Review: The poisoner’s handbook

Blum, Deborah. The poisoner’s handbook: murder and the birth of forensic medicine in Jazz Age New York. New York : Penguin Press, 2010. (Publisher’s description)

I usually shy away from true crime books, simply because I feel like I’m rubber-necking at a car accident when I read them.  While Deborah Blum’s book is filled with true crime stories, it is also filled with science and history, so I felt less troubled by the crime stories than I would in reading a serial killer exposé.  Additionally, it was a real page-turner, written with the edge-of-your-seat, I-am-going-to-stay-up-way-too-late-reading-this-book kind of prose.

Blum’s tale is that of the rise of forensic medicine, particularly under the direction of Dr. Charles Norris, who became the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City in 1918, and his toxicologist, Dr. Alexander Gettler.  To tell their stories, she tells stories of the major poisons of the day, and how forensic medicine and toxicology were used to detect poisons.  With chapters on chloroform, wood alcohol, cyanides, arsenic, mercury, carbon monoxide, methyl alcohol, radium, ethyl alcohol, and thallium, she takes the reader on a tour of the crimes committed and the scientific advances made in detecting those poisons.  (While it’s called a ‘handbook’, you don’t have to keep an eagle eye on your coffee cup while you’re reading; no one can add one of these poisons to your mug and ‘get away with murder’.)

The book certainly is gory.  There are descriptions of autopsies and damaged organs, violent deaths, and experiments on animals done by our hero scientists.  However, I do not think Blum saturated the text with gore in a way that many contemporary crime novelists do.  If she provides a detail about a poisoning death, it is relevant to the medical understanding of death by poisoning.  However, the story is not for the faint of stomach.  (If you watch forensic science television shows, you’ll find Blum’s descriptions to be pretty standard fare.)

One of the more interesting lessons I learned from the book was the way that Prohibition was perceived by the public, the government, and the chief medical examiner.  I had not been aware of the methods used by the government in denaturing industrial alcohol, nor in adding poisons to it, so that it could not be distilled for drinking.  Dr. Norris was an outspoken critic of this practice, since his office saw the results: more people died each year of methyl alcohol poisoning or from drinking poorly distilled illegal liquor than had died from alcohol-related deaths in the years before Prohibition.  Thus, to Norris, the government was morally responsible for killing its citizens, even if it was not legally responsible.  This certainly changed my (admittedly superficial) idea that Prohibition was discontinued merely because the temperance unions lost their influence, or because of the rise in crime related to bootlegging.  Norris’s outrage over the poisoning of drinkers seems justified; no crime should carry an immediate death sentence.

Overall, I though Blum’s book was a great read, and it was informative.  It stirred an interest in reading more about the era and in reading more by Blum. I highly recommend it.

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