The Poisoner’s Handbook came up in Nonfiction November last year, when Silver Button Books mentioned it as an exceptional example of nonfiction that reads like fiction. I was surprised, as I wouldn’t guess a book involving chemistry in any form would be so readable, but it encouraged me to finally get around to this popular one. I feel like one of the last people to be won over by it and held off on reviewing because it’s already pretty widely adored, but it’s worth a look in case I’m not the last to have missed it, plus: was she ever right. It reads like the best detective story, perplexing but ultimately satisfying and unputdownable.
Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum traces the beginnings of forensic medicine in the Prohibition era, an overwhelmingly bleak moment in time for not only forensics but medical sciences in the city in general, through the lens of two New York City scientists:
In 1918, however, New York City made a radical reform that would revolutionize the poison game and launch toxicology into front-page status. Propelled by a series of scandals involving corrupt coroners and unsolved murders, the city hired its first trained medical examiner, a charismatic pathologist by the name of Charles Norris. Once in office, Norris swiftly hired an exceptionally driven and talented chemist named Alexander Gettler and persuaded him to found and direct the city’s first toxicology laboratory.
That’s right, Dr. Charles Norris was the city’s first chief medical examiner to hold any relevant qualification for the position; and his head toxicologist was also the city’s first. Their groundbreaking work and developments laid the foundations for some forensic techniques still in place today for detecting the presence or traces of poisons.
Norris became ME after corrupt tactics saw a spate of wholly unqualified coroners in the position, an unbelievable but widespread situation perhaps now more familiar: “The city required no medical background or training for coroners, even though they were charged with determining cause of death.” So his appointment was also a turning point towards medical examination operating with, you know, an actual medical basis. This was the early 20th century — only 100 years ago. Hard to fathom but scarily true.
Each chapter is a standalone story connected to a different poison, chemical, alcohol or similar compound. Blum employs near-mesmerizing storytelling as she traces a mystery backwards, revealing how Norris and Gettler managed to solve crimes and explain perplexing deaths by applying forensic techniques. Forensic toxicology wasn’t a true discipline yet, but Gettler began identifying the markers of certain substances, including chloroform, thallium, arsenic, carbon monoxide, mercury, and cyanide, that were left behind in corpses.
Part of the mystery in these stories often lies in determining whether a death was a murder or merely accidental. There’s a lot of detective work involved, and it was interesting to see this done by these scientists. It ends up being an excellent blend of science and noir-like detective stories, plus a fascinating and detailed picture of life during this era.
As soon as legal drinking ended, purveyors of illicit alcohol came helpfully forward. As Gettler had predicted, they offered some devastatingly lethal brews.
Illicit alcohol is a big villain, and to my shock horror, I learned that the U.S. government was poisoning people under Prohibition, putting toxic additives into their own distributed batches of liquor to discourage drinking. After all, what’s a little murder of your own citizens when there are morals to uphold? Imbibers had this intentional and brutal possibility to contend with along with lesser but still scary risks and uncertainties about what was actually in the booze they procured.
The primary culprit was wood (methyl) alcohol, and it could blind drinkers and make them violently ill if it didn’t kill them first. Norris was “furious” and took the government to task over it, in an interesting display of the conflict between the medical community and government during Prohibition.
On a lighter note, alcohol did lead to some humorous moments:
As the year pulled toward its close, on a festively lit Christmas Eve, a man came running—make that weaving—into Bellevue’s emergency room, claiming that Santa Claus had chased him from Fifth Avenue with a baseball bat… The latest round of hooch available in the city had not cleaned up well.
Since each chapter is one story that’s not returned to, it can leave you curious about some and I would’ve preferred if a few chapters had gone into a little more detail. But it’s so engrossing as is that this is forgivable. Blum’s writing is intelligent, suspenseful, gripping and informative. Particularly impressive is that the science, even the chemistry, is explained clearly enough that the layperson has no trouble understanding it. Chemistry was my high school nightmare so I can’t stress enough how much of an accomplishment that is. Historical true crime at its best.
The Poisoner’s Handbook:
Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
by Deborah Blum
published February 2010 by Penguin