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The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the…

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in… (edition 2011)

by Deborah Blum

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1,030618,227 (4.06)91
Title:The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
Authors:Deborah Blum
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The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum

  1. 20
    The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale (BookshelfMonstrosity)
  2. 10
    The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired Chicago by Douglas Perry (merovin)
  3. 10
    Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (BookshelfMonstrosity)
  4. 00
    The Killer of Little Shepherds by Douglas Starr (391)
    391: The Killer of Little Shepherds both have to do with the advent of forensic science; one set in rural France, in the attempt to track down a vicious serial killer, the other set in 1920s New York during Prohibition. Both are excellent books that I would highly recommend to anyone interested in the vanguards of forensics!… (more)

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The tag line on this book is "Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York". It wasn't until 1918 that New York appointed a medical examiner with actual medical credentials. Before that time the coroners office was part of the Tammany Hall controlled administration. The new medical examiner, Dr Charles Norris and his toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, dragged New York into the modern world of forensic science.

This is not just the story of their dedication and struggles as they strove to create a world class medical examiner's office. It is also the story of New York, the US and the world's slowly expanding knowledge of the poisons around them. The chapters are arranged by poisons and of particular interest are the ones about radium and all the chapters on the various alcohols. Before reading this book, I didn't realize that alcohol consumption increased during Prohibition or that the government added poisons to alcohol in an attempt to deter people from drinking.

The Poisoner's Handbook is not only well researched, it is also very readable.
  Familyhistorian | Sep 20, 2014 |
The Beginning of Evidence-Based Medicine?

Historical fiction set during the start of forensic chemistry in the U.S., full of tycoons, Typhoid Mary, Tammany Hall, high society, and everything else I love about old New York. Great overview of how one man brought science to the coroner's office, and how politics got in the way of his trying to improve public health as a result. Highly recommended. ( )
  Pat_F. | Jul 25, 2014 |
The carefree spirit of the Jazz Age included music, dance, corruption, Prohibition, and modern technology. However, it was also a time when murder by poison flourished. At the time, most poisons were largely undetectable; thus, murders were easy to get away with. Poisons were everywhere. The poisons made their way into food, beverages, cosmetics, and the environment. They were used in everything from rat poison to tonics used to restore vigor and health to facial creams used to promote beautiful skin.

When Dr. Charles Norris became the chief medical examiner of New York City in 1918, he inherited a department that was understaffed and underfunded. Corruption was rampant in New York City, and the department suffered. Norris set out to completely overhaul the department. He purchased supplies at his own personal expense and tirelessly advocated for his department. Additionally, Norris created standards that would one day set the tone for laboratories all over the country.

The Bottom Line: This book is about how one toxicology laboratory in New York City modernized the field of forensic medicine. This book is heavy on science, especially chemistry, and includes information about both the poisons and the tests for detecting them are included. Some people may want to skip over the gory parts. Each chapter of the book focuses on a different poison and includes stories about its discovery and how it was commonly used. Plus, ample anecdotes about murders involving each poison are included. Additionally, there are the broader tales of Prohibition and the political corruption in New York City to keep the reader interested. While the writing style was sometimes disjointed and somewhat dry, the biographical information about Norris and Gettler was fascinating.

Recommended for nonfiction book clubs with an interest in science and crime. The classic cases of murder by poison featured in each chapter of Blum’s book are sure to appeal to fans of true crime and television shows like CSI and NCIS as well.

For the full review including Book Club Notes and questions, visit the Mini Book Bytes Book Review Blog. ( )
  aya.herron | May 30, 2014 |
I have LOVED reading this book more than anything I've read in a while. It's so hard for non-fiction to be riveting -- and for chemistry of all things to keep me up late with a book! Awesome.

My quibbles on how many stars to give are based on the ending wrapping up a bit weaker than I'd hoped. I wish she'd concluded with some mention of chemical warfare being used in Europe and implications for US military research into chemical warfare for of WW2. That's an entire book of its own (that's already been written, I'm sure), but Blum gives enough time to mustard gas and other noxious WW1 experiments that a final look at that would have given a better sense of closure.

But apart from that, omg LOVE. All the original research shows, and the bibliography is fantastic. Life in the Prohibition Era, and this vast array of known unregulated poisons being available to anyone, is so fascinating. It's hard to imagine that the FDA didn't get any meaningful power until 1938.

Also, the bit on radium creeped me the hell out. What a horrific way to die.

Right, so, this book made my inner history geek and forensic pathology geek VERY happy. And I learned a little chemistry along the way.

Other bits: When I put this on hold in the library, there were sixteen people ahead of me in the hold queue. I don't want to return this copy. ( )
1 vote sageness | Feb 7, 2014 |
I read this book for a book club and boy am I glad they picked this one.

I've seen some other reviews complaining that it's heavier on the history than it is on the science, but I found it to be a good mix of the two. The focus is on the work of Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, New York City's first medical examiner and toxicologist, respectively. We learn about developments in forensic science through their work: the main cases they come up against, the political climate, and the time period in which they lived. Blum paints their world so clearly with some of the best storytelling I've ever experienced in a piece of nonfiction. You get a thrilling narrative, a 1920s-1930s history education, and hard scientific facts all in one fun package. I was so taken in by the story that I had to force myself to take it slow so as to be able to retain my knowledge for my book club meeting.

This book was fantastic. You should read it. ( )
  olivenerd | Feb 3, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Deborah Blumprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Marlo, ColeenNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To the Haugen family- Dave, Helen, Peter (always), Treaka- and in loving memory of Pamela.
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Until the early nineteenth century few tools existed to detect a toxic substance in a corpse.
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Book description
Shares the story of how the appointment of Charles Norris as chief medical examiner in New York in 1918 dramatically slowed the incidence of murder by poisoning, and looks at how Norris worked together with toxicologist Alexander Gettler to investigate chemistry-related deaths and disorders and to establish the discipline of forensics.
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Science journalist Deborah Blum shares the untold story of how poison rocked Jazz Age New York City. She tracks the 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 chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler investigate a family mysteriously stricken bald, factory workers with crumbling bones, a diner serving poisoned pies, and many others. Each case presents a deadly new puzzle and Norris and Gettler create revolutionary experiments to tease out even the wiliest compounds from human tissue. From the vantage of their laboratory it also becomes clear that murderers aren't the only toxic threat--modern life has created a kind of poison playground, and danger lurks around every corner.--From publisher description.… (more)

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