The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum
So many crime novels of the Golden Age dealt with murders that involved poisons such as chloroform, arsenic and cyanide. It was the ‘weapon’ of choice in many cases back then because at that time (during the 1920’s and 1930’s) commercially made poisons were readily available and there were few tools available to detect those substances in a corpse. Solving a suspected murder was fraught with difficulties due to this inability to detect poison in the body and the lack of proper coronial procedures. Murderers often could not be convicted due to lack of substantial evidence.
The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum details the rise of forensic medicine in New York during the Jazz Age and concentrates on the work of two men: Charles Norris, a pathologist, and Alexander Gettler, a talented chemist. Both men were extremely driven and over a period of many years battled corrupt coroners, who often had no medical background, and a lax justice system. In the face of pathetic working conditions, lack of resources and meagre pay, Norris and Gettler pioneered forensic chemistry in the USA.
The author explores ten poisons, their use throughout history, and criminal cases in which they were used during the Jazz Age:
'Carbon monoxide can be considered as a kind of chemical thug. It suffocates its victims simply by muscling oxygen out of the way…
The attraction between hemoglobin and carbon monoxide is some two hundred times stronger than that between hemoglobin and oxygen. No wonder that CO - as an invading gas - can cram into the blood cells, its tighter grip allowing it to displace the looser oxygen bonds…
In the alcohol-hazed 1920’s doctors tended to mistake CO poisoning for drunkenness, according to records kept by Norris’s office.'
The early twentieth century brought a flood of modern poisons into the USA. Morphine could be found in teething medicine, opium in sedatives, arsenic was included in pesticides and cosmetics, and many poisons were available to the general public in grocery stores.
January 20th, 1920 saw the official introduction of Prohibition in the USA. With legal drinking at an end, the availability of illicit alcohol grew and with it some deadly brews. In that same January, poisonous alcohol deaths increased and ‘speakeasies’ (unlawful places selling alcoholic drinks) became part of American life. This illicit alcohol could contain traces of other substances such as carbolic acid, Lysol or kerosene. The years after the introduction of Prohibition saw an increase in alcohol consumption and an associated recklessness. The Prohibition era was a great source of material for building an excellent science of alcohol intoxication if nothing else.
Forensic medicine in those years was quite gross. Gettler obtained organs from cadavers that were often months old and putrefying. He minced up these organs, boiled them, decanted, distilled, tested and retested them and came up with specific procedures for determining if poisonous substances were present. It was a growing technology that took years and a massive amount of effort to develop into a science that was finally recognised.
Norris and Gettler’s work not only helped to solve murders but also assisted in determining a person’s innocence.
Indifference, greed and ignorance had allowed poisonous substances to become a part of everyday life in the USA. Doctors believed there were beneficial effects to smoking – it helped to control the appetite and therefore obesity and enabled people to cope with the stresses of living. Companies often mislabeled products and sometimes it took a major crisis for the government to take action. In 1938 Congress passed the Food, Drugs and Cosmetic act which gave the FDA the power to hold manufacturers legally responsible for harm caused by their products after a pharmaceutical company marketed a cough syrup that killed more than a hundred people, most of them children.
Thallium was put into depilatory creams and advertised in magazines like Vogue. Yes, thallium containing creams removed facial hair on women but it also made them bald.
In 1928, Norris was approached by a colleague, a fellow graduate and crusader, Harrison Stanford Martland. Martland had some bones that belonged to a young dial painter who had died and he wanted to check them for radioactivity. Marie Curie’s ‘beautiful radium’ was the new miracle cure for all sorts of things, the ‘next best thing to drinking sunlight.’ It was anything but beautiful.
Martland discovered that radium has an affinity for bones. The dial painters, who practiced 'lip-pointing' their paint brushes covered in paint containing radium, became known as the ‘Radium Girls.’ They swallowed bits of the paint and absorbed radium into their bones. The radium blasted holes in their bones causing jaws to disintegrate and anaemias to develop in the bone marrow. As their bones decayed, they produced radon gas that the women exhaled while they were alive. Even five years after their death their bodies were found to be strongly radioactive.
I enjoyed the medical and historical aspects of this book and Prohibition was an interesting thread running through it. The criminal cases were a bit too detailed for my tastes. Golden Age crime writers such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh tended to stay clear of the gory side of the crimes and concentrated on plot, character, motives and solving the crime. Most of the perpetrators in Blum’s book were just nasty and evil; others did not intend to kill but covered up their actions that caused harm – some companies, the U.S. Radium Corporation, for instance, who treated their staff abominably and used their legal team to wrangle themselves out of responsibility and deprive their staff of compensation.
It was the research publications of Martland and Gettler that enabled the women who were still alive to get a settlement in the case.
When Norris died at the age of sixty-seven, he left behind a carefully built team of forensic detectives who had a reputation for excellence.
Overall this was an interesting look at poisons and forensic detection. The author is a scientific journalist and the book reads like a journalist wrote it – a bit too much of a chatty sort of writing with too many diversions. She also concentrated on alcohol poisoning more than the other poisons.
A good read that was written in 2010 that would suit anyone interested in forensics, medical issues and the pharmaceutical industry.