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The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York Hardcover – Feb 18 2010

4.4 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press (Feb. 18 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594202435
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594202438
  • Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 5.4 x 23.6 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 567 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #352,338 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


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

“Blum illuminates these tales of Norris and Gettler and their era witha dedication and exuberance that reflect the men themselves. Not onlyis The Poisoner's Handbook asthrilling 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 sciencejournalism at the University of Wisconsin, skillfully explains thechemistry behind Gettler's experiments. Her book is sure to appeal tomystery lovers, science nerds and history buffs. . . .”—Associated Press

“Fast-paced and suspenseful, ThePoisoner’s Handbook breathes deadly life into the RoaringTwenties.”—FinancialTimes

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

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

“The Poisoner's Handbook succeeds as science, as history, asentertainment and as an argument for the power and purpose of popularscience writing.”—MilwaukeeJournal-Sentinel

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

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

“The Poisoner's Handbook opensoneriveting murder case after another in this chronicle of Jazz Agechemical crimes where the real-life twists and turns are as startlingas anything in fiction. Deborah Blum turns us all into forensicdetectives by the end of this expertly written, dramatic page-turnerthat will transform the way you think about the power of science tothreaten and save our lives.”—MatthewPearl, author of The Last Dickensand The Dante Club

“The Poisoner's Handbook is awonderfully compelling hybrid of history and science built aroundeccentric characters. One scene reads like Patricia Cornwell and thenext like Oliver Sacks. From movie stars and aristocrats to homicidalgrandmothers and entrepreneurial gangsters, from the government'spoisoning of alcohol during Prohibition to the dangers of radiation andautomobile pollution, Blum follows an amazing array of poignanttragedies 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 suspensenovelist, Blum makes science accessible and fascinating.” —PublishersWeekly, starred review

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

“Formative figures in forensics, Norris and Gettler become fascinatingcrusaders in Blum’s fine depiction of their work in the law-floutingatmosphere 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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Top Customer Reviews

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.

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.
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Format: 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.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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