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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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1,037638,137 (4.06)93
Title:The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
Authors:Deborah Blum
Info:Penguin Books (2011), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 336 pages
Collections:Your library

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

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I absolutely loved this book. It is a highly readable account of the rise of forensic medicine and toxicology in the United States, focusing on the Bellevue lab in New York City. The book talks about a number of homicides (or, in some cases, accidents that were believed to be homicides) that resulted from poisonous chemicals. There are chapters on arsenic, cyanide, carbon monoxide, radium, thallium, etc. Some of the compounds that the author discusses were known to be poisons (like arsenic and cyanide, for example), whereas some were new compounds, discovered in the first third of the twentieth century, that were not discovered to be poisonous until ill effects were reported.

The book is not just about crime or homicidal maniacs who use poison as their weapon of choice. It is also about changing technologies, corporate greed, and egregious misuse of chemical compounds that borders on being comical to the modern reader. (Radium health tonics. Blearghhh.)

The book is well written (the crisp, non-academic writing is very refreshing - unlike the radium health tonics) and does not get overly bogged down in scientific terms. The author provides enough medical and scientific background to be relevant, but she presents it in layman's terms. I love reading about the periodic table, but since I am not a scientist, I find that sometimes I get lost when there is too much detail. That is not the case here. I highly recommend this book. ( )
  slug9000 | Dec 10, 2014 |
This book profiled the development of forensic medicine in New York, primarily through the actions of a reformer and a chemist.

It's a good crash course on different common poisons in the era (and their availability-- you could pick up arsenic-laden rat traps at any pharmacy). It's also a pageturner.

However, while I found the main narrative educational, I'm not sure how much weight I could put into some of the case studies and historical references Blum brought up. At one point, she mentions Lucrezia and Cesare Borgia as people who used poison as a frequent weapon; this is no longer an academic consensus (at the very least, a powerful noble house such as Borgia had minions for that kind of thing), particularly where concerns Lucrezia. It's a minor point but one that is so easy to research that I found myself skeptical of every other anecdote to follow.

( )
  eaterofwords | Nov 16, 2014 |
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 |
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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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