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The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz…

by Deborah Blum

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,8061076,943 (4.08)126
The untold story of how poison rocked Jazz Age New York City. 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. 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.… (more)
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» See also 126 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 106 (next | show all)
I'm just glad we're reading about this "in the past"... these people got away with murder! Easy read, highly interesting, well-written review of how people in fact DID get away with murdering people with household items. I found the book engaging for most of the book - by the end though I felt like it got a little redundant. Still - HIGHLY recommend. ( )
  marshapetry | Mar 1, 2021 |
The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum is a 2010 Penguin Press publication.

Interesting history of forensic pioneers!

After some initial push-back, Charles Norris was named the first official Chief Medical Examiner in 1917 by the city of New York. He then brought in Alexander Gettler to create a toxicology lab. Although, forensic science was met with skepticism, Norris and Gettler were beneficial in uncovering deaths attributed to tainted alcohol during prohibition, and deaths caused by carbon monoxide, and radium poisoning. But murderers were also caught out as poisons such as arsenic, cyanide and thallium were discovered post-mortem.

There were so many common uses for some of these poisons and in some cases the dangers were not apparent until it was too late. Science has advanced, thanks to Norris and Gettler, and we are much more aware of the dangers poisons present. The work these gentlemen pioneered has both acquitted and convicted criminals and helped to prevent further illness and death.

The spotlight on prohibition is a bit long winded, as other consequences of the era get a share in the examination. Still, the number of deaths from laced alcohol was shocking!

The Radium Girls story was already familiar to me, but it is still one of the most powerful segments in the book. Incredibly sad and difficult to read about.

The entire book is interesting and fascinating, but what propelled me to bump this one up on my list was a recent Dateline episode in which a man was poisoning his wife with Thallium and used this book as a guide!! (She survived- miraculously- just by the grace of God!)

Thallium is a poison I was not all that familiar with. During the 1930s it was used in dyes, and women, in particular, used it as a depilatory agent.

It was also used to treat certain ailments. It is known as the ‘Poisoner’s Poison’ and ‘Inheritance Powder’ as it is odorless and tasteless.

Positively chilling!

Overall, an incredibly interesting book. The only complaint I have is that we didn’t really get to know our hero scientist in a more personable way. A bit more biographical information might have been nice, but certainly not necessary.

Thank goodness Norris and Gettler stayed strong, sticking to the science and facts, despite all the forces working against them. Some of Gettler’s toxicology tools are still in use today. I shudder to think how many people would have gotten away with murder, or how many would have been wrongfully convicted, or how many substances would continue to sicken and kill, without their brains and their determination to keep corruption out of their work.

True Crime readers will enjoy this one as well as those interested in history of forensics, pathology, toxicology.

4.5 stars ( )
  gpangel | Feb 27, 2021 |
Another quite entertaining book on poison from Blum, but doesn't carry the same narrative flow as The Poison Squad. This one, written with the same strength of research and a love for personal detail, is more like a sequence of loosely related vignettes rather than a single story. ( )
  keithostertag | Jan 2, 2021 |
The Poisoner's Handbook is a fantastic look at the genesis of forensic science in New York City during the 1920's. Deborah does a great job of interspersing many different poisons (arsenic, mercury, carbon monoxide, radium, thallium, etc.) with the development and growth of the medical examiners office in New York. The two are intertwined and you get an intimate understanding of not only the science behind the poisons, but Deborah also dives into the several cases that Charles Norris, the medical examiner and his top toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, had to solve as they invented the science of forensic medicine. Filled with great detail, I was fascinated from beginning to end by not only the murder cases highlighted but by seeing how this new science was created - often by shear grit and determination on the parts of Norris and Gettler. ( )
  GeoffHabiger | Dec 26, 2020 |
This was a very good book. The author made this as interesting as a fiction detective story. Taking chemicals that kill through the earlier part of the 20th century, Deborah Blum told the story of two forensic scientists learning to solve crimes by chemical analysis. Sounds dry, but it was fast paced and interesting, full of all sorts of twists, turns, corruption, and bad guys. I learned so much about the hazards of life in "the jazz age" and during Prohibition. I learned so much I was sharing the book's stories with my family at Chili's and they didn't seem to mind listening to me! ( )
  Chica3000 | Dec 11, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 106 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Deborah Blumprimary authorall editionscalculated
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.
Quotations
Prohibition is a joke. It has deprived the poor working man of his beer and it has flooded the country with rat poison. - Brooklyn magistrate
The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol. It knows what the bootleggers are doing with it and yet it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison. Knowing this to be true, the United States Government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible. - Charles Norris
Only one possessing the instincts of a wild beast would desire to kill or make blind the man who takes a drink of liquor, even if he purchased it from one violating the Prohibition statues.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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The untold story of how poison rocked Jazz Age New York City. 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. 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.

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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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