Book Review: The Poisoner's Handbook

When I first saw The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum, I hadn't read more than the few sentences in the summary before I made up my mind that I had to get it. Forensics? History? In one book?? It doesn't get any better than that! And the cover's pretty fabulous, too.

Blum organizes the book’s chapters by years and by poisons, i.e., chapter one takes place in 1915 and focuses on chloroform. As the book progresses, moving through the first 30 years of the 1900s, chapters cover cyanide, arsenic, radium, thallium and as these years also cover the era of Prohibition, a number of chapters focus on the various forms of alcohol, such as methyl alcohol, wood alcohol and ethyl alcohol.

The book also follows the development of the Medical Examiner's office in New York, from an office granted by the mayor to his cronies as reward for political support, which resulted in an astonishing amount of completely unqualified people holding the position, to the hiring of Charles Norris as Chief Medical Examiner, who was not only highly qualified, but who developed the position and in many ways the profession in the US. Norris was a passionate man, someone who fought hard for years to professionalize the Medical Examiner's office and to build forensic science into something that could be used in the courts to assist in determining guilt or innocence of people accused of murder by poison. Norris also hired Alexander Getler, a toxicologist who spent years developing tests of increasing sensitivity for various portions. Together, these two men pioneered forensics and their story is fascinating.

Before Norris and Getler got involved, one of the easiest ways of killing someone and getting away with it was poison and the early parts of the book covers an impressive amount inventive ways of killing people throughout history. For instance, arsenic, so favored by the Borgias, was known as ‘inheritance powder’ due to its helpful quality of knocking off relatives who wouldn't die quickly enough. I learned other things, as well. That the Y-incision used in autopsies was adopted instead of a straight incision due to pressure from undertakers who needed to be able to hide the incision under a body’s clothes should there be an open casket funeral. That Pepto-Bismol became Pepto-Bismol in 1919. The story of Typhoid Mary, the details of which I've never known and that's just for starters.

The stories of two poisons in particular stood out the most.

The first was Prohibition. Designed as a sort of ethical experiment in saving the world from the evils of alcohol, it actually had the opposite effect. Blum recounts how Prohibition actually got more people drinking and what they drank was often extremely dangerous. Bootleggers would hire chemists who try to make industrial alcohol, such as ethyl alcohol or wood alcohol, drinkable with varying levels of success. The government would respond by denaturing industrial alcohol – i.e., making it even more poisonous - the bootleggers would hire even better chemists and at the end of the day, thousands of people died from being poisoned by the results. Norris spent much of his time as Chief Medical Examiner of New York fighting Prohibition with facts and figures and eventually succeeded in New York repealing it before the rest of the country did, but not until this "ethical experiment" had taken its toll.

The second was the chapter on radium. When first discovered, radium was hailed as being good for you, used in health drinks, added to cosmetics and a host of other products. But it's a story of the radium girls that hits you hard. Women were hired by watch factories to paint luminous numbers on the dial of watches and because they didn't know any better - after all, if radium is used in a health drink, it must be safe, right? - they played with the paint, painting their teeth, their hair, their skin and having a great time generally glowing in the dark. Years later, these women got sick. In a horrific way. They got weak, their bones crumbled - the stories of women whose jaws fell to pieces are horrific - and they died terrible extended deaths. Blum tells of one woman, bedridden and waiting to die, her hair still glowing in the dark.

There are times where reading nonfiction feels like a bit of a job, something I do to edify myself and make sure my brain still works. This was not one of those times. The Poisoner’s Handbook is an absorbing read, well written and presents the science in a way that's easy to follow (did I mention chemistry ordinarily makes my brain hurt?). The stories of murder cases and other ways of dying, combined with the stories of how Norris and Getler developed tests for various forms of poisons are so absorbing that the edifying becomes almost accidental. It's a terrific, fascinating book and I highly recommend it.


CraftyCripple said…
Yup, that sounds pretty fascinating.  I'm adding it to my list for my next library visit.
Laurie Grassi said…
Sounds amazing! Must check it out...
AlisonH said…
Typhoid Mary's story there was--wow, what a mixture of culture, pride, arrogance on both sides, and the harm it did.
Tee said…
If you ever get the chance, see the play "These Shining Lives" by Melanie Marnich. It tells the story of the radium girls. The things you learn when your kids go off to college! (My son was the stage manager for his school's production.)
AdrienneS said…
The joy of working in a library!  We have that book, I'm going to go get it right now so I can start reading it on my upcoming boring reference desk shift!  (It's Friday, no one needs research help on a Friday afternoon in the summer.)