Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum

book cover

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

Hardback: 323 pages
Publisher: The Penguin Press
First Released: 2010

Author's Website
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Source: Review copy from the publisher.

Book Description (from publisher's website):
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 Poisoner's Handbook is the perfect mix of history, true crime, and biography. This well-written and very readable book was an eye-opener. While it covered interesting and unique criminal murder cases, it also described cases of poisoning due to ignorance about the toxicity of various newly discovered elements and chemical compounds. I don't think I'll ever look at the world the same way again.

The book covered the period between 1915 to 1937, starting with Norris and Gettler being appointed to their positions and how they pushed for changes to the coroner system. The author focused on the cases they encountered that required them to make advances in forensic toxicology and the the social/political conditions, like Prohibition, and scientific discoveries, like radium, that made certain poisons the focus of their work. In an effort to make their findings accepted as evidence in court, they moved forensic toxicology to new levels of knowledge and reliability.

The main poisons covered were chloroform, cyanide, arsenic, mercury, lead, methyl alcohol, ethyl alcohol, carbon monoxide, radium, nicotine, and thallium. During the description of the cases, we're told how the poison works and how quickly, the signs of poisoning, and how they found a way to detect it or improved on how to detect it.

I learned a lot of interesting information and trivia. Have you ever wondered why car gas is marked unleaded? Since it's all unleaded, I often wondered why they bothered to mention it, but now I know--and appreciate!--why it's unleaded.

If you like true crime books or books that describe how things got they way they are now, you'll find this book fascinating. I'd very highly recommend it.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter One
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.

At first the confession seemed just more of the general craziness spiking across the city. New York was mired in winter, horse-drawn carriages careening through snow-drifted Broadway, trolleys stuck in place from the Bronx to Coney Island as the weight of ice dragged down the lines. The streets commissioner had hired fifteen thousand "snow fighters," as he called them, to dig out the roadways. Even as the fighters shoveled and chopped, new snow dropped, new sleet kept falling, laying down yet another treacherous layer.

During those same days of darkening skies and frozen streets, public authorities were desperately trying to stop a sudden outbreak of typhoid fever. The city's most notorious carrier, Typhoid Mary Mallon, had violated the conditions of her release from a sanitarium and gone to work as a cook at a local hospital. Twenty-five people were sick and two dead before they managed to hunt her down and take her--screaming and cursing them for persecution--back into custody.

The city's coroner had been no help in that investigation, if indeed he ever was.

Instead, Patrick Riordan was trying to fast-talk himself out of charges that he showed up for work sodden drunk. Or as one angry witness put it, he stumbled into a death scene with "a glassy eye and smirky face" to sneer at bodies. That indictment followed an accident on the Ninth Avenue Elevated, the crowded commuter line run by the private Interborough Rapid Transit Company.

The collision had occurred several weeks earlier, in the last days of December.

Read the prologue.

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