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The Poisoner’s Handbook

The Poisoner's Handbook

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
by Deborah Blum; narrated by Coleen Marlo

I could hardly do better than Andrew in his review of The Poisoner’s Handbook, but I’ll add my two cents.  Blum’s non-fiction narrative follows the careers of Charles Norris and Andrew Gettler, two pioneering scientists working as New York’s head Medical Examiner and Toxicologist, respectively.  Blum uses Norris and Gettler to guide us through a discussion of the way pathology and science became part of the legal system, focusing especially on the chemistry and discovery of different poisons, the way they function, and how they came to be detectible.

A few thoughts:

  • Norris  earned a reputation not just as a good medical examiner, but as a defender of peoples’ rights and an advocate for quality care through three practices that had nothing to do with his expertise as a scientist.  First, he cleared the old autopsy system of all its corruption by establishing solid rules for what procedures should be followed.  Second, he advocated strongly for public policies about chemicals and poisons that would save lives, even when the policies he was arguing for were unpopular.  Third, he spent a lot of his own money on equipment for the office so his examiners could do their jobs.
  • I hadn’t heard much about the case of the watch dial girls, but it was really interesting to learn how the first victims of radiation poisoning and industry wrestled over who was at fault.  The most egregious part, to my mind, was that when the young women whose bones were literally crumbling because they’d inhaled so much radium sued, the company delayed for three years, then argued that the statute of limitations had run out on the poisoning.  The judge didn’t agree.
  • As Andrew mentions, I can’t see why people would choose poison as a way to kill themselves — almost all the poisons are awful ways to go — arsenic and cyanide particularly.  The least painful seems to be carbon monoxide, if you can call suffocating “least painful.”
  • When Blum tells the stories of poisoners, their motives often seem pretty shabby (though I guess money is the primary reason people kill).  I found the long history of the “arms race” between toxicologists and poisoners particularly interesting.  In the past, it was extremely difficult to catch poisoners, so much so that the French named White Arsenic “The Inheritance Powder.”
  • The discussion of prohibition was particularly interesting.  Apparently, because alcohol was still needed for industrial purposes, it was still manufactured throughout the country.  This industrial alcohol was poisoned by the government with the idea that people wouldn’t drink it if they thought it could kill them.  Instead, they died in record numbers. Mostly, though, it was the poor drinkers would couldn’t afford safer (and legal) ethyl alcohol (the chemical in spirits today); instead they drank methyl alcohol (made from wood instead of grain) mixed with various flavorings.  This drink, sometimes called ‘smoke,’ killed an awful lot of people.

Coleen Marlo does a nice job narrating the text, though I couldn’t help but smile at the heavy New York accent she gives Gettler when quoting him (NOTE: there’s no reason to think her accent isn’t absolutely correct, I just thought it was a funny disconnect from the language of the others).  The Poisoner’s Handbook is an excellent book, full of intriguing detail and interesting facts, but also knee deep in science and history.  Well worth the read.

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