The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum is a nonfiction book as thrilling in many ways as a novel. Each chapter focuses on a different poison, with true but terrible stories from a hundred years ago about both murder and accidental poisoning and how scientists determined which was which.
The title (The Poisoner’s Handbook) and subtitle (Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York) are a little misleading. The book does not serve as a handbook, with explicit instructions on how to poison someone, and the focus is not entirely on murder. But it does cover many fascinating, little known facts about the early days of forensic detection.
The coroner in New York in the early 1900s was a political appointee who often showed up for work drunk. In 1917, Mayor John F. Hylan was pressured to replace him with a qualified doctor. Out of spite, the mayor, who wanted to keep the political crony in office, appointed Dr. Charles Norris, the man who had come in second in the coroner examination results. In doing so, he unwittingly appointed a man who revolutionized the office of chief medical examiner.
Norris and the forensic chemist that he hired, Alexander Gettler, advanced the discipline of forensics with tireless and creative detective work. Chapters include “Chloroform,” which covers the killing spree at a nursing home by mass murder Frederic Mors; “Wood Alcohol,” which details the tremendous number of deaths by poisonous alcohol during Prohibition; “Arsenic,” which includes the unsolved crime of 60 people poisoned by huckleberry pie purchased at a neighborhood bakery; and “Radium,” which tells the tragic story of watch dial painters with crumbling bones from shaping the tips of their radium-soaked brushes with their lips. The book also includes an enlightening chapter on death by regular old alcohol.
Many of the issues discussed in The Poisoner’s Handbook still resonate with our society today. Substances touted for their health benefits turn out to be dangerous; people accused of murder are exonerated or proven guilty by the hard work of scientists. If you are a fan of programs like CSI, you will probably find The Poisoner’s Handbook very interesting.