foul play.


The author asserts that this desperately unscientific system changed dramatically in 1918, when New York City hired its first trained medical examiner. The tests and triumphs of Charles Norris’ years in office play out in the chapters that follow, each named for a deadly toxin, and suggest that her reverential title for him of “trailblazing scientific detective” is dead-on.


Norris and his trusty toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, are the undisputed heroes of the book, their pioneering research prompted by the gruesome – and often unpunished – deaths by poison that plagued the city. By the end of their terms, forensic toxicology was an established and widely practiced, if still poorly funded, science.


The Poisoner’s Handbook reminds us that Blum – who won a Pulitzer Prize for writing about primate research in 1992 – is a pro at keeping science writing free from the dry stiffness of textbooks. Her poisons are all imbued with personality: she shows us that the “brilliant scatter effect” of mercury is enchanting and beautiful, and that carbon monoxide makes blood “glow like the crimson hourglass” on a black widow spider.


She also delves into the nasty side of these chemical characters, revealing how they ravage the body and often take lives with just a few tablespoons, leaving organs a pulpy mess of blood and tissue. 


Norris and Gettler eventually helped bring justice to those who used these toxins as fatal weapons, and also protected unwitting consumers from meeting tragic ends. At the time, poisons like lead, mercury and arsenic were alarmingly prevalent in household products. They lurked in beauty potions, paints, jewelry and, ironically enough, health tonics, and the research of Blum’s heroic duo played a large part in pulling such dangerous ingredients from store shelves.


Of course, progress came at a cost. Norris failed to win the favor of the Tammany Hall political machine, leaving his office and research hopelessly underfunded and prompting him to dig deeply into his own pockets to monetize daily operations. Blum also describes laboratory tests that would enrage any animal rights activist: dogs were routinely killed with carefully measured doses of the unknown poisons of the day, and more than a few cats perished in the name of scientific knowledge.


While the research eventually came to exonerate the innocent, as it did with Charles Webb, who in a soap-opera worthy family spat had been wrongly accused of killing his wife with mercury in order to inherit her wealth, the field couldn’t develop quickly enough to prevent a few culprits from walking free. The beautiful Mary Frances Creighton was one murderess who walked free after Gettler’s tests failed to prove that she killed her younger brother with arsenic. (Justice did catch up with her years later, however, when she was sent to the electric chair – clutching her rosary, her beauty long gone – after Gettler used his newer research to prove that she had murdered a neighbor with the same poisonous powder.)


Prohibition serves as a powerful backdrop for the book, revealing the dark prevalence of fatalities beneath the era’s glamorous facade. To dissuade the public from imbibing illegally – or, perhaps, to punish revelers – the federal government often poisoned the industrial alcohols that were shipped around to the country and ended up behind speakeasy bars. To Norris, Blum writes, this was an inside job, a deadly result of the government getting too involved in restricting life’s pleasures.


The observation may resonate for anyone familiar with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s crusade in recent years to take control of other dangerous substances – instituting bans on smoking and trans fats, and now taking aim at high salt levels in restaurants – purportedly for the sake of the public’s well-being. The city’s health department probably won’t be contaminating salt supplies with arsenic anytime soon, but the parallel interference of regulators may be enough to give some New Yorkers pause.


After illuminating the prevalence of poisons in the Jazz Age, Blum leaves the reader wondering why everyone wasn’t accidently poisoned to death, a question one wishes she’d answered. Exactly how much the public knew about toxins – enough to purposely poison their wealthy spouses, but somehow not enough to prevent accidental deaths caused by rat fumigation – isn’t really evident, but Blum dances near enough the answer that one is left with a sense of profound gratitude for having not chanced the safety of the era herself.


After all, an evening in speakeasies spent flirting with flappers doesn’t sound so appealing when every tumbler of whiskey is a gamble with life, each ordered drink “a game of Russian roulette.” At least if you did die, your autopsy might have furthered the field of toxicology, a discipline for which Blum makes her appreciative ardor known throughout The Poisoner’s Handbook. She probably would have thanked you—posthumously, of course—for your scientific contribution.

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