Poison, Prohibition, and the Beginnings of Forensic Medicine

Book review: The Poisoner’s Handbook, by Deborah Blum (Amazon / Book Depository)

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

Amazon / Book Depository

31 thoughts on “Poison, Prohibition, and the Beginnings of Forensic Medicine

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    1. Oh I’m so happy to hear that! This would be the perfect complement to that mystery series you’ve read! The setting is really rich even if the subject matter is pretty dark. You’re right, definitely no women in these positions but it gets even more backward than that. I just can’t wrap my head around this allowance of people who have no medical background to be coroners.

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  1. I enjoyed this a lot. I appreciate books that mix science and history in such an engaging way. I was also surprised at how dangerous alcohol was during Prohibition and that the government purposely made it even more so. And that even that did not deter people!

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    1. I’m glad you liked it! I love when a book can blend science and history so well too, without ever becoming dry or losing the lay reader. I thought this one did it perfectly. The danger in alcohol at that time was such a messed up facet of this story, and that they continued poisoning it even though it was clearly not deterring people was just mind-blowing.

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  2. This is a fantastic review of one of my favorite books! I too sometimes feel awkward reviewing a book that is older but I think there is merit to doing so if it means introducing just one more person to the delight of books like this.

    I refer to books like these as springboards – they give me just a taste of something and that encourages me to read more. This book certainly had me going down the rabbit hole of science and chemistry and trying to follow up on all the stories and people it introduced me to in such a delightful way. I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

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    1. Oh thank you!! I just wasn’t sure I could say anything about it that hadn’t already been said. And really, thanks for giving me the push to read it. I think I’d told you I’d bought it in an ebook sale just as one of those I knew I eventually wanted to read but I was never motivated for it until I read your take. And I felt the same, if I could introduce one more person to it who’d missed it, would be totally worth it!

      That’s such a good point, it was great for figuring out areas you have more interest in. You’ll have to let me know if you read anything else related to these stories you can recommend!

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      1. I will comb back through my favorites I found because of this book and let you know! I read some real stinkers though – she has such a way with the subject that I confused her excellent writing with chemistry at large and read some truly mind-numbingly boring books.

        I was so nervous when you starting reading it. I worried that I had pushed too hard and oversold it. I’m so glad you enjoyed it.

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      2. I can imagine…she made the science so accessible here, I kind of couldn’t believe it was so easy to follow, I felt so confident! haha. Then I read something else and am totally lost so you’re totally right, it has everything to do with the writing.

        And you had described it so well, I could tell right away it was one for me. Glad we can share so many good recommendations!

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    1. This one could be good on audio because the chapters are pretty much standalone, just with the same couple of primary figures. I think that makes it easier to follow if you’re listening. Hope you can give it a try!

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  3. I had not heard of this book so I be very grateful for this review. It sounds like something both me and the First Mate will love. Out of curiosity, why do ye not seem to rate all books? I only ask because I just read one review were ye did and this one where ye didn’t seem to.
    x The Captain

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad I could introduce you to it! And that you can share it with him, those are the best 🙂

      It’s weird, sometimes a rating just seems much clearer to me so it’s easy to add, and sometimes it’s more complicated! Sometimes I don’t want to discourage people if they just look at the number and I’m maybe a harsher rater…like a 3.5 is still a pretty good book to me but I think that deters some people. Maybe I just overthink it.

      But this one would be a 4.5 🙂

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  4. This sounds wonderful! I am fascinated by the history of science, especially in relation to the development of roles that we now consider so standard, like medical examiner. Somehow I missed this when it was all over the internet and didn’t hear about it until I read your review, so I am very glad you did decide to review it as I think I will be picking it up soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so happy I could sell you on it!! I promise it’s worth it and won’t give you any terror flashbacks to high school (I admit the fear of being reminded of that was part of why I avoided it). And YES that’s absolutely a sign, it’s meant to be! It’s a good October book too. I can’t wait to hear your take on it!

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  5. Am all behind with your reviews, am catching up now. This book is going on my list right away. Like you, Chemistry was never my subject at school but your review makes the book sound too good to miss.

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    1. This was SO good! I felt like I should mention it’s accessible to us non-chemistry types because I avoided it because of that for awhile. It was hard for me to imagine any reading involving chemistry could be entertaining and easy to follow, but I promise this is!

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