Deborah Blum decide not to be a chemist when she accidentally set her hair on fire with a Bunsen burner in college. But her fascination with learning about chemistry continued, so she put it to good use by writing The Poisoner’s Handbook, which describes — chapter by chapter — various murders and accidental deaths that occurred from specific poisons during the 1920s/30s in New York City. It’s gross, gory, and FASCINATING. And it stars bad-ass medical examiner Charles Norris and his sidekick, toxicologist Alexander Gettler. Get these guys a buddy movie — stat!
“That same January the city government had released a report declaring that thanks to ill-informed, corrupt, and occasionally drunken coroners, murderers in New York were escaping justice in record numbers.”
Prior to and during this time period, poisoners could pretty easily get away with killing people. Even if an autopsy was performed, tests were not developed enough to discover if a poison caused the death, much less which one and by whom. And due to some pretty impressive issues within the New York City government (untrained MEs who got the job by greasing palms, primarily), autopsies were rarely performed anyway. The numbers on forged death certificates in this book — whew!
Charles Norris set out to solve this. Along with Gettler (and by paying for most of it from his own pocket), Norris developed experiments to narrow down just how to test for these poisons (umm…a LOT of dogs die in this book, sorry). He picked a good time to do it, too — due to Prohibition, scores of people were dying from drinking wood grain alcohol (a poison in and of itself), which had often been tampered with by the government with other poisons to keep people from drinking it (this…didn’t work). Not to mention rampant deaths from other poisons that killed people accidentally a lot — carbon monoxide for example — or poisons they ingested/came in contact with intentionally because no one understood them yet (radium, for example). And then of course, people will always use poison to kill each other. Lots of grim examples of that in this book. For instance, arsenic and thallium used to be known as “inheritance powders”. Yeah.
Anyway, the book is really well written and full of interesting, gruesome information. Definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in chemistry, murder mysteries, or how people used to rub radioactive materials on their faces for that healthy glow.