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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A thoroughly enjoyable read,
This review is from: The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York (Hardcover)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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Chemistry, Murder and Prohibition in 1920s NYC,
This review is from: The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York (Hardcover)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. There are some revelations here, including the fact that the US government deliberately had manufacturers of products using alcohol to include extremely toxic ingredients, although the government was entirely aware that during Prohibition, drinkers were liable to drink anything containing alcohol regardless of what else might be in it - the thinking apparently was that if people were breaking the law by imbibing, then they deserved whatever they got, although the reality was that the government was knowingly and specifically killing its citizens by this practice. There are moments of gruesomeness that might be difficult for some readers to take - for example, even sketchy descriptions of experiments on animals turn my stomach - but the history being described is truly fascinating, and Blum writes such clear explanations that even a reader like me who has literally no experience with the science of chemistry can understand what's going on. Recommended for those with the interest in the subject!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Creepy Fun! Humans are so darn BAD,
This review is from: The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York (Hardcover)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.
"...in 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. This particular one involved radium, which in 1928 was considered a `miracle cure' for just about everything. Yet in a watch factory in Orange, New Jersey, young teenage women were falling mysteriously ill and then suddenly dying horrible deaths.
"At The Factory the dial painters were taught to shape their brushes with their lips, producing the sharp tip needed to paint the tiny numbers and lines of watch dials and the lacy designs of fashionable clocks."
They were required to paint 250 dials a day, five and a half days a week. On breaks they would play with the luminous paint by sprinkling in their hair to make curls twinkle in the dark, brighten their fingernails or cover their teeth to produce a Cheshire cat smile at night. And why not think it was safe? Doctors were using the same material to cure people, wealthy spa residents were soaking in the stuff and a neighboring company promoted the popular tonic Radithor.
"...One by one the young workers began to fall ill. Their teeth fell out, their mouths filled with sores, their jaws rotted, and they wasted away, weakened by an apparently unstoppable anemia."
This book is not for the wimps out there, but if you like life real life mysteries complete with the gory stuff and scientific explanations like you've never seen--this tome's for YOU!
For more fascinating information check the author's website: [...]
* This book is scary-fun
* Maybe NOT try any of this stuff at home
* Feel free to contact me at email@example.com
5.0 out of 5 stars Science and history,
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
5.0 out of 5 stars Loved the book!,
Give it a read. You will be glad you did.
5.0 out of 5 stars Readable and full of interesting information,
5.0 out of 5 stars Forensic Medicine/Toxicology at its Best,
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The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum (Paperback - Jan 25 2011)
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