Title: The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
Author: Deborah Blum
Quick Review: 4 stars (out of 5)
Why I Read It: The title caught my eye
Where I Obtained the Book: AT my local library
Review: Back in the 1920’s obtaining poison was a simple as walking into any general store and buying any number of common household products. Since our society wasn’t quite as litigious as it is today, manufacturers left it up to the consumer to be careful with their products. And since poison couldn’t be detected in the human body, or at least it couldn’t be proved in a court of law, which made it the method of choice of getting rid of unwanted people. Arsenic was referred to as inheritance powder because it was such a popular choice among budding murderers. But another change was taking place, due to political pressure the Medical Examiner in New York City stopped being an appointee, but instead became a Doctor and Scientist.
The Poisoner’s Handbook takes you through the celebrated poisoning cases of the time and shows how the young ME’s department got its start and made great leaps (and sometimes setbacks) in not only solving these crimes but getting convictions as well. So much so that they changed the way police work is done; hence the existence of CSI on television (and maybe one day in real life too). Not only murderers, but poison was so readily available that accidental deaths were also rampant.
The real treat of this book is the cases. From the locked room mystery wherein an older wealthy couple is found dead on the floor of their apartment without explanation; to the much more common offended family member just trying to get even with another by killing them. What is striking is the notion that we are much more violent in today’s society proves to be quite false. There are some mighty petty people back in the day as well. After a disagreement with her married daughter, the couple decides not to visit Grandma anymore. The children split with the teen daughter not going to see Grandma, but her younger brother does. So Grandma makes so extra special cookies for her granddaughter, just to teach her the ultimate lesson.
One of my favorites is the factory works at the lead plant all begin losing their minds, then their motor control, and then begin collapsing. After a third of them die the company still has the nerve to deny that anything is actually wrong. Instead their position is the employees loved their jobs so much they just work themselves to death. It had nothing to do with the product. We get the poor young women painting the luminescent numbers on watches; the secret, licking the tips of their brushes to keep the point. First they began to glow in the dark followed by the slow disintegration of their bones.
This book is just full of interesting stories that let us know how far we have come over the years (now we just shoot each other), but also let’s know how far we have yet to go. How morality shouldn’t always trump science as it can cost (prohibition did more damage and cost more lives than it saved). If I could make one request it would have been a photo section. Than goodness for the internet because every couple of pages I had to set the book down and get on Google to see who we were talking about. Get this book if anything about forensics interest you ( I am talking to you millions of CSI fans).
Synopsis: 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.
Author Biography: Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. As a science writer for the Sacramento Bee, Blum (rhymes with gum) wrote a series of articles examining the professional, ethical, and emotional conflicts between scientists who use animals in their research and animal rights activists who oppose that research. Titled "The Monkey Wars", the series won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting.