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The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York [Hardcover]

Deborah Blum
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 23 2010
Video From "The Chemist's War" (Slate Magazine), by Deborah Blum
Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum follows New York City's first forensic scientists to discover a fascinating Jazz Age story of chemistry and detection, poison and murder.

Deborah Blum, writing with the high style and skill for suspense that is characteristic of the very best mystery fiction, shares the untold story of how poison rocked Jazz Age New York City. In The Poisoner's Handbook Blum draws from highly original research to track the fascinating, 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 the heroes of The Poisoner's Handbook—chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler—investigate a family mysteriously stricken bald, Barnum and Bailey's Famous Blue Man, factory workers with crumbling bones, a diner serving poisoned pies, and many others. Each case presents a deadly new puzzle and Norris and Gettler work with a creativity that rivals that of the most imaginative murderer, creating revolutionary experiments to tease out even the wiliest compounds from human tissue. Yet in the tricky game of toxins, even science can't always be trusted, as proven when one of Gettler's experiments erroneously sets free a suburban housewife later nicknamed "America's Lucretia Borgia" to continue her nefarious work.

From the vantage of Norris and Gettler's laboratory in the infamous Bellevue Hospital it becomes clear that killers aren't the only toxic threat to New Yorkers. Modern life has created a kind of poison playground, and danger lurks around every corner. Automobiles choke the city streets with carbon monoxide; potent compounds, such as morphine, can be found on store shelves in products ranging from pesticides to cosmetics. Prohibition incites a chemist's war between bootleggers and government chemists while in Gotham's crowded speakeasies each round of cocktails becomes a game of Russian roulette. Norris and Gettler triumph over seemingly unbeatable odds to become the pioneers of forensic chemistry and the gatekeepers of justice during a remarkably deadly time. A beguiling concoction that is equal parts true crime, twentieth-century history, and science thriller, The Poisoner's Handbook is a page-turning account of a forgotten New York.

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“The Poisoner’s Handbook is an inventive history that, like arsenic, mixed into blackberry pie, goes down with ease.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Blum illuminates these tales of Norris and Gettler and their era with a dedication and exuberance that reflect the men themselves. Not only is The Poisoner's Handbook as thrilling as any CSI episode, but it also offers something even better: an education in how forensics really works.” —The Washington Post

“Blum, a longtime newspaper writer and now a professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin, skillfully explains the chemistry behind Gettler's experiments. Her book is sure to appeal to mystery lovers, science nerds and history buffs. . . .”—Associated Press

“Fast-paced and suspenseful, The Poisoner’s Handbook breathes deadly life into the Roaring Twenties.”—Financial Times

“All the nitty-gritty about death by arsenic, by thallium, by wood alcohol, is here in precise, gruesome detail.  It makes for a stomach-turning read. . . . .Ms. Blum’s combination of chemistry and crime fiction creates a vicious, page-turning story that reads more like Raymond Chandler than Madame Curie.”—New York Observer

“In this bubbling beaker of a book, [Blum] mixes up a heady potion of forensic toxicology, history and true crime. . . . The Poisoner's Handbook will get into your head. You'll find yourself questioning the chemicals in our everyday lives. What's really in our food, cosmetics, pesticides, cleaning supplies, children's toys and pet dinners? This isn't just a good read. It's a summons to study labels, research, think and act.”—Dallas Morning News

“The Poisoner's Handbook succeeds as science, as history, as entertainment and as an argument for the power and purpose of popular science writing.”—Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

 “One thinks of Erik Larson's Devil in the White City . . . a book that gave splendiferously disgusting descriptions of horrible murders and did it so dexterously and intelligently that even readers who wouldn't normally read a true crime book were happily sucked in. Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York is that kind of book.” —New Haven Advocate

“Blum has cooked up a delicious, addictive brew:  murder, forensic toxicology, New York City in the 20s, the biochemistry of poison.  I loved this book. I knocked it back in one go and now I want more!”—Mary Roach, author of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

“The Poisoner's Handbook opens one riveting murder case after another in this chronicle of Jazz Age chemical crimes where the real-life twists and turns are as startling as anything in fiction. Deborah Blum turns us all into forensic detectives by the end of this expertly written, dramatic page-turner that will transform the way you think about the power of science to threaten and save our lives.”—Matthew Pearl, author of The Last Dickens and The Dante Club

“The Poisoner's Handbook is a wonderfully compelling hybrid of history and science built around eccentric characters. One scene reads like Patricia Cornwell and the next like Oliver Sacks. From movie stars and aristocrats to homicidal grandmothers and entrepreneurial gangsters, from the government's poisoning of alcohol during Prohibition to the dangers of radiation and automobile pollution, Blum follows an amazing array of poignant tragedies through the laboratory of these crusading public servants.—Michael Sims, author of Apollo's Fire and Adam's Navel

“With the pacing and rich characterization of a first-rate suspense novelist, Blum makes science accessible and fascinating.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Caviar for true-crime fans and science buffs alike.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Formative figures in forensics, Norris and Gettler become fascinating crusaders in Blum’s fine depiction of their work in the law-flouting atmosphere of Prohibition-era New York.”—Booklist

About the Author

Pulitzer Prize winner Deborah Blum is a professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin. She worked as a newspaper science writer for twenty years, winning the Pulitzer in 1992 for her writing about primate research, which she turned into a book, The Monkey Wars (Oxford, 1994). Her other books include Sex on the Brain (Viking, 1997) and Love at Goon Park (Perseus, 2002). She has written about scientific research for The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Discover, Health, Psychology Today, and Mother Jones. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers and now serves on an advisory board to the World Federation of Science Journalists and the National Academy of Sciences.

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Customer Reviews

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4.6 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
By Mark Anderson TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I first became aware of this book after seeing a documentary called "The Poisoner's Handbook" on the PBS program, American Experience.

The American Experience documentary was based on this book and the author was one of those interviewed in the program. The documentary was very interesting, so I bought the book after watching the documentary.

This is a well written popular history of the development of the New York City Medical Examiner's Office in the early 20th century with particular emphasis on the 1920s and early 1930s, up to the repeal of Prohibition.

The author focuses on Doctors Norris and Gettler, the Medical Examiner's Office chief pathologist and head toxicologist respectively, and details the many political battles between the New York City Mayor's office and the Medical Examiner's Office along with fascinating details of the Medical Examiner's investigations into crime, industrial accidents, working conditions which lead to the deaths of workers and other very interesting subjects.

The author's bio in the book says she is a science writer but several scientists have left some fairly scathing critiques on Amazon's US site about the flawed scientific details throughout the book. I found the book very interesting but these critiques raise some concerns about the author's credibility and the credibility of the history in the book.

I'm no scientist so I can't respond knowledgeably to their critiques. But I've done a quick check (I emphasize "quick" check; I haven't done any major fact checking here)on some of the historical details in the book and the history seems accurate enough based on a few quick checks on some major details.

This book is aimed at a more general audience.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and accessible Jan. 11 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A good blend of politics, science, murder, and policing. Great background material for anyone who enjoys a good whodunit or a TV crime procedural.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A thoroughly enjoyable read Jan. 4 2011
By C. J. Thompson TOP 500 REVIEWER
The title of the book doesn't really give you a good idea as to the content. I received it as a gift and did not know what to expect when I began to read it but I found myself thoroughly enjoying it. The book centers around New York City's first Medical Examiner, Charles Norris, his talented Chief Toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, and the birth of American forensic toxicology. That might sound like a bit of a dry read but Ms Blum really makes the story interesting. Her prose is both light and lively and she interweaves the main narrative with all sorts of interesting little digressions. It kept me captivated all the way through.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Chemistry, Murder and Prohibition in 1920s NYC Dec 6 2010
By Alison S. Coad TOP 50 REVIEWER
I seem to be on a 1920s kick lately; at any rate, I'm reading a lot of books set in that period. "The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York," by Deborah Blum, is no exception, covering a period between 1920 and 1936, during and just after Prohibition in the United States. The book is primarily concerned with describing the work and crusades of New York City's Chief Medical Examiner, Charles Norris, and his chief toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, to discover new means of detecting poison in the bodies of victims, and to get the government (municipal, State and ultimately Federal) to put restrictions on the use of various poisonous substances in the manufacture of everyday items. The book is structured as a series of chapters about particular chemicals, including chloroform, wood alcohol, cyanide, arsenic, mercury, carbon monoxide (2 chapters), methyl alcohol, ethyl alcohol and thallium, and each chapter is illustrated both by descriptions of the scientists' experiments and findings on each chemical, along with one or more case histories of real victims, including innocents wrongfully accused of murder by poison who are exonerated by science, which at that time was only just being recognized as providing important evidence in criminal cases. Read more ›
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Creepy Fun! Humans are so darn BAD June 21 2011
The Poisoner's Handbook
Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

by Deborah Blum

I hate to admit it, since the subject matter in this book is, shall we say, unsavory--I loved it!
Author Blum (professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin) weaves true tales of murder and mayhem in New York City beginning the year 1915 all the way through prohibition. She cleverly focused on Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, two toxicology experts who ushered forensic medicine into the world of law and order. Their scientific testimony presented in court, time and time again determined the fate of many-a-murderer.

Each chapter is centered on a specific chemical such as chloroform, wood alcohol, ethyl alcohol or carbon monoxide and then actual court cases are unfolded along with the fascinating ways in which people killed one another. Her specific allure was how totally diabolical humans can be and to the extent some go to reach their greedy goals.

And the Eighteenth Amendment--the social experiment--was killing more people than it was supposedly created to `save.' The government knew New Yorkers were drinking wood alcohol and so they added more poisonous ingredients which resulted in more and more deaths.

" the year 1926 alone some twelve hundred in New York City had been sickened or blinded or both by drinking some form of industrial alcohol; another four hundred people had died..."

It was a vicious cycle from 1920 to 1933, but Herbert Hoover put an end to it and the nation clinked with joy. Poisoner's simply got smarter and even some corporations unknowingly (in the beginning) got into the labs at Bellevue where Norris and Gettler unraveled yet another mysterious poison.
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