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The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York PDF, ePub eBook


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Title: The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
Author: Deborah Blum
Publisher: Published February 18th 2010 by Penguin Press (first published January 1st 2010)
ISBN: 9781594202438
Status : FREE Rating :
4.6 out of 5

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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 detecti 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. From the vantage of Norris and Gettler's laboratory in the infamous Bellevue Hospital it becomes clear that killers aren't the only toxic threat to New Yorkers. Modern life has created a kind of poison playground, and danger lurks around every corner. Automobiles choke the city streets with carbon monoxide; potent compounds, such as morphine, can be found on store shelves in products ranging from pesticides to cosmetics. Prohibition incites a chemist's war between bootleggers and government chemists while in Gotham's crowded speakeasies each round of cocktails becomes a game of Russian roulette. Norris and Gettler triumph over seemingly unbeatable odds to become the pioneers of forensic chemistry and the gatekeepers of justice during a remarkably deadly time. A beguiling concoction that is equal parts true crime, twentieth-century history, and science thriller, The Poisoner's Handbook is a page-turning account of a forgotten New York.

30 review for The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

  1. 4 out of 5

    Hannah Greendale

    Click here to watch a video review of this book on my channel, From Beginning to Bookend. Combine prohibition, bootleggers, and poison. Mix and pour. Drink at your own risk. The Poisoner's Handbook is a murderous romp through Jazz Age New York and an enthralling look at the birth of forensic medicine, developed in response to the growing number of poisons in illegal alcohol, common household products, and in the hands of calculating murderers using toxic substances to their nefarious advantage. H Click here to watch a video review of this book on my channel, From Beginning to Bookend. Combine prohibition, bootleggers, and poison. Mix and pour. Drink at your own risk. The Poisoner's Handbook is a murderous romp through Jazz Age New York and an enthralling look at the birth of forensic medicine, developed in response to the growing number of poisons in illegal alcohol, common household products, and in the hands of calculating murderers using toxic substances to their nefarious advantage. Highly recommend this thoroughly researched work of non-fiction to chemistry fanatics and science/history buffs.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Kemper

    I don’t know why publishers feel the need to put huge subtitles on non-fiction books. Take The Poisoner’s Handbook, for example. To me, that’s a great title that would probably intrigue most potential readers. But the full title is The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. While accurate, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it? Think about The Devil and the White City. Even if you knew nothing about that book, if you saw it while trolling th I don’t know why publishers feel the need to put huge subtitles on non-fiction books. Take The Poisoner’s Handbook, for example. To me, that’s a great title that would probably intrigue most potential readers. But the full title is The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. While accurate, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it? Think about The Devil and the White City. Even if you knew nothing about that book, if you saw it while trolling through a bookstore, wouldn’t you at least give it a look based on that title? But then you see that the whole thing is actually The Devil and the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America which makes you feel like you just got eye strain so you drop the book and stagger out of Barnes & Noble to go get a beer. The trend isn’t getting any better either. There’s a new book out called Hellhound On His Trail. That sounds cool. But wait for it! The whole title is Hellhound On His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin. It’s like you just read the whole Wikipedia entry about James Earl Ray. Thank goodness that Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood before this trend started. Because the title these days would be In Cold Blood: Murder and Fear On the Kansas Plains & The Two Dipshit Losers Who Killed An Innocent Family . But back to The Poisoner’s Handbook, as we will refer to it from now on because I am not typing all that shit out again. This is a mix of science, crime, politics and history. It tells the story of how two men, Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, worked tirelessly to bring scientific methods to the New York City coroner’s office and laid the groundwork for much of modern forensics. So I guess we can blame them for all those goddamn CSI shows. America used to be just as poison crazy as it is gun crazy, and before there were documented methods to prove the existence of poisons in a body, it was tough to get a conviction. Plus, the old New York coroner’s office was corrupt and incompetent so it was an uphill battle for Norris and Gettler to gain respectability. There’s detailed, but easy to understand, explanations of the chemical nature of the various toxins they dealt with as well as a sometimes hilarious account of the political in-fighting that happened to even get a qualified coroner appointed. There’s also a ton of stories about how the American public was routinely poisoned by harmful products or misunderstood chemicals. One of the more interesting parts is about the work done during Prohibition. Norris and Gettler considered Prohibition a lethal joke that was killing people who were drinking almost anything to get a buzz and they did a lot of research into alcohol and intoxication levels to show that people were drinking more when it was illegal. And the fun fact that I didn’t know before reading this was that the U.S. government actually had companies add things to industrial alcohol to make it MORE poisonous in a vain attempt to keep bootleggers from using it. And if a few thousand boozehounds went blind or died from drinking it, then they shouldn’t have been breaking the law anyhow. Interesting book, but I would have liked a bit more history about Norris and Gettler and a little less of a chemistry lesson.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Carol.

    Please note: this book is not actually helpful if you were looking for tips on how to poison someone (unless you are the U.S. government, in which case there are notes scattered throughout on how to poison industrial alcohols). I wanted to like this book. I wanted to rate it higher. I'm not quite sure what I expected, but I don't think it was this mix of science journalism, novel and research notes. I'm a biology nerd who enjoys science writing and have two years of chemistry under my belt--inclu Please note: this book is not actually helpful if you were looking for tips on how to poison someone (unless you are the U.S. government, in which case there are notes scattered throughout on how to poison industrial alcohols). I wanted to like this book. I wanted to rate it higher. I'm not quite sure what I expected, but I don't think it was this mix of science journalism, novel and research notes. I'm a biology nerd who enjoys science writing and have two years of chemistry under my belt--including organic, which was the most effort I've put into a college class ever--so this should have been like serving truffles to a chocoholic (who, me?). Unfortunately, awkward organization and writing has me wondering if it was laced with wood alcohol. Divided into chapters on early 1900 poisons, it roughly covers the birth of forensic medicine in New York City under one of the more motivated chief examiners, Charles Norris, and a talented chemist Alexander Gettler. However, a great deal of Prohibition detail is also included, scattered throughout most the chapters. The publisher was misleading with the subtitle; I suppose The Emerging Disciplines of Medical Examiners and Toxicology in Context of Courtrooms and Politics During Prohibition in New York would not have been nearly so sexy a description as "a fascinating Jazz Age tale of chemistry and detection, poison and murder." Alas, there is no jazz to speak of. There is, however, a paragraph mentioning the development of cocktails in the Prohibition speakeasies as a way of disguising the harsher alcohols--now that is a chapter I could have enjoyed. Chapters include chloroform, wood alcohol (an inadvertent poison resulting from Prohibition), cyanide, arsenic, mercury, carbon monoxide methyl alcohol, radium, and ethyl alcohol. To me, the implication in the jacket of "tale," implies a singular subject. There is no real common link between chapters (barring the intermittent appearance of Norris or Gettler), except that they are about "poisons" and detection. Please note, junior scientists, that some of these cases are intentional poisonings, but some are accidental and more correctly described as casualties of the human search for improvement--one story mentions how an "over-zealous nurse 'poisoned' a child by treating his head-lice with the prescribed radium tonic." (As such, the technical term is likely 'toxin' over poison). As the book continues, Blum does little to separate the intentional from the accidental, which is a disservice to the material and the victims. In her afterword, Blum mentions how poisoning always seemed particularly horrific because the murderer was not only planning a death, but presumably aware of the potential for the victim's suffering. So to discuss both murderers, accused murderers, and those who kill (or suicide) by accident or ignorance is misleading and imprecise, rather surprising in a science writer. One of the few threads pulling the story together is the difficulty of prosecuting poisoners, and the efforts of examiner Norris and chemist Gettler to build and prove their evidence of cause of death. I can only shudder at some of the experiments--nowadays, chemistry is conducted more-or-less safely under specially vented lab areas and usually doesn't involve liquified organs. One experiment was designed to detect post-mortem cyanide, both in poisoned subjects and unpoisoned ones. The chemist tested flesh up to 8 weeks old, noting that there was a fair degree of putrefaction. Ugh. Her writing style is acceptable, although I occasionally found her attempts to add flourish awkward. Case in point: "Or Belle Guinan's El Fay Club on West 45th, where the hostess gleamed like a candelabrum and the house band played..." Candelabrum? Really? I found myself completely distracted, unable to decide if she meant the hostess was metallic, on fire, or, in a more literal translation of the word, had hair twisting branch-like from her head. Personally, I found narrative structure awkward, both within each chapter and through the book as a whole. In the arsenic section, for instance, Blum dramaticizes the story of a young girl who ate a berry pie from a cafe and died, breathing life into her tale. Then she starts a new paragraph, states "something similar happened the previous October at another cafe," then mentions "the cafe is now closed." When, exactly, is "now?" In July, when the girl died? In 2010 when the book was published? Confusing and irrelevant. We never find out why the girl died. We move on to a brief history of arsenic poisoning, it's decline when it was discovered it could be traced in autopsy, and then, oddly, Blum covers the process of opening a body for autopsy. It's the type of writing weirdness that leads me to wonder what she's trying to do. The arsenic chapter continues in its hopscotch development by describing the pathology lab, then gang violence in the city from Prohibition. While one can argue for creating a mood, it leaves the reader largely unclear as to theme. Prohibition continues to ricochet into chapters, and the story related may or may not be pertinent to the poison discussed. By no means is the logic-challenged narrative confined to the arsenic chapter; the chapter on mercury poisoning contains no actual intentional poisonings and then discusses the case of an industrial toxin, tetraethyl lead, used to prevent engine knock. Sections are redeeming, however. As a science dork, but generally history-impaired, I find it interesting to have the history of chemical science come alive. Nowadays, we cringe to hear about cyanide and arsenic; in 1920, they were common in the home as pesticides. In fact, arsenic was still in topical medicines. Both arsenic and lead were used in makeup (and still are, dear reader). How did society learn about toxicity, except through accidental deaths, man like Norris and Gettler, and the suffering of thousands of dogs, cats and rabbits? The book also casts a whole new angle on Prohibition, with the concern that wood alcohol is toxic. Learning that our own government deliberately poisoned alcohol with various substances in order to discourage drinking was shocking. Can you imagine that now? What if agents were out there adding arsenic to soda pop, or Agent Orange to tobacco (do be quiet, dear conspiracy theorists)? It kind of echoes current drug epidemics where people go on using despite the possibility of harm or death. Other interesting mentions: radium poisoning. Can you imagine buying a tonic made from radioactive materials? Or having your doctor suggest you use it? Me either, but it wasn't that long ago when it was done. The FDA, when it was created, was so toothless that it took scores of people dying and FDR to give it power to regulate pharmaceutical claims three decades later. Ultimately, while sections were interesting and thought provoking, the narrative was far too jumbled to make reading enjoyable. I'm not quite sure what Blum's chief focus was, but this mix of newspaper articles, court reports, New York history and scientific research is blended too well, and contains a few too many ingredients. I can't, in good conscience, say that I'd recommend it, unless someone wanted a few creative ideas for 1900s murder mysteries. There's clearly a moral to her story here. Too bad it's so torturous to find. Cross posted at http://clsiewert.wordpress.com/2013/0...

  4. 5 out of 5

    David

    Mercury Rising : One Reviewer's Feverish Reaction to Annoying Trends in Non-fiction Book Titles Through our secret researches, we were able to discover some of the rejected titles for this book: Heavy Metal Madness : A Stroll Through Some of the More Insalubrious Back Alleys of the Periodic Table CSI Manhattan : Murder and Retribution in the Jazz Age Where's Fido? : Estimation of the Median Lethal Dose for Some Common Neurotoxins Under Severe Budgetary Constraints Moonshine and Giblets : Prohibition Mercury Rising : One Reviewer's Feverish Reaction to Annoying Trends in Non-fiction Book Titles Through our secret researches, we were able to discover some of the rejected titles for this book: Heavy Metal Madness : A Stroll Through Some of the More Insalubrious Back Alleys of the Periodic Table CSI Manhattan : Murder and Retribution in the Jazz Age Where's Fido? : Estimation of the Median Lethal Dose for Some Common Neurotoxins Under Severe Budgetary Constraints Moonshine and Giblets : Prohibition Era Recipes for Pickling Organ Meats God-Awful Title : A Pretty Decent Book About the Origins of Forensic Science Though Deborah Blum is a skillful and engaging writer, this book never quite soared for me. A good editor might have pointed out that presenting a parade of a dozen villainous poisoners is ultimately less affecting than choosing to discuss just one or two. The organization of chapters by compound is a little artificial, but works reasonably well. Including some relevant photos would have greatly improved the book. But these are minor quibbles - this is a well-researched, interesting book. The material relating to Prohibition was unexpected and fascinating. Despite the author's skill, this book will never match my own little project in the works. At present, all I can share is the bewitching title: Painted Ladies : The Untold Story of the Two Indomitable Donner Party Survivors Who Founded San Francisco's Most Architecturally Charming Brothel and a Nationwide Cosmetics Distribution Network Order your copy now. In fact, don't just order it. Order it in advance!

  5. 5 out of 5

    Ginger K

    Wow! I picked this up as an impulse buy, thinking my sister (who loves all things Jazz Age) would want to borrow/steal it later. Now that I've read it, she can't have it: it's mine. Science! History! Prohibition! Murder! Accidental deaths due to the utter lack of regulation of drugs, household chemicals, and cosmetics! The book has an interestingly layered organization. Each chapter is titled for the poison/chemical whose investigation is woven the most centrally through that section; however, th Wow! I picked this up as an impulse buy, thinking my sister (who loves all things Jazz Age) would want to borrow/steal it later. Now that I've read it, she can't have it: it's mine. Science! History! Prohibition! Murder! Accidental deaths due to the utter lack of regulation of drugs, household chemicals, and cosmetics! The book has an interestingly layered organization. Each chapter is titled for the poison/chemical whose investigation is woven the most centrally through that section; however, the book is also a chronological biography of Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, the scientists who put science at the center of death investigations in New York. Deborah Blum uses individual case studies -- some solved, some not -- to highlight the development of various detection techniques, Norris and Gettler's efforts to elevate the status of good science in the courtroom, and even the everyday dangers of the era. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys science, history, and forensics.

  6. 4 out of 5

    David

    This book is mainly about two men; Charles Norris, the chief medical examiner of New York City, and Alexander Gettler, the chief toxicologist. These two learned, fiercely dedicated men fought city hall and the establishment, in bringing forensic medicine into the twentieth century, and to bring respect to the profession that it deserved. Basically, the book is a collection of short stories of various mysteries that these men, and the medical departments they served, helped to solve in the early This book is mainly about two men; Charles Norris, the chief medical examiner of New York City, and Alexander Gettler, the chief toxicologist. These two learned, fiercely dedicated men fought city hall and the establishment, in bringing forensic medicine into the twentieth century, and to bring respect to the profession that it deserved. Basically, the book is a collection of short stories of various mysteries that these men, and the medical departments they served, helped to solve in the early twentieth century. I was most struck by two things in the book. First, the depth of corruption in the city's administration under Mayor Hylan was incredible. Hylan put a drunkard named Riordan into the coroner's office; he had absolutely no qualifications for the office. Three medical pathologists applied for the job; they had passed the civil service exam for the job, which required successfully performing autopsies. But the state-required autopsies were not performed in a medical school, as required by law, so the doctors were arrested and charged with felonies! It was also interesting how, during the Prohibition, hundreds of people died in New York City each year because they were poisoned by illegal alcohol. Many different types of poisons were involved, and were required by the government to be additives to industrial alcohol, to discourage drinking! Despite the wealth of grim stories, this is a fascinating book, and very well written. Highly recommended!

  7. 4 out of 5

    Carol

    Yes, it's a 4 star read and I didn't finish it. I own it. The fault is mine, in that I am truly not a reader dedicated to reading non-fiction works start to finish. Blum's book is fantastic - both entertaining and fact-filled, and can be approached as a collection of short stories. That makes it easy for readers like me to feel no guilt if they put it down and don't pick it up again for several months. It also means that readers whose attention span exceeds mine (the vast majority of the educate Yes, it's a 4 star read and I didn't finish it. I own it. The fault is mine, in that I am truly not a reader dedicated to reading non-fiction works start to finish. Blum's book is fantastic - both entertaining and fact-filled, and can be approached as a collection of short stories. That makes it easy for readers like me to feel no guilt if they put it down and don't pick it up again for several months. It also means that readers whose attention span exceeds mine (the vast majority of the educated universe) can look forward to a delightful read, capable of being finished in a weekend if murder by poison is as interesting to you as it is to me.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jody McGrath

    I was really excited for this book and I was a little let down. It was very interesting, but so dry in parts that I had to set it down. The story was broke up in strange chunks with the ongoing problems of prohibition running throughout. There was a lot of information about forensic scientist and medical examiners fighting for budgets and prestige. I am glad I read it, it I wouldn't read it again.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Nancy Oakes

    more of my chattiness about this book here if you so desire. One day I left this book downstairs in the kitchen right next to the coffee maker intending to take it upstairs later, and the next thing I knew there's a post on my husband's facebook page with a photo of this book that reads as follows: "Hmmmmm, first she has me get more life insurance - then I see this book. #eatouttonight?" I didn't really ask for more life insurance, but his post is kind of spot on regarding this book -- one of the more of my chattiness about this book here if you so desire. One day I left this book downstairs in the kitchen right next to the coffee maker intending to take it upstairs later, and the next thing I knew there's a post on my husband's facebook page with a photo of this book that reads as follows: "Hmmmmm, first she has me get more life insurance - then I see this book. #‎eatouttonight‬?" I didn't really ask for more life insurance, but his post is kind of spot on regarding this book -- one of the main points in Blum's study is that for a very long time, people who were so inclined could get away with murder when it came to poisoning. With very few exceptions, in this period of time there were a wide range of toxic poisons that were basically undetectable, used as a weapon to get rid of unwanted people. That all starts to change with the advent of serious forensic medicine during the 1920s, especially under the auspices of two major figures: Dr. Charles Norris, and Dr. Alexander Gettler. Norris was New York's Chief Medical Examiner, while Gettler was a brilliant toxicologist -- together the two started to change not only the way in which science was used in crime cases, but also brought to the fore the emphasis on how government should work to protect its citizens. Beyond being just plain interesting, it's also a very good look at politics of the time, at the failures and dangers of Prohibition, and at the unsuspected dangers that lie hidden in some every-day products and how science worked to study them and ultimately lead the fight in making lives safer. I first came across this book when one night, I couldn't sleep and decided to watch anything I could find remotely interesting at 2 a.m. and chose an American Experience episode with this title. I was hooked and then discovered that there was a book and that's all it took. I enjoyed The Poisoner's Handbook -- one thing it did for me was that it hit home that in some ways a lot has changed (and happily so) since that time but in others, a lot remains the same. Today, like in the 1920s, many pro-business interests in government continue to represent the interests of corporations at the expense of the people who work in their industries; there are still people who for some reason I do not fathom continue to insist that science is wrong, undermining the work of skilled, brilliant people for some political or financial reasons. One more thing -- this book takes more of a journalistic approach making it highly accessible to everyone, which is a good thing. I have only one negative thing to say and that's that each chapter ends in some sort of anecdote which not only adds unnecessary fluff but gets tiresome after a while. A lot of readers might enjoy that, but I'm all about keeping the flow going so I didn't. But that is just such a nit-picky kind of thing that really did not make my interest flag or prevent me from being absorbed in this book, and I highly recommend it, especially to people who are into historical true crime.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jane

    Where I got the book: purchased at Borders ALAS POOR BORDERS. This short (278 pages of text) nonfic covers the development of forensic toxicology in New York from 1915 to 1936 (with a little look before and after) against the background of Prohibition, which led to an epidemic of self-poisoning as people drank, seriously, ANYTHING because they couldn't get regular alcohol. I had no idea it was that bad, or that Prohibition had done quite such a splendid job of turning moderate tipplers into binge Where I got the book: purchased at Borders ALAS POOR BORDERS. This short (278 pages of text) nonfic covers the development of forensic toxicology in New York from 1915 to 1936 (with a little look before and after) against the background of Prohibition, which led to an epidemic of self-poisoning as people drank, seriously, ANYTHING because they couldn't get regular alcohol. I had no idea it was that bad, or that Prohibition had done quite such a splendid job of turning moderate tipplers into binge-drinking maniacs. Says a lot for human nature. Interestingly, each chapter focuses on a specific poison, although the Prohibition theme is relentlessly hung on every hook the author can find so things go a bit off-topic at times in an engagingly rambling sort of way. Lots of anecdotes of real crime, a little bit of science and a few brisk character sketches add up to an entertaining read. Although I suspect this is not the best book on poisoning out there, it's worth reading for a little inspiration. NO, not inspiration to poison people. Honestly. *Rolls eyes.* I'm talking about inspiration for stories. Talk about truth being stranger than fiction. As for the writing, I'd class it as highly competent journalistic prose but not exciting per se. Still good enough to merit 4 stars and to whet my appetite for more murder.

  11. 4 out of 5

    [Name Redacted]

    Though the author's intent is clearly to argue against prohibition in the US, the main take-away for me is that people are IDIOTS and love filling their bodies with things they know are poisonous and will kill them. It's a wonder to me that, in an age so obsessed with eugenics; an age in which Margaret Sanger founded her Planned Parenthood with the dream of "purging" the US of "mental defectives" and minorities; an age in which G.K. Chesterton actually had to write a Christian tract AGAINST euge Though the author's intent is clearly to argue against prohibition in the US, the main take-away for me is that people are IDIOTS and love filling their bodies with things they know are poisonous and will kill them. It's a wonder to me that, in an age so obsessed with eugenics; an age in which Margaret Sanger founded her Planned Parenthood with the dream of "purging" the US of "mental defectives" and minorities; an age in which G.K. Chesterton actually had to write a Christian tract AGAINST eugenics (anti-eugenicists being seen as hopelessly old-fashioned and provincial); and in which the US govt. actively poisoned liquor in the hopes of enforcing prohibition; in such an age, NO-ONE ever suggested that perhaps the people's willingness to risk blindness, insanity and death by drinking, rubbing into their skin, or smoking/chewing substances they KNEW were deadly was something that should be encouraged. Not a person seems to have voiced the opinion that people who willingly destroy themselves should be allowed to do so, despite the sickening passion for eugenics which pervaded that age. The US is very lucky most eugenicists were opposed to prohibition and most of the anti-eugenicists were for it, because otherwise we would have had one of the most incredible mass-exterminations in human history. Seriously, PEOPLE ARE IDIOTS. PS: I could probably write a book on the double-think and cognitive dissonance which must result from the fact that most of the same people who demand government oversight of foodstuffs (pushing for trans-fat bans, bans on high-fructose corn-syrup, etc.) also insist that prohibition was a huge and immoral mistake. *sigh*

  12. 4 out of 5

    ☕Laura

    While this book is ostensibly about poisons, it is also very much the story of the development of forensic toxicology and its pioneers Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler. In a time when cause of death was often determined by a politically appointed coroner with little or no medical or scientific training, the appointment of Norris as Chief Medical Examiner of the city of New York was a game changer. Norris, along with his chief toxicologist Gettler, would introduce scientific methods into dete While this book is ostensibly about poisons, it is also very much the story of the development of forensic toxicology and its pioneers Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler. In a time when cause of death was often determined by a politically appointed coroner with little or no medical or scientific training, the appointment of Norris as Chief Medical Examiner of the city of New York was a game changer. Norris, along with his chief toxicologist Gettler, would introduce scientific methods into determining cause of death and pioneer forensic methods to determine the presence of poisons in a body. This book follows their 20 years of work in the early twentieth century, covering various poisons and discussing real cases of homicide by poisoning and of inadvertent poisoning due to exposure to toxic substances in the work place and in everyday health and beauty products in the years before the FDA had any real power. It is crazy to learn that poisons like arsenic and even radioactive elements like radium were sold to the public in various concoctions without their knowledge, often with disastrous results. This book also covers the years of Prohibition and the many deaths which occurred from attempts to circumvent the law by doctoring industrial alcohols for consumption. This really was a fascinating book on so many levels.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Ellie

    I strongly recommend The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum. While I found the book less "sensational" (in the sense of lurid) than its tabloid name, I also found it far more fascinating. It is an extremely well-written and engrossing account of New York City during the Prohibition years as well as a history of the development of forensic medicine, particularly toxicology. There are shocking revelations of government activities in I strongly recommend The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum. While I found the book less "sensational" (in the sense of lurid) than its tabloid name, I also found it far more fascinating. It is an extremely well-written and engrossing account of New York City during the Prohibition years as well as a history of the development of forensic medicine, particularly toxicology. There are shocking revelations of government activities in support of prohibition (such as the deliberate poisoning of available sources of liquor with the well-foreseen consequences of many additional deaths from alcohol poisoning), the political maneuverings of the time, the life of the average citizen in New York City (which I'll admit is of particular interest to me as an NYC resident!) and, well, yes, some pretty shocking crimes. So, ok, there is some reportage of lurid crimes which were pretty interesting as well. Something for pretty much everyone put together in a terrific package.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Rosa, really

    Good the second time through. Though the narrator sounded like Arnold Schwarzenegger when she used an Austrian accent and Pepe le Pew when she used a French accent. It's nonfic, sweetcheeks, it's okay to talk like a 'Murican. A 'Murican who can enunciate, anyway.

  15. 4 out of 5

    K.

    Trigger warnings: death, murder, suicide, execution, death of a child, graphic medical procedures, animal experimentation. 4.5 stars. This was absolutely phenomenal. Each chapter deals with a different poison prevalent in the 1920s, including carbon monoxide, wood alcohol, and radium. It was so compelling and well written, the perfect mix of forensics and history. I'm knocking off half a star simply because I could NOT deal with the number of times it was like "They needed to test their theory so Trigger warnings: death, murder, suicide, execution, death of a child, graphic medical procedures, animal experimentation. 4.5 stars. This was absolutely phenomenal. Each chapter deals with a different poison prevalent in the 1920s, including carbon monoxide, wood alcohol, and radium. It was so compelling and well written, the perfect mix of forensics and history. I'm knocking off half a star simply because I could NOT deal with the number of times it was like "They needed to test their theory so they went to the pound and got a bunch of dogs......." (seriously - if animal cruelty is a trigger for you? Probably skip this one)

  16. 5 out of 5

    Cornerofmadness

    This is one of those rare non-fiction books that suck you in, every bit as smooth and engrossing as the best fiction book. It centers on NYC’s first medical examiner (as opposed to the elected and often corrupt coroner), Charles Norris and his chemist partner, Alexander Gettler. Between the two, a huge chunk of forensic medicine is gotten under way. Blum makes both men alive and as interesting as the best mystery characters. I was honestly sad by the end that I would never meet them (being conte This is one of those rare non-fiction books that suck you in, every bit as smooth and engrossing as the best fiction book. It centers on NYC’s first medical examiner (as opposed to the elected and often corrupt coroner), Charles Norris and his chemist partner, Alexander Gettler. Between the two, a huge chunk of forensic medicine is gotten under way. Blum makes both men alive and as interesting as the best mystery characters. I was honestly sad by the end that I would never meet them (being contemporaries of my great grandmother). The time frame of the book goes from 1915 to the mid 1930’s encompassing all the mighty upheavals of that time. So not only do we get forensic history and many many criminal cases to read about, we examine prohibition and the Great Depression as well and the vehicle to do so was as the title suggests, poison. Blum looks at chloroform, wood and ethyl alcohols, carbon monoxide, arsenic, cyanide and thallium among others. Each poison gets its own chapter, its own criminal cases and how forensic chemistry got started (much of which was in fact created by or enhanced by Gettler and Norris). We get rich details of both New York and national history along the way. There are many side stories, each as interesting as the main chapter theme. I learned so much in this book and was entertained the whole time. For example, I didn’t know the government purposely made alcohol poisonous when it became clear prohibition didn’t work and bootleggers were winning. Their attitude ‘if they obeyed the law, they wouldn’t have died.’ Nice and chilling. You also get the idea that those screaming we were so violent now and it was so much better back in the day have never read a history book. These people prove we’ve always have been good at killing each other. This is an excellent book for people interested in jazz age history, forensic medicine and poisons (none of which would help you much today since they’re all easily detectible). I can’t wait to use some of this in writing historical fiction. I liked this book so much it’s not leaving my shelf.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Lauren Stoolfire

    The Poisoner's Handbook is absolutely fascinating and not for the faint of heart. It follows the careers of Charles Norris, an NYC medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, a toxicologist, who modernized and completely changed the game when it comes to forensic toxicology from about 1918-1936. Their work helped get the innocent out of murder charges and convict the guilty. One of the more well known cases today that they worked on was the Snyder-Gray case which inspired both The Postman Always Ri The Poisoner's Handbook is absolutely fascinating and not for the faint of heart. It follows the careers of Charles Norris, an NYC medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, a toxicologist, who modernized and completely changed the game when it comes to forensic toxicology from about 1918-1936. Their work helped get the innocent out of murder charges and convict the guilty. One of the more well known cases today that they worked on was the Snyder-Gray case which inspired both The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Lightreads

    Feh. In the afterward, the author thanks a whole bunch of people for helping her with the technical aspects of the chemistry. And I was like "ahaha what technical aspects? What chemistry?" This book is like the Youtube video of chemistry: the "technical" sections would read something like, "he ground the tissue into a paste, then boiled it in a simple solution. And then he added nitric acid and the whole thing flared green!" That isn't chemistry, that's a Mr. Rogers voice over. And this is not sc Feh. In the afterward, the author thanks a whole bunch of people for helping her with the technical aspects of the chemistry. And I was like "ahaha what technical aspects? What chemistry?" This book is like the Youtube video of chemistry: the "technical" sections would read something like, "he ground the tissue into a paste, then boiled it in a simple solution. And then he added nitric acid and the whole thing flared green!" That isn't chemistry, that's a Mr. Rogers voice over. And this is not science writing. It's history with a sprinkle of description using science words on top, with no exploration of how or why. The book could have been somewhat redeemed with interesting historical content, given that's what it was really doing. And there is a lot of stuff here about the founding of the first true American forensics lab, and the institution of a lot of modern law enforcement procedures against a corrupt political background. Oh, and a whole bunch of stuff about the homebrewed poisons of the prohibition era, when a glass of moonshine actually could kill you. But it was disorganized and shallow, with the usual journalist focus on the sensationalist details of cases without any real analysis or depth. And the fake "science writing" was astonishingly irritating. Didn't I just swear off nonfiction by reporters? Well, I'm doing it again, and this time I'll actually check first so it sticks.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Cheryl

    An unexpected treat! There are many kinds of poisons, but back in the early 20th century, there wasn't much knowledge about them. Often it was the case that a substance wasn't even known to be poisonous. Other poisons were known about but it wasn't known how to measure them or assess their action. It is written with a deceptively breezy style: there's a fair amount of science hiding in there but you barely notice it because the book is heavily laced with tales of nefarious doings and dastardly c An unexpected treat! There are many kinds of poisons, but back in the early 20th century, there wasn't much knowledge about them. Often it was the case that a substance wasn't even known to be poisonous. Other poisons were known about but it wasn't known how to measure them or assess their action. It is written with a deceptively breezy style: there's a fair amount of science hiding in there but you barely notice it because the book is heavily laced with tales of nefarious doings and dastardly crimes, as well as tragic stories of ignorance leading to unexpected deaths. Mercury-laden tonics, ubiquitous arsenic distribution, beauty creams fortified with radium or thallium. Cyanide, mercury, carbon monoxide poisoning -- they all were deadly compounds attached to a roster of fascinating stories. But the dogged work of two uncaped crusaders of New York City -- Norris and Gettler, the first medical examiners and toxicologists -- helped create and define the field of forensic medicine. They brought science in to the light to show it could be used to solve crimes. They also tirelessly worked to demonstrate that Prohibition was deadly. It resulted in replacing legal alcohol with toxic alcohol alternatives, and blindness, paralysis and deaths skyrocketed. They were public service heroes, battling corrupt politicians, lazy bureaucrats, public apathy, and venal greed. Some battles are never won. Some things never change. Fascinating.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Andrea

    Lovely book on the birth of modern forensics. When two men - Carles Norris and Alexander Gettler, - took it upon themselves to revolutionize toxicology science and the methods used by medical examiners, murder by poison ran rampant in New York City. Prior to their contributions it was incredibly easy to get away with poisoning, because no real tests were created to find harmful substances in dead tissue. Often, medical examiners weren't even real physicians, but incompetent officials, guessing t Lovely book on the birth of modern forensics. When two men - Carles Norris and Alexander Gettler, - took it upon themselves to revolutionize toxicology science and the methods used by medical examiners, murder by poison ran rampant in New York City. Prior to their contributions it was incredibly easy to get away with poisoning, because no real tests were created to find harmful substances in dead tissue. Often, medical examiners weren't even real physicians, but incompetent officials, guessing the cause of death and taking bribes to cover up crimes. Norris and Gettler introduced structure into the pathology office, argued with the Mayor's Office for adequate budget, used multiple control experiments to offer bulletproof evidence, and contributed personal time and finances to keep their department out of mediocrity. The book looks at multiple cases, broken down by the type of poison used, all flowing in a chronological order. These include intentional crimes of passion, accidental deaths, government-sponsored introduction of poisons into liqueur during the Prohibition Era, and the early days of FDA's inadequate treatment of harmful ingredients in medicine and cosmetics. There is drama, suspense, bootleggers, conniving vixens, odd accidents, insurance forgers, and scientific breakthroughs at every turn. Norris and Gettler tackle it all like the awesome, nerdy Batman and Robin of NYC. Once I picked up The Poisoner's Handbook I had a hard time putting it down.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Craig Monson

    Organized by poison (chloroform, wood alcohol, cyanides, arsenic, etc.) and chronologically (1915, 1918-19, 1920-22, 1922-23, etc.), the book opens a window onto the exploitation of chemicals for lethal ends and the development of forensic techniques specifically to discover and prove their use in any number of nefarious crimes. Writing for a general, “Science Friday”-type audience (but in a more literate and less long-winded style than that of many “Science Friday”-type speakers), Blum avoids b Organized by poison (chloroform, wood alcohol, cyanides, arsenic, etc.) and chronologically (1915, 1918-19, 1920-22, 1922-23, etc.), the book opens a window onto the exploitation of chemicals for lethal ends and the development of forensic techniques specifically to discover and prove their use in any number of nefarious crimes. Writing for a general, “Science Friday”-type audience (but in a more literate and less long-winded style than that of many “Science Friday”-type speakers), Blum avoids bogging down in scientific jargon much more complicated than chemical formulas and is quick to balance it with grisly details from a long, satisfying string of chemically-induced murders. Science-nerdy, Sheldon-types may delight in sneering at the lack of science as hard as diamonds, but die-hard devotees of true crime will likely learn a lot of the how-to-do-it and why-it-works variety as the bodies continue to pile up over the years. Interestingly enough, those guilty of notably criminal behavior include local and national politicians, as well as heartless True Believers of the early-20th-century culture wars. Plus ça change. . . .

  22. 5 out of 5

    Donna

    This was a book challenge read or I probably would have never picked it up. So, I'm happy to say that I really enjoyed this....A LOT. I found the history fascinating. The author did a great job in detailing the information so it didn't sound like a wikipedia report. It amazes me how easy it was to poison people to get rid of them back in the day and how far research has come in determining certain causes of death regarding poison. I understand that research was important, but the dog experiments This was a book challenge read or I probably would have never picked it up. So, I'm happy to say that I really enjoyed this....A LOT. I found the history fascinating. The author did a great job in detailing the information so it didn't sound like a wikipedia report. It amazes me how easy it was to poison people to get rid of them back in the day and how far research has come in determining certain causes of death regarding poison. I understand that research was important, but the dog experiments hurt my heart.

  23. 4 out of 5

    BAM The Bibliomaniac

    Audio #151

  24. 5 out of 5

    Book Concierge

    Book on CD read by Coleen Marlo. The subtitle describes the book perfectly: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. In the early 20th century poison was often the method of choice for murderers. Corruption ran rampant in New York City’s Tammany Hall-controlled coroner’s office. However, when Charles Norris was appointed chief medical examiner in 1918 things changed. With the help of toxicologist Alexander Gettler, Norris quickly set about making “cause of death” dependent Book on CD read by Coleen Marlo. The subtitle describes the book perfectly: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. In the early 20th century poison was often the method of choice for murderers. Corruption ran rampant in New York City’s Tammany Hall-controlled coroner’s office. However, when Charles Norris was appointed chief medical examiner in 1918 things changed. With the help of toxicologist Alexander Gettler, Norris quickly set about making “cause of death” dependent on sound scientific studies, and put many a poisoner out of commission. But lest you think this is merely a true-crime book, Blum also gives considerable attention to other poisonings of the day – accidental asphyxiations, industrial poisoning, and the many instances of death due to additives used in Prohibition-era alcohol. The book is divided into chapters, each focusing on one element – mercury, chloroform, radium, carbon monoxide, etc – and moving the story from 1915 to 1936. Blum includes basic scientific information on the compounds, their effects on human tissues, and the scientific experiments / tests used to identify poisons in the body. It may not sound like it, but this is really a page-turner. What makes this more than a textbook or simple history is the inclusion of personal stories: the “radium girls” who painted luminescent watch dials and died of resulting aplastic anemia, or the bookkeeper exonerated of killing his family based on scientific evidence (instead of the popular opinion which resulted in his being accused). Blum brings the Jazz-Age New York to life – teeming slums, smoky speakeasies, and noisy streets. In contrast she gives us two scientists (and their team) who quietly toil in their laboratories to find answers to the city’s crimes, treating the dead with equal respect regardless of their station in life – millionaire or beggar. Coleen Marlo does a very good job of the audio version. Even when imparting relatively dry scientific information, she manages to convey a sense of interest and excitement in learning, which helped this listener maintain focus. The text version does include about 20 pages of notes and bibliography which are not read on the audio. The first time I read a book about forensic science I was in 7th grade. The subject has continued to fascinate me ever since. I highly recommend The Poisoner’s Handbook, even to non-science-geeks.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    This is the story of how forensic medicine was established and strengthened during the early 1900s in New York under the leadership of a remarkable medical examiner, Charles Norris, and his obsessively perfectionist pathologist and toxicologist, Alexander Gettler. Because Deborah Blum writes so well and is such a good storyteller, a book that could have been a dry recitation of scientific history has all the flow and crackle of a good novel. Each chapter is divided up by certain organic chemicals This is the story of how forensic medicine was established and strengthened during the early 1900s in New York under the leadership of a remarkable medical examiner, Charles Norris, and his obsessively perfectionist pathologist and toxicologist, Alexander Gettler. Because Deborah Blum writes so well and is such a good storyteller, a book that could have been a dry recitation of scientific history has all the flow and crackle of a good novel. Each chapter is divided up by certain organic chemicals that become the focus of that section (carbon monoxide, methyl alcohol, arsenic, etc.). It's a bit of an artifice, because the movement through the book is also chronological, but it works. The structure allows Blum to tell great criminal forensic stories about relatives and others who poisoned people out of hatred or greed, but also larger societal trends, such as the huge increase in alcohol-related injuries and deaths during prohibition. As the "wettest city in America," New York gave Norris and Gettler much support for their position that Prohibition not only was not creating abstinence in people, but making them drink harder and more dangerous liquor. One factoid I had never known was the fact that during Prohibition, the federal government had an active research program to make industrial alcohol much more poisonous than it was, in hopes of making it so dangerous that bootleggers wouldn't be able to sell it. Instead, it only made illegal alcohol more treacherous. The advent of the automobile age, along with illuminating gas used to light the many tenements of New York, also created a huge surge in carbon monoxide deaths. Between the gripping yarns of poisoners caught and only sometimes convicted, and these broader social issues, Blum has crafted a book that teaches us a lot about forensic medicine and organic chemistry without once sounding like a textbook or treatise. What a gifted writer.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Jan

    Can a book about poison be fun? Sure it can, if you're morbid like me. Each chapter of Blum's book is about a different kind of poison. You learn how each poison kills, what the symptoms are, and what your body looks like on the inside after you're killed by it. She also provides very detailed descriptions of how chemists test body tissues for various poisons, which was interesting. She intersperses all of this with details of real poisoning cases, in addition to an analyses of how Prohibition af Can a book about poison be fun? Sure it can, if you're morbid like me. Each chapter of Blum's book is about a different kind of poison. You learn how each poison kills, what the symptoms are, and what your body looks like on the inside after you're killed by it. She also provides very detailed descriptions of how chemists test body tissues for various poisons, which was interesting. She intersperses all of this with details of real poisoning cases, in addition to an analyses of how Prohibition affected the citizens of the U.S. Oh yeah, and she also details the birth of modern forensic science. Phew! It sounds like a lot for such a relatively short book, but it seems to fit together nicely and it's all pretty interesting. I thought this book was a great deal more accessible than the other Blum book I've read (Ghost Hunters). It was short and to the point. I sped through it pretty quick. My only complaint is that I would have liked to read about MORE poisoning cases, but I'm just morbid like that. If you like Mary Roach or non-fiction books about disease or murder, you'll probably like this one.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Christiane

    With the appointment of Charles Norris as chief medical examiner in 1918, New York City for the first time had someone with the skills and determination to track down poisoners and murderers, establishing forensic science along the way. Along with toxicologist Alexander Gettler, Norris took on not only private murderers but big business and even the U.S. Government. (During Prohibition government chemists fought a savage war with bootleggers in which the poorest segment of society paid the price With the appointment of Charles Norris as chief medical examiner in 1918, New York City for the first time had someone with the skills and determination to track down poisoners and murderers, establishing forensic science along the way. Along with toxicologist Alexander Gettler, Norris took on not only private murderers but big business and even the U.S. Government. (During Prohibition government chemists fought a savage war with bootleggers in which the poorest segment of society paid the price in increasingly lethal alcoholic "beverages”.) This was also an era in which incredibly dangerous poisons (arsenic, thallium, radium) were readily available in a number of household products, or even advertised as health aids! This book is a fascinating read. I actually learned something about chemistry and there’s enough murder and bloodshed to satisfy any true crime buff.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Wealhtheow

    A well-researched, well-documented, and very well-written tale of chemical mysteries in early twentieth century New York. Dr. Charles Norris, the chief medical examiner of NYC, and his devoted toxicologist, Dr. Alexander Gettler, revolutionized New York's justice system by forcing it to pay attention to scientific evidence. Their painstaking, meticulous, and yet audacious work into chemicals' interactions with mammals helped catch and convict murderers. This isn't all forensic pathology and chem A well-researched, well-documented, and very well-written tale of chemical mysteries in early twentieth century New York. Dr. Charles Norris, the chief medical examiner of NYC, and his devoted toxicologist, Dr. Alexander Gettler, revolutionized New York's justice system by forcing it to pay attention to scientific evidence. Their painstaking, meticulous, and yet audacious work into chemicals' interactions with mammals helped catch and convict murderers. This isn't all forensic pathology and chemistry, though--there's a great deal of history, all woven together with the anecodotal tales of murderers, bootleggers, and accidental poisoners that Norris & Gettler encountered.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Ellen Marcolongo

    A fascinating history about the development of forensic medicine during the prohibition era. This book also looked at government involvement to keep the public safe (or endanger re: prohibition). If you are a CSI fan this book is for you!

  30. 5 out of 5

    Elsof

    Interesting chemistry but even more fascinating history of the birth of forensic toxicology and the pioneers who fought graft and ignorance to ensure knowledge would prevail. I finished this book with a hefty respect for the people who dedicated their lives to dispelling ignorance (and catching murderers along the way!).

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