Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Poisoner's Handbook

Contrary to expectations from the title, this is not a how-to book on the disposal of all those extra, annoying, moneyed people (who have willed you their goodies) in your life. The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder & the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum is a detailed examination of the development of forensic science and the growing importance of the chief medical examiner in the early twentieth century. Until Charles Norris took over the position, corruption ran rampant in the coroner's offices--obvious violent deaths were often written up as "heart failure" or "natural causes" or even multiple choice causes of death such as death due to "either assault or diabetes" or "diabetes, tuberculosis or nervous indigestion." Norris, with the help of toxicologist Alexander Gettler, set about cleaning up New York's forensic examination system as well as making trailblazing discoveries within the science itself--from the development of a new scale to determine alcoholic intoxication (based on brain saturation) to more and more precise tests for various poisons in the body. Gettler very often had to create a test where none existed before.

The basic premise is a very interesting one. The book is divided up into chapters based on various poisons with each poison characterized through a newsworthy event featuring the potent substance. Not limited to murders--though there are plenty of those here--we also have the systemic poisoning of the drinking crowd of the Roaring Twenties (and 30s) by none other than the government Prohibition enforcers. Prohibition did nothing to make "moral" men and women out of persistent tipplers. Those who craved the buzz of alcohol were willing to drink absolutely anything--no matter what toxic substance the regulators insisted be added to any liquid containing alcohol. Bootleggers made their money out of people who were quite literally dying for drinks. Also included is the famous case of the "Radium Girls"--women who earned their living painting watch dials with luminous paint containing radium. Women who began dying because they sharpened the points of their brushes with their tongues.

The stories of murder and other deaths by poison were intriguing. My main complaint about the book is that there are only so many times I needed to be told how Gettler ran his tests. Once you've read about how he gathered up all the major organs in the body, pulverized bits of them in various substances, and distilled the resulting ooze in order to measure the amount of thallium, arsenic, cyanide, [insert your favorite poison here], you really don't need to be told the process again. Honest, I'm not the most scientific person in the world, but I got it the first time. It would have been far more interesting to have had greater detail on each of the cases and about the relationship between Norris and Gettler...and they with with their forensic team than to have spent so much of the book on chemistry lectures. At ★★ and a half, it is still a fascinating book. It revealed a lot of details about the effects of Prohibition that I had not previously heard.


fredamans said...

First off, I really love that cover! It looks modern!
I think the history on forensics is fascinating. I can just imagine how far we have come.
I laughed when I saw Charles Norris, sorry, but I thought of Chuck and it was hard to be serious after that. :-)
Then I get to the prohibition part, and you have me piqued again. There's a subject I have spoke of lately.
Great review!

Anonymous said...

A fascinating topic - shame it sounds a bit repetitive though - thanks Bev.