Book Review Thursday: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York


We all should be thankful we know so much more today about lethal substance, than say our ancestors – especially those who lived in the early twentieth and late nineteenth centuries.  I first heard about this book after watching a PBS American Experience program based on author Deborah Blum’s book by the same name.

The book reads like a murder thriller novel – except it’s all too true – centered around the formation and early operations of New York City’s forensic medical department.  The department was led by Dr. Charles Norris, the city’s first medical examiner.  For years the city had employed the services of a coroner, an office that didn’t even require the person to have a medical license.  More often than not it was a political appointment, accompanied by all kinds of political shenanigans.

Dr. Norris hired Alexander Gettler as his chief toxicologist and together they essentially pioneered and modernized the science of forensic medicine in the United States.  Together these two pioneers helped solve some of the most notorious crimes involving a wide array of poisons.

Ms. Blum covers the wide array which includes: carbon monoxide, arsenic, radium, nicotine, chloroform, mercury, cyanide, aconite, silver and thallium.  Some of these chemicals were originally designed for life-saving purposes, such as chloroform used for surgical anesthesia in the nineteenth century.

For years radium was mixed into medicines, face creams and various drinks, all purported to offer great health benefits.  It was even advertised as a “tiny glowing sun” that would restore energy.  In 1928 Norris and Gettler irrefutably proved that theory wrong.

Some of the most spectacular murders were committed in New York City during this era and Norris and Gettler played significant roles in assisting police in solving them.  While the book has quite a bit of technical jargon, the narrative is also intertwined with the murder mysteries which brought forensic medicine to the forefront of criminal investigative methods.

Anyone who enjoys a good crime thriller or murder mystery would find this a great read.  I found it one of those kind of books that was hard to put down.  I highly recommend the PBS program as well  – both are very well done.

Rating:  ★★★★

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.


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