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.
Apart from the criminal investigations, this book also goes into the New York Medical Examiners' Office investigation of several cases of industrial and workplace incidents. In those pre-Workers Compensation Board times, these New York cases were dealt with by the NY Medical Examiners' Office and the investigation of those cases makes interesting reading. Anyone interested in workplace health and safety issues should find the book's descriptions of these cases to be very informative reading.
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. The author writes well and, despite the major critiques of the book's scientific details written on Amazon's US site by scientists, the historical information in the book is very interesting throughout.
Overall, a worthwhile book, although the scientists' critiques mentioned above create some doubt about the book's credibility on scientific details.
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!
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.
on November 7, 2010
In the early 1900s New York, like any sprawling city, exhibited the best and the worst of human behavior. Some of New York's worst came under the lax scrutiny of the elected coroners, not always the sober and honest guardians of the public that they should have been. Poisoners, among other criminals, were often able to walk away scot-free because the devious ways of poison were poorly understood.
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
Many books on forensic sciences, aimed at a general readership, have been written over recent years. I have read many of them and, in my view, this is one of the most spellbinding. In the early twentieth century, forensic medicine and forensic toxicology were in their infancy - then along came two great pioneers, Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler. Struggling through the Great Depression and the Prohibition years, they would develop these fields into reliable, indispensable tools in the war on crime. Using, as vehicles, the professional lives of these two scientists working in New York City, the author focuses on the criminal uses of various poisons. Although each chapter concentrates mainly on a particular poison: its availability, its effects on the human body, its detection in human tissue, etc., as well as on related criminal cases, there is some amount of spill-over from prior chapters in both the poisons used and the criminal investigations. This establishes more continuity in the overall narrative than would be the case if each chapter were to stand alone. The poisons featured include chloroform, wood alcohol, cyanides, arsenic, mercury, carbon monoxide, radium, ethanol and thallium. In addition to being clear, friendly and accessible, the most salient feature of the writing style is its tremendously engaging nature; the book is very hard to put down. This is a book that should appeal to all forensic science buffs as well as general readers who love to read good true crime stories.
on May 18, 2014
This is not simply a book about poisons. It covers a fascinating period in American history, when alcohol could contain any number of poisons, and your workplace could kill you. The toxicologists developing their science didn't just solve murders, they started our awareness of environmental poisons. A brilliant look at a the birth of government concern about protecting its citizens from poisons, and a reminder of why this is a good thing.
on April 19, 2010
I found this book particularly interesting as a longtime reader of detective novels. I now know that poisoning is considerably more gruesome, painful and messy than the canon of detective fiction would lead you to believe. Also, the history of the development of forensic medicine in general and toxicology in particular, as practised in New York City during the era of Prohibition, is fascinating, as is the story of Prohibition itself.
on May 17, 2010
I am big fan of historical non-fiction books. And the Poisoner's Handbook is no different from the others. This book is all about the establishment of the coroner's office in New York City. It's a fascinating read talking about the corruption of political office, the incompetency of the initial coroner not to mention background of the various poisons used throughout the years.
Give it a read. You will be glad you did.
on September 20, 2015
Great history of chemistry and the minds/methods behind the discovery. Read it super fast and would recommend to novice or experienced history readers. A delight.
on January 11, 2014
A good blend of politics, science, murder, and policing. Great background material for anyone who enjoys a good whodunit or a TV crime procedural.