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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

Science and history

  • Aug 2, 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 wealthy and well-educated Dr. Charles Norris took over as its leader. Norris and his top forensic chemist, Alexander Gettler, were in the vanguard of the new science of forensics. The Poisoner's Handbook is the story of these innovative men, and of the toxic substances they worked so hard to understand.

Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum devotes each chapter of The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York to a different poison, explaining its chemistry and effects, a case or two in which it's used with nefarious intent, and the work of Norris and Gettler in developing tests and conducting forensic examinations. Blum discusses arsenic, chloroform, mustard and other toxic wartime gases, cyanide, mercury, carbon monoxide, radium (pity the clock-dial painters who sharpened their brushes between their lips!), lead, and less well-known but deadly substances such as thallium. These poisons are used for fumigation, to hurry inheritances, in support of sheer greed, and sometimes out of desperation or ignorance.

The science is not at all overwhelming, if you don't mind some talk of minced organs and dismemberment. Blum's vivid language describes the chemistry in terms of icy crystals, brilliant layers in beakers and tubes, and "the sizzle of gas burners...and the bubbling of flasks over flames."

Blum frames her book around the years of Prohibition, the so-called Noble Experiment, which was ratified as the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in January 1919 (and repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment in December 1933). Blum makes thorough work of the harm that accrued to the public from drinking poisonous methyl alcohol and concoctions such as "smoke" and "Ginger Jake." By government policy, industrial alcohol was "denatured" by toxic additives; Norris and Gettler saw so much death from this policy that they became ardent crusaders against Prohibition.

It's interesting to read social history through a very specific lens; and this book is a fascinating social history. Yes, it's about poison, and about the birth of forensic science, but there's also much to be considered about public policy and the growing awareness of industrial responsibility in this cross-section of American life from 1915 to 1935.

Linda Bulger, 2010

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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 07, 2010
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; …
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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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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ISBN-10: 1594202435
ISBN-13: 978-1594202438
Author: Deborah Blum
Genre: Professional & Technical, History, Nonfiction
Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The
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