Poisons like arsenic, carbon monoxide, and chloroform have existed since the beginning of time, but it was only during America’s Jazz Age that scientists could begin to understand how these poisons affect the human body.
Two men in particular — New York’s first chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler — were instrumental in developing the techniques for detecting poisons in human tissue. Between 1915 and 1936, these men and their staff at New York’s Bellevue Hospital made it a lot harder to get away with murder.
If you like history, read this book. If you like true crime, read this book. If you like science, read this book. Author Deborah Blum has packed an astonishing amount of stuff into less than 300 pages, and it’s all fantastic.
Each chapter focuses on a specific poison (chloroform, wood alcohol, cyanides, arsenic, mercury, carbon monoxide, methyl alcohol, radium, ethyl alcohol, and thallium), its effects on the body, famous cases where it was used to maim or kill, and the steps Norris and Gettler took to develop tests to detect it in human tissue.
The Poisoner’s Handbook was great, but the section I found most interesting was on radium. I knew that Marie Curie studied it for most of her life, and that it eventually killed her, but I had no idea how horrifically it destroys marrow and bones — it just about disintegrates them.
Throughout Blum’s book was reminded again and again of humanity’s willingness to use new discoveries without researching or considering the possible negative side effects. Radium shrinks cancerous tumors, so let’s put it in water, face creams, and soaps; thallium is used in pesticides, but it’s also great at removing unwanted body hair so let’s make depilatory creams with it. The FDA gets a lot of flack these days for allegedly politicizing which products make it to market, but the days before the organization had any real regulatory power sound pretty terrifying.
The Poisoner’s Handbook is one of those reads that got me spouting facts over dinner (and prompted my husband to ask, “What the hell have you been reading?”), as well as shed some light on the birth of forensic medicine. I muddled through a couple “heavy on the science” parts, but otherwise enjoyed myself. Give it a read!