The Poi­soner’s Hand­book:

Mur­der and the Birth of Foren­sic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum, The Pen­guin Press, 319 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Su­san Mead­ows

This is not a book for the squea­mish. Leav­ing it ly­ing around could make your house­mates ner­vous. How­ever, it is not just for fans of CSI. It also pro­vides strik­ing ob­ject lessons on both the un­in­tended con­se­quences of gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion and the con­se­quences of hav­ing no gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion. As for the mur­ders, Deborah Blum says, “There ex­ists a kind of mur­der mys­tery plea­sure to the sub­ject of poi­sons; crime nov­el­ists, es­pe­cially in the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury, have writ­ten them into count­less tales of deathly in­trigue.” I sus­pect that Blum is not alone when she says, “I find poi­son killings among the most dis­turb­ing of all homi­cides. ... The scarier killer is the one who thought­fully plans his mur­der ahead, tricks a friend, wife, lover into swal­low­ing some­thing that will dis­solve tis­sue, blis­ter skin, twist the mus­cles with con­vul­sions,

knows all that will hap­pen and does it any­way.” Blum takes us down back al­leys lit­tered with the vic­tims of bath­tub gin, into man­sions where money meant more than fam­ily, into ten­e­ments where poverty drove des­per­ate acts, and into the un­reg­u­lated fac­to­ries and speakeasies where profit trumped moral right. This was New York City in the 1910s and ’ 20s, where the scene of the crime might be the cor­ner del­i­catessen, the vic­tims any­one who hap­pened to eat the pie that day. A cor­rupt, un­qual­i­fied, and of­ten in­tox­i­cated med­i­cal ex­am­iner had just been kicked out of of­fice and re­placed with some­one novel: a trained and ded­i­cated pathol­o­gist named Charles Nor­ris, who set about cre­at­ing — with chemist Alexan­der Get­tler — the city’s first tox­i­col­ogy lab­o­ra­tory and, ul­ti­mately, a med­i­cal ex­am­iner’s of­fice whose rep­u­ta­tion for foren­sic sci­ence be­came so renowned na­tion­wide that de­fense lawyers de­spaired when Nor­ris and Get­tler tes­ti­fied on be­half of the prose­cu­tion.

Blum weaves sto­ries of mur­der, Pro­hi­bi­tion, and the tire­less ef­forts of Nor­ris and Get­tler to de­velop sci­en­tific meth­ods for crime in­ves­ti­ga­tion around the chem­i­cal and tox­i­co­log­i­cal prop­er­ties of nine chem­i­cal com­pounds — in­clud­ing ar­senic, mer­cury, and cyanide — in 11 chap­ters. Car­bon monox­ide is treated in two chap­ters, and there are sep­a­rate chap­ters de­voted to “wood al­co­hol” and “methyl al­co­hol,” syn­onyms for methanol, which is re­spon­si­ble for the blind­ness and/or death too of­ten as­so­ci­ated with boot­leg liquor.

Blum, like Nor­ris, clearly be­came ob­sessed with the un­in­tended con­se­quences of Pro­hi­bi­tion, which are stag­ger­ing. Not only did boot­leg liquor kill sig­nif­i­cantly more peo­ple than li­censed and reg­u­lated al­co­hol, but pub­lic drunk­en­ness also in­creased. With all al­co­holic bev­er­ages banned, high-proof moon­shine be­came not the drink of choice but the only drink. Hip flasks were hip. Speakeasies had out­law al­lure. Mean­while, wine and beer vir­tu­ally dis­ap­peared, prob­a­bly chang­ing Amer­i­can drink­ing habits per­ma­nently. Even when the gov­ern­ment tried dos­ing in­dus­trial al­co­hol with nas­tier poi­sons than methanol as a de­ter­rent, boot­leg­gers sold it as booze.

The equally im­por­tant les­son from that era was that while the whole coun­try de­bated the moral­ity of drink­ing liquor, com­pa­nies were es­sen­tially free to poi­son their work­ers, the en­vi­ron­ment, and even their cus­tomers with lit­tle risk of prose­cu­tion. While Nor­ris and Get­tler’s tes­ti­mony suc­cess­fully sent a steady stream of in­di­vid­ual mur­der­ers to the elec­tric chair at Sing Sing, com­pa­nies walked away or paid piti­fully small set­tle­ments to vic­tims of their prod­ucts. From tetraethyl lead in gaso­line to to­bacco to ra­dium in watch di­als and medic­i­nal elixirs to the heavy metal thal­lium used as a de­pila­tory, ev­i­dence of the tox­i­c­ity of com­mer­cially avail­able prod­ucts was gen­er­ally ig­nored or, worse, hotly de­nied by the busi­ness com­mu­nity (in the case of cigarettes and leaded gaso­line, well into the post-World War II era). When a rasp­berry-fla­vored cough rem­edy made with di­ethy­lene gly­col, a com­po­nent of an­tifreeze, killed more than a hun­dred peo­ple, mostly chil­dren, the com­pany chief, not­ing that it was le­gal, sniffed, “I do not feel there was any re­spon­si­bil­ity on our part.” Blum, cit­ing 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs, a 1935 book by two con­sumer ad­vo­cates, sum­ma­rizes their com­plaint that “Amer­i­can cit­i­zens had be­come test an­i­mals for chem­i­cal in­dus­tries that were in­dif­fer­ent to their cus­tomers’ well-be­ing. The gov­ern­ment … was com­plicit. Reg­u­la­tion was al­most nonex­is­tent. The nine­teen-year-old FDA was a joke, lack­ing au­thor­ity to set even min­i­mal safety stan­dards.”

Whether Blum writes about mur­ders com­mit­ted for the in­her­i­tance, boot­leg­gers sell­ing poi­soned liquor, or com­pa­nies that mar­keted toxic prod­ucts and fought bit­terly to avoid com­pen­sat­ing in­jured work­ers, the les­son is that profit can mo­ti­vate some­thing far less healthy than com­pe­ti­tion. In the 2010s we still de­bate the mer­its of leg­is­lat­ing moral­ity and of gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion of busi­ness. Blum’s book, in ad­di­tion to pro­vid­ing some chill­ing late-night read­ing, re­calls per­ti­nent lessons we should have learned nearly a cen­tury ago — and not all of them per­tain to tox­i­col­ogy.

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