The Poisoner's Handbook

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

Blum, Deborah

(Book - 2010)
Average Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5.
The Poisoner's Handbook
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Video From "The Chemist's War" ( Slate Magazine ), by Deborah Blum 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
Branch Call Number: 614.13097471 B658p 2010
Characteristics: 319 p. ;,24 cm


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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.

Join the discussion on Jan. 12, 2015. In Jazz Age New York, science had no place in the coroner's office and corruption ruled the day. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Blum gives a delicious blend of history and drama, biochemistry and toxicology, sociology and public service, and the beginning of t... Read More »

Join the discussion on Oct. 21, 2014. In Jazz Age New York, science had no place in the coroner's office and corruption ruled the day. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Blum gives a delicious blend of history and drama, biochemistry and toxicology, sociology and public service, and the beginning of t... Read More »

Delicious blend of history and drama, biochemistry and toxicology, and the very beginning of the science of forensics.

A story of chemistry and detection, poison and murder starring one of New York City's first forensic scientists, and set against a backdrop of the Jazz Age

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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
  • librarianatlarge rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

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

Dec 03, 2013
  • whs rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

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
  • TheresaAJ rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

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
  • DarknessFalling4 rated this: 4.5 stars out of 5.

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

Dec 17, 2012
  • Library_Dragon rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

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! :)

Dec 04, 2012
  • hmcgivney rated this: 3.5 stars out of 5.

I really liked all of the case info and the explanations of how poisons affect the body, but some of the methodology got a little too technical for my taste. I'm also conflicted about the narratives that included animal testing. I know that many, if not most, medical advances occurred because of tests that were done on animals, but that doesn't mean I like reading about courtroom grandstanding by lawyers who wanted to prove the cruelty of a poison by killing a cat in front of the jury. It just makes me all the more glad that I live in an age where we can use computer models to do some of the tests.

Sep 28, 2012
  • Saint_Mirin rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

If you enjoyed this book you may also like Stiff by Mary Roach, and Harvard Med: The Story Behind America's Premier Medical School and the Making of America's Doctors by John Langone.

Jun 20, 2012
  • nftaussig rated this: 2.5 stars out of 5.

Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook provides a fascinating account of how forensic science was placed on a sound scientific basis through the efforts of New York City's Chief Medical Examiner, Charles Norris, and chief toxocologist, Alexander Gettler. Blum sets the stage by illustrating how corruption and lack of professionalism allowed poisoners to kill with impunity before Norris took office in 1918. She recounts how Norris and Gettler were able to establish procedures for detecting poisons and how those efforts led to murder convictions and exonerations. Blum also illustrates how Norris and Gettler fought for public health measures intended to regulate dangerous substances and dangerous workplace conditions. However, the book is marred by errors in the explanation of chemistry and physics and even simple arithmetic. "Radium also emits, to a lesser degree or positrons, two other kinds of radiation: beta radiation, which consists of electrons, and gamma radiation, which contains a dangerous mixture of X-rays and other subatomic materials." The sentence makes no sense. Positrons are positively charged anti-particles of electrons. It is also wrong. Beta radiation involves the emission of high speed electrons or positrons from the nucleus. Gamma rays, which are emitted by the nucleus, are dangerous since they have higher energies than X-rays, which are emitted by electrons outside the nucleus. There are far too many such errors in this book.

Jun 04, 2012
  • alanebrown rated this: 4.5 stars out of 5.

Fascinating read. Great trivia tidbits throughout such as arsenic being referred to as "the inheritance powder". Great period piece.

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Deborah Blum: science, journalism and women

Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer-prize winning science writer and has been a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the USA since 1997. She was relaxing at the divine Raffles Hotel in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates prior to speaking at the inaugural conference of Arab women scientists in September 2009, organised by the Arab Science and Technology Forum, and is busy organising the programme for the world's biggest get-together of science journalists in Cairo in 2011, under the umbrella of the World Federation of Science Journalists.


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