Poison, Radiation, Prohibition, and the United States’ First Forensic Toxicology Lab – A Review of The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

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Since I picked up the Nancy Drew books in third grade, I have been fascinated by crime – not to commit it, but to solve it. In the Nancy Drew books, the eponymous heroine always seemed to be able to figure out who committed the crime, and the process of solving the crime was always the most fascinating bit for me. And then I graduated to Sherlock Holmes, which proved to be even more fascinating and involved than Nancy Drew, and this, along with a steady diet of Agatha Christie and some of my mother’s pulpy thriller novels, have ensured my lifelong love with the mystery genre in all its forms.

But for all my love of fiction, I also have a deep, abiding love of science and history, both of which constitute the bulk of my non-fiction reading whenever I get the chance to come across books that pique my interest. I am, however, at my happiest when I can find something that combines as many of my favorite subjects as possible, so when I came across The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum, I knew I had to give it a shot.

New York during the Jazz Age (the late 1910s into the early 1930s) was simultaneously dazzlingly brilliant, and also dangerously dark. It was during this time that the myth of New York as a place of new beginnings and dreams-come-true first began to take shape, as industrialists made their fortunes and immigrants, drawn by the wealth and business made by aforementioned industrialists, came to the United States seeking a better life, hoping to gain a slice of that seemingly endless good fortune for themselves. And yet all this light cast a very dark shadow: New York was (and still is, in the way of all major metropolises) riddled with crime. There was thievery and rape, of course, and the knifings and stabbings and mysterious disappearances that are part and parcel of any major city’s underworld, but there were the more sensational killings, many of which had to do with poison. And during these dawning decades of the 20th century, poisoning became a favored method for murdering people, mostly because criminal investigation was so inept as to allow many poisoners to go free if they were careful enough – and many were careful enough.

Exacerbating the crime-related deaths was the sheer number of accidental deaths caused by using poisonous substances in commercial and industrial products. In a time when the FDA was still a new agency and had none of the powers it does today, two-bit hucksters and big corporations alike were able to market products that, more often than not, had the potential to kill their consumers. If anyone complained, the corporations were known to hire lawyers who could – and did – do everything they could to ensure a case went in favor of their employers.

And then in 1918, after a rather scandalous case that exposed the dark underbelly of criminal investigation in the city, the city hired Charles Norris, a pathologist, as its first trained medical examiner. Soon after Norris hired Alexander Gettler, an immensely talented toxicologist. Norris was high-minded and idealistic, but possessed of a drive to see those ideals carried through, no matter what. Gettler, on the other hand, was quiet but incredibly brilliant, having the same dogged determination that Norris did when it came to answering whatever question was presented to him. Over the next two decades, the two of them would work together to build the United States’ first truly reputable forensic toxicology lab, and train the men who would later go on to become the country’s first competent medical examiners.

Though the book deals with some sensational crimes committed during the period, much of the focus is on Norris and Gettler and the politics of their era. A huge chunk of the book is devoted to Prohibition, that period of time when the US government decided it would be a good idea to make the consumption of alcohol a crime. As my friend Hope likes to say, “Hindsight has 20-20 vision,” and today many Americans look back at the Eighteenth Amendment as a very big mistake. But at the time, a great many people believed that Prohibition would somehow cure the country of its various social ills (or at least make them more manageable) – except for a certain set of people who were pragmatic enough to see that Prohibition would be nothing but trouble.

Amongst them were Gettler and Norris: they predicted that Prohibition would kill more people than save them, as the populace began to find substitutes for liquor. They were right: they and their employees were the ones who had to deal with the daily influx of people killed by alcohol poisoning, many of whom died by consuming deadly concoctions made with methyl alcohol. While Gettler quietly fumed in his lab, Norris was more vocal, haranguing every possible government official he could about the effect of Prohibition – in particular, when the government itself started mixing up its own extremely lethal alcohol as a” deterrent”. It didn’t matter: people wanted to drink, and if they couldn’t have a safe way to do it, they’d find other ways – the rich by illegally purchasing alcohol from abroad, and the poor by making-do with whatever they could get their hands on. Obviously, it was often the poor who died and came through Gettler’s lab, making both Gettler and Norris even more determined to find a way to end Prohibition as soon as possible. And when it finally ended, both of them were happy to report the sharp decline in methyl alcohol poisoning-related deaths – an event they had long predicted would happen if Prohibition was finally lifted.

There were also the other cases: people dying of carbon monoxide poisoning, which occurred as a result of faulty or ill-maintained piping. And then there were the Radium Girls: young factory women who’d been slowly poisoning themselves while working with paint mixed with radium. That case in particular was sad and disheartening, not only because of the horrific ways the Radium Girls suffered because of their intake of the deadly radioactive substance, but because of the way the corporation they were working for tried everything to get the case dismissed. I am aware that this (corporations doing their level best to get cases against them dismissed) is still something that happens to the present day, but it does not make this event any less tragic or sad, in my opinion.

For the most part, the book is an interesting, engaging read: Blum’s writing is lucid and her tone casual enough to be engaging without being unnecessarily so. I found it easy to sink into the book, to get lost in the world Blum recreated, and this is no mean feat, especially when a writer is trying to be interesting and not boring. I liked the way she presented Norris and Gettler; I found that discussing them in relation to each other an effective technique, pairing Gettler’s quiet competence with Norris’ charismatic leadership, and using their dedication to their work and to society as a whole as a means of tying them together. Blum also surrounds them with an equally interesting cast of characters, ranging from the criminals their work helped catch and indict; to the politicians they were frequently at odds with; to the handful of lab assistants and research partners who would eventually become known as the “Gettler Boys.”

However, there was something I found wrong with Blum’s narrative organization. While the chronological order of events is quite clear, she also divides the book into chapters based on a certain stretch of years, and titling each chapter with a specific poison that features prominently in a case that is the centerpiece of the chapter itself. This is all well and good, and indeed I see the merits of attempting that particular kind of organization, but what I do not appreciate is Blum’s constant dropping of information from previous cases into the newest chapter. Say, something happens in Chapter Two: the case related in that chapter is partially resolved, but it is time to move on to something else. Somewhere down the line, perhaps in Chapter Three, say, or Four, there will be a set of paragraphs relating some new development in the case mentioned in the previous chapter, because those developments occurred in the particular span of years that the current chapter deals with. The Prohibition issue also kept drifting in and out, regardless of which poison one was dealing with in a particular chapter. It is a credit to Blum’s writing that it is not that difficult to figure out what she is talking about, but I do wish things could have been tidier than they were.

Overall, The Poisoner’s Handbook is an insightful read for anyone who has wanted to know how the real world behind TV shows like CSI came to be. While it’s true that shows on forensic science are starting to wane in popularity, the concept that made them popular in the first place – that science and logic can be used to solve crimes, to bring order to chaos, to make sense out of the illogical – is still something that fascinates many people, and The Poisoner’s Handbook helps in understanding how the concept of forensic science and forensic toxicology first gained prominence and, more importantly, credibility, in the United States. Blum’s writing is easy to read and get lost in, but some readers might find themselves being sucked out of the experience against their will by certain organizational problems within the text. Apart from that, however, The Poisoner’s Handbook is a fine and not-too-demanding read.

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