The Poisoner’s Handbook

Welcome to Jeff’s Notes. Jeff’s Notes are very short summaries and a brief reaction to books about science written by women. Jeff’s Notes, because Cliff’s Notes are just too darn long.

This edition of Jeff’s Notes summarizes The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum.

For centuries, murder by poison was one of the most difficult cases to prove. Doubtless over the years, many a man and woman were wrongly executed, and many got away with murder. This continued even into the early twentieth century. At that time, positions like coroner and medical examiner were seen mainly as sinecures for the politically connected. But in the roaring 1920’s in New York, that was about to change.

It actually began with a political reform in 1918. For the first time in New York’s history, an actual trained pathologist named Charles Norris was named the head medical examiner.

Charles Norris was the definition of an obsessive workaholic. He hired the best, and he demanded the most rigorous scientific standards out of his team. Most notable, among his team was a chemist named Alexander Gettler. Gettler would end up publishing papers on almost every known poison that he came into contact with, and developing a number of sensitive and reliable tests to ferret out each one. Norris and Gettler were destined to become the fathers of American forensic medicine.

And they had no shortage of cases to testify about. In Jazz Age New York, people were getting poisoned by prohibition era hooch that blinded and sometimes killed, by carbon monoxide in illuminating gas, by cyanide used in fumigation, and, of course, by good old fashioned poison murders.

I absolutely loved reading about Gettler and Norris. They were like characters out of a fiction book. The cases profiled in this book are fascinating. I think that anyone who watches those forensic crime shows on television would love this book. My only criticism is that I found it to be a little disorganized. For example,  even though the chapters are organized by a specific poison, the chapters often discuss more than one poison, and some poisons appear more than once, sometimes as part one and part two and sometimes not. Otherwise, this is an excellent book.

Nest up on Jeff’s Notes: Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine