The Poisoner’s Handbook | Deborah Blum

Summary of: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
By: Deborah Blum


Prepare to delve into the dark and deadly world of poisonings in the early twentieth-century New York City with Deborah Blum’s ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.’ A time when murder by poison was commonplace, and the incompetent American coroner system allowed criminals to walk free, this book summary explores the development of forensic toxicology as a legitimate science. Discover how Dr. Charles Norris and forensic chemist Alexander Gettler revolutionized toxicology, leading to crucial breakthroughs in the detection of poisons like arsenic, cyanide, and mercury. Uncover how their incredible work transformed the justice system and helped bring murderers to account.

Murder by Poison in 1915 Manhattan

In the early 1900s, the incompetence of the American coroner system allowed many murderers in New York City to get away with poisonings. Death certificates were completed without any attempt to determine the cause of death, leading to the release of many criminals. However, the establishment of forensic toxicology as a legitimate science in 1918 brought an end to this. New York City implemented reforms and hired a trained medical examiner and chemist, thereby elevating forensic toxicology to an actual science and closing the loophole that allowed poison murderers to evade justice.

Revolutionizing Forensic Science in New York

Dr. Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler were the founding fathers of forensic science in New York. When Norris was appointed as the new medical examiner in 1918, he worked tirelessly to improve forensic standards in the justice system. He hired Gettler, a forensic chemist, and together they transformed forensic toxicology by developing new tests and research methods. They made several discoveries and revolutionized the way poisons were tracked and identified. Norris and his team established new rules for handling bodies and required that files were kept on each case for reference. Their work set the forensic standards for the rest of the country and proved invaluable in the pursuit of justice.

The Poison Death Lesson

A couple died of poisoning in a Brooklyn hotel in 1922, teaching toxicologists a valuable lesson in toxicology. They were murdered by cyanide gas used during fumigation, which was revealed in an unsuccessful trial against the hotel manager and fumigator. Although toxicologist Gettler found clear evidence of cyanide poisoning, he had a hard time educating and convincing the jury, leading to his inspiration to research more intensely and write ‘The Toxicology of Cyanide.’ The investigation triggered efforts to improve the relationship between medicine and law, with Chief medical examiner Norris leading a crusade to give forensic toxicology the deserved respect and set national standards by forming a committee with representatives from other cities across the United States. Nearly a century later, toxicologists and government agencies reference Gettler’s text.

Arsenic: The Ideal Murder Weapon

Arsenic, a lethal poison easily acquired from grocery stores in the 1920s, became an ideal murder weapon due to its tasteless and odorless nature when administered in small doses. Over half of randomly selected deaths caused by arsenic in the 18th and 19th centuries were homicides, as it was difficult to detect gradually administered doses. Forensic toxicology developed reliable tests to discover arsenic, which mummified the bodies of its victims and slowed down natural decomposition. Though arsenic poisoning became a riskier choice for murder, finding the poison was not the same as finding the killer.

The Deadly Mercury

The early twentieth century brought many risky chemicals into people’s lives, including mercury, a highly toxic metal. It was available in various commercial products and drugs and was even prescribed for bacterial infections like syphilis. However, our living tissue soaks up the salts and progressively dissolves our organs in horrifying ways. Mercury is extremely poisonous but doesn’t offer a quick death. A woman who had swallowed an entire bottle of mercury tablets suffered two weeks of agony before dying. The public was finally made aware of mercury’s lethal potential after actress Olive Thomas accidentally swallowed a mercury potion and passed away three days later. Incidentally, mercury poisoning deaths were rather typical suicides or unfortunate accidents.

The Silent Killer in Car Accidents

In early 20th century New York, the number of car-related deaths exceeded 1,000, with many caused not by collisions, but by toxic chemicals like carbon monoxide. Forensic toxicologists became vital in determining the cause of death, especially in differentiating accidents from murders. CO was so prevalent in city air that it became necessary to detect it in the body. The case of Francesco Travia, who was suspected of murder but had actually caused the victim’s death with CO from his stove, was a turning point in forensic toxicology. Thanks to investigators like Gettler, who were skilled at detecting this silent killer, justice was served in the courtroom.

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