The 1920s are just at the tail end of that time in history I love most: the age of discovery and invention. Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York is all about discovering potential poisons and how they work. The book is well written and entertaining, and the chemical parts are easy to understand—even for someone like me, who has always had trouble grasping how it all works. Here, I found myself strangely excited by reading about the different poisons, how they are related, how they are different, and how they work in people. There are lots of murders discussed and explained, and sometimes, I lost track of who was who. Also, some of the descriptions of the tests performed on corpses and animals had a bit too much detail for my taste. But it was easy to either overlook or skip. Overall, this book is chockfull of tidbits that might make for great conversation starters—or stoppers. Take your pick:
1. Dr. Charles Norris was the first medical examiner of New York City with an appropriate background for the job. Previously, medical examiners were political appointees. Under Norris’ direction, the NYC medical examiner’s office became a department that set forensic standards for the rest of the country. He was complimented by the exceedingly competitive Alexander Gettler, who became the chief toxicologist and obsessed with inventing methods for detecting poisons in people.
2. In 1915, an Austrian immigrant, who changed his last name to Mors (Latin for death), confessed to having killed at least 8 people with chloroform. Despite his confession, he could not be charged with murder because no one knew yet how to prove death by chloroform.
3. After the ratification of the 18th Amendment (prohibition) in 1919, the government required poison to be added to industrial alcohol to prevent people from drinking it. That didn’t work: Dr. Norris estimated that in 1926 alone, over 1,200 New Yorkers had been sickened, blinded, or killed by alcohol that had been deliberately poisoned with gasoline, benzene, carbolic acid, quinine, and acetone, to name just a few.
4. In 1923, the medical examiner’s office of NYC started training programs for city detectives to help recognize poison deaths.
5. In 1924, the Standard Oil Refinery in New Jersey started to produce an antiknock additive for gasoline, and within 12 months, workers at the “loony gas” factory became moody, short-tempered, and unable to sleep. Most of them ended up dead from lead poisoning caused by the additive.
6. In October 1926, the medical examiner’s office, in a highly publicized court trial, proved that Frank Trivia had not killed his neighbor, but had “merely” dismembered a body already dead from carbon monoxide poisoning. Trivia was saved from the electric chair, and forensic toxicology was shown to be a powerful tool in the solving of crimes.
7. “America’s Lucrezia Borgia” killed 3 people with arsenic. The first two times, she got away with it. But twenty years later, when she struck again, she was convicted of murder, because by then, toxicologists had finally figured out how to prove she was guilty.
8. When Marie Curie “discovered” radium, it was hailed as a rejuvenating substance. It wasn’t until factory workers who regularly used radium-containing “self-luminous” paint fell ill that scientists started to worry about the radioactivity of radium.
9. Until Prohibition, the Model T Ford could be adapted to run on ethanol, but the practice stopped once bootleggers started to siphon off the fuel from cars and sell it to their customers.
10. In the early 1930s, thallium-based depilatory creams led to a small, but significant epidemic among women who followed the advice of beauty magazines. But instead of hair-free skin with “a beautiful pale luster,” the ladies ended up with trembling legs, breathing difficulty, overall weakness, and a bald head.
I probably know more about poisons now than I need to, but one thing is for sure: I am grateful that I don’t have to rely on a bootlegger to get a drink!