The Poisoner's Handbook

The Poisoner's Handbook

Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

Book - 2010
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Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum follows New York City's first forensic scientists to discover a fascinating Jazz Age story of chemistry and detection, poison and murder.

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.
Publisher: New York : Penguin Press, 2010.
ISBN: 9781594202438
Characteristics: p. cm.


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Jun 08, 2018

The author weaves together stories of New York poisonings, both accidental and intentional, to tell a larger story about politics of the era, and the birth of modern forensics.

CMLibrary_gjd Mar 21, 2016

From PBS/American Experience; available for Download via PBS, via CMLibrary. Very fascinating story of the beginnings of forensic science in the US. Reads like a fiction or true crime story. If you enjoyed Devil in the White City, you'll be happy with this book as well.

Mar 06, 2016

I read this with my neighborhood book group and we all loved it! It generated so much discussion. It is definitely at the top of my "must read" list.

losdal Feb 22, 2016

a great book...keeping science AND murder stories interesting throughout...HIGHLY recommended!!

A fascinating history covering the development of modern toxicology practices, crime scene investigation techniques, and the people and politics of New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. Educational and gruesomely entertaining.

Jan 08, 2014

There is also a fascinating PBS documentary based on this book.

Dec 03, 2013

I was once stopped by my father just before taking a swig of wood alcohol that I thought was a tempting bit of whiskey. According to this very interesting book, two teaspoons of the undiluted stuff can kill a child. I wish The Poisoner's Handbook had been taught as a text in my high school chemistry classes; boredom would have vanished!
This is easily one of the best books I have read.

May 28, 2013

I was surprised that a book based on chemical elements read so easily and quickly. Blum traces the rise of forensic medicine through poison from 1915 through 1929 in New York City. Prior to Chief Medical Examiner Charles Norris' arrival, murder by poison was often assumed to be a natural death. Norris took on Tammany Hall, the U.S. government, and lack of money to establish a scientific lab that would detect poison as a means of murder. Fascinating glimpses of Prohibition, rampant use of new chemicals that quickly proved hazardous, and budget battles with City Hall enliven this book. This title was read by the Willa Cather Book Club in May 2013.

Mar 09, 2013

I love that this book is written like a story, not just a list of facts. Very well-written and fascinating to read.

Library_Dragon Dec 17, 2012

Excellent, well-written and fascinating look at early forensic science. As someone who's writing a series of 1920s mystery novels, all this information on the era's poisons and forensic sceince limitations was most welcome! :)

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