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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York » User review

It's amazing how little we know about how things will ultimately turn out...

  • Aug 7, 2010
Rating:
+5
With all the books I receive for review (and given that I have a library a block away from my house), I rarely *buy* a book any more.  But on a recent trip, I wandered into a bookstore and had a particular title jump out at me... The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum.  I found this book fascinating on multiple counts, and I had a hard time putting it down.

Contents:
The Poison Game; Chloroform; Wood Alcohol; Cyanides; Arsenic; Mercury; Carbon Monoxide (Part 1); Methyl Alcohol; Radium; Ethyl Alcohol; Carbon Monoxide (Part 2); Thallium; The Surest Poison; Author's Note; Gratitudes; A Guide to the Handbook; Notes; Index

Handbook covers a 20 year period from 1915 to 1935, back when Prohibition was starting and forensic medicine was a relatively unknown concept.  The coroner's office in New York was staffed with political cronies who were quite happy to write off most deaths in ways that were more expedient than accurate.  This all changed when Charles Norris (chief medical examiner) and Alexander Gettler (toxicologist) took over in 1918.  These two took their jobs seriously, and started to apply rigorous discipline and science to their jobs.  Because of their efforts, the public was able to get a true picture as to causes of death due to shoddy medicine, cost-cutting companies, and out-right murder.  In fact, the papers and research from Norris and Gettler are still considered definitive resources today.

Blum frames much of her book around Prohibition and how it was responsible for innumerable deaths.  The illegality of alcohol led to increased prices for those who wanted a drink.  And most everyone *still* wanted their drinks.  The profits available from bootlegging were incredible, and everyone was willing to try their hand at making their own hootch.  Drinking liquor made of cheap wood and methyl alcohol became little more than a game of Russian roulette as there was no way to tell just how toxic your next drink would be.  Interspersed with the rise and fall of Prohibition, she also covers other toxins that Norris and Gettler traced down as killers.  For instance, radium was used to create watch dials that would glow in the dark.  The women who painted the dials thought little of licking the brushes to maintain their sharp tips.  In fact, it was even required by the company.  But after a couple of years, mysterious ailments afflicted nearly all the workers, and it was a battle to get the US Radium Corporation to admit fault and pay the workers a settlement.  And even then, it was a mere pittance for all their suffering and eventual deaths.

I'm very glad that The Poisoner's Handbook was strategically placed on the shelf where I found it.  On top of it being fascinating (in a morbid way), it opened my eyes to a different view of Prohibition, and how (once again) something can turn out far differently than what was originally planned.  

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Bookstore
Payment: Purchased

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More The Poisoner's Handbook: Murde... reviews
review by . January 01, 2010
"The Poisoner's Handbook" starts out my 2010 reading list with--not the bang of a shoot-'em-up murder mystery, but the studied malice aforethought of the poisoner's mind. Blum's history is based on the careers of long-time New York City Medical Examiner Charles Norris and his toxicologist sidekick Alexander Gettler, who together defined and documented the field of forensic medicine in fertile field of New York City during the years beginning with with World War I.    The phrase …
review by . August 02, 2010
In the early 1900s New York, like any sprawling city, exhibited the best and the worst of human behavior. Some of New York's worst came under the lax scrutiny of the elected coroners, not always the sober and honest guardians of the public that they should have been. Poisoners, among other criminals, were often able to walk away scot-free because the devious ways of poison were poorly understood.    In 1918 the city established its first true medical examiner system, and the …
review by . April 06, 2010
"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 …
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Thomas Duff ()
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Thomas Duff, aka "Duffbert", is a long-time member of the Lotus community. He's primarily focused on the development side of the Notes/Domino environment, currently working for a large insurance … more
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Wiki

Amazon Exclusive: Author Deborah Blum's Top Ten Poisons

On a recent radio show, I heard myself telling the host "And carbon monoxide is such a good poison.” We both started laughing--there’s just something about a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist waxing enthusiastic about something so lethal. But then he became curious--“Why?” he asked. “Why do you like it so much?”

These days, as I travel the country talking aboutThe Poisoner’s Handbook, I’m frequently asked that question or variations on it. What’s your favorite poison? What’s the perfect poison? The answer to the latter is that it doesn’t exist--except in the plots of crime novels.

But in reality, poisons really are fascinatingly wicked chemical compounds and many of them have fascinating histories as well. Just between us, then, here’s a list of my personal favorites.

1. Carbon Monoxide (really)--It’s so beautifully simple (just two atoms--one of carbon, one of oxygen) and so amazingly efficient a killer. There’s a story I tell in the book about a murder syndicate trying to kill an amazingly resilient victim. They try everything from serving him poison alcohol to running over him with a car. But in the end, it’s carbon monoxide that does him in.

2. Arsenic--This used to be the murderer’s poison of poisons, so commonly used in the early 19th century that it was nicknamed “the inheritance powder”. ...
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Details

ISBN-10: 1594202435
ISBN-13: 978-1594202438
Author: Deborah Blum
Genre: Professional & Technical, History, Nonfiction
Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The
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