Sunday, March 06, 2011

Detecting Murder by Poison

Title: The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York [find in a library]
Author: Deborah Blum

Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Deborah Blum, details the fascinating tale of the "birth of forensic medicine" in New York City in the 1920s. Each chapter is entitled with the name of a poison and describes various murders using the poison, the poison's effects, and how forensic medicine discovered the way to detect that poison in bodies during autopsy. Poisons covered include chloroform, methyl alcohol, carbon monoxide, cyanide, arsenic, radium, and many more.

The book also chronicles the development of the coroner's office in NYC into a far more scientific medical examiner's office. Prior to this time, the city coroner was an appointed position in which medical knowledge didn't always receive highest consideration. The lack of knowledge led to murder by poison being virtually unsolvable and frequently not even suspected. When pathologist Dr. Charles Norris was appointed Chief Medical Examiner, he quickly changed all that. He hired Alexander Gettler, a great chemist, to head the toxicology laboratory. Together, the two solved many murders by poison.

One of the things I found very interesting and horrifying was the government's attempts to stop people from drinking during Prohibition. Drinking actually increased during Prohibition with people frequently consuming poisonous alcohol, either methyl alcohol or denatured alcohol - a byproduct of industrial processes that had been purposely poisoned by businesses at the government's behest. Prior to Prohibition, it was already a requirement for businesses to poison the byproduct alcohol. However, when they realized that people were willing to take their chances with this poisoned alcohol and that bootleggers were employing chemists to remove as many toxins as possible from the alcohol, government officials concluded that "perhaps the best way to enforce Prohibition was to make alcohol so deadly that even the sellout chemists working for crime syndicates couldn't rescue it. If alcohol was truly undrinkable, the argument went, even the most devoted boozer would have to give it up" (p. 153). In effect, the government was actively mandating the murder of its citizens because everyone knew that people were still drinking a great deal.

All in all, a well-researched, well-written, fascinating book. I highly recommend it to anyone even slightly interested in the topic.

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posted by Kate at 4:01 PM


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