The Poisoner’s Handbook:
Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum, The Penguin Press, 319 pages
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.