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The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

3.99  ·  Rating Details  ·  17,326 Ratings  ·  1,991 Reviews
Deborah Blum, writing with the high style and skill for suspense that is characteristic of the very best mystery fiction, shares the untold story of how poison rocked Jazz Age New York City.

In The Poisoner's Handbook, Blum draws from highly original research to track the fascinating, perilous days when a pair of forensic scientists began their trailblazing chemical detect
Published 2010 by Tantor Media
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Jill Potenz I thought all of the cases were interesting because each of the cases represented a new development. After all, the name is 'The POISONERS Handbook'.
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I don’t know why publishers feel the need to put huge subtitles on non-fiction books. Take The Poisoner’s Handbook, for example. To me, that’s a great title that would probably intrigue most potential readers. But the full title is The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. While accurate, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?

Think about The Devil and the White City. Even if you knew nothing about that book, if you saw it while trolling th
Nov 26, 2012 Carol. rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: not recommended for junior poisoners
Please note: this book is not actually helpful if you were looking for tips on how to poison someone (unless you are the U.S. government, in which case there are notes scattered throughout on how to poison industrial alcohols).

I wanted to like this book. I wanted to rate it higher. I'm not quite sure what I expected, but I don't think it was this mix of science journalism, novel and research notes. I'm a biology nerd who enjoys science writing and have two years of chemistry under my belt--inclu
Aug 24, 2011 David rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2011
Mercury Rising : One Reviewer's Feverish Reaction to Annoying Trends in Non-fiction Book Titles

Through our secret researches, we were able to discover some of the rejected titles for this book:

Heavy Metal Madness : A Stroll Through Some of the More Insalubrious Back Alleys of the Periodic Table

CSI Manhattan : Murder and Retribution in the Jazz Age

Where's Fido? : Estimation of the Median Lethal Dose for Some Common Neurotoxins Under Severe Budgetary Constraints

Moonshine and Giblets : Prohibition
Ginger K
Oct 22, 2011 Ginger K rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wow! I picked this up as an impulse buy, thinking my sister (who loves all things Jazz Age) would want to borrow/steal it later. Now that I've read it, she can't have it: it's mine. Science! History! Prohibition! Murder! Accidental deaths due to the utter lack of regulation of drugs, household chemicals, and cosmetics!

The book has an interestingly layered organization. Each chapter is titled for the poison/chemical whose investigation is woven the most centrally through that section; however, th
Aug 03, 2012 Jane rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Where I got the book: purchased at Borders ALAS POOR BORDERS.

This short (278 pages of text) nonfic covers the development of forensic toxicology in New York from 1915 to 1936 (with a little look before and after) against the background of Prohibition, which led to an epidemic of self-poisoning as people drank, seriously, ANYTHING because they couldn't get regular alcohol. I had no idea it was that bad, or that Prohibition had done quite such a splendid job of turning moderate tipplers into binge
[Name Redacted]
Though the author's intent is clearly to argue against prohibition in the US, the main take-away for me is that people are IDIOTS and love filling their bodies with things they know are poisonous and will kill them.

It's a wonder to me that, in an age so obsessed with eugenics; an age in which Margaret Sanger founded her Planned Parenthood with the dream of "purging" the US of "mental defectives" and minorities; an age in which G.K. Chesterton actually had to write a Christian tract AGAINST euge
This book is mainly about two men; Charles Norris, the chief medical examiner of New York City, and Alexander Gettler, the chief toxicologist. These two learned, fiercely dedicated men fought city hall and the establishment, in bringing forensic medicine into the twentieth century, and to bring respect to the profession that it deserved. Basically, the book is a collection of short stories of various mysteries that these men, and the medical departments they served, helped to solve in the early ...more
Nancy Oakes
Mar 31, 2016 Nancy Oakes rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
more of my chattiness about this book here if you so desire.

One day I left this book downstairs in the kitchen right next to the coffee maker intending to take it upstairs later, and the next thing I knew there's a post on my husband's facebook page with a photo of this book that reads as follows:

"Hmmmmm, first she has me get more life insurance - then I see this book. #eatouttonight?"

I didn't really ask for more life insurance, but his post is kind of spot on regarding this book -- one of the
Jan 23, 2016 ☕Laura rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
While this book is ostensibly about poisons, it is also very much the story of the development of forensic toxicology and its pioneers Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler. In a time when cause of death was often determined by a politically appointed coroner with little or no medical or scientific training, the appointment of Norris as Chief Medical Examiner of the city of New York was a game changer. Norris, along with his chief toxicologist Gettler, would introduce scientific methods into dete ...more
Jun 10, 2016 Carol rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Yes, it's a 4 star read and I didn't finish it. I own it. The fault is mine, in that I am truly not a reader dedicated to reading non-fiction works start to finish.

Blum's book is fantastic - both entertaining and fact-filled, and can be approached as a collection of short stories. That makes it easy for readers like me to feel no guilt if they put it down and don't pick it up again for several months. It also means that readers whose attention span exceeds mine (the vast majority of the educate
Rosa, really
Feb 21, 2016 Rosa, really rated it really liked it
Shelves: library, nonfic, audio

Good the second time through. Though the narrator sounded like Arnold Schwarzenegger when she used an Austrian accent and Pepe le Pew when she used a French accent. It's nonfic, sweetcheeks, it's okay to talk like a 'Murican. A 'Murican who can enunciate, anyway.
I strongly recommend The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum. While I found the book less "sensational" (in the sense of lurid) than its tabloid name, I also found it far more fascinating. It is an extremely well-written and engrossing account of New York City during the Prohibition years as well as a history of the development of forensic medicine, particularly toxicology. There are shocking revelations of government activities in ...more
This is one of those rare non-fiction books that suck you in, every bit as smooth and engrossing as the best fiction book. It centers on NYC’s first medical examiner (as opposed to the elected and often corrupt coroner), Charles Norris and his chemist partner, Alexander Gettler. Between the two, a huge chunk of forensic medicine is gotten under way. Blum makes both men alive and as interesting as the best mystery characters. I was honestly sad by the end that I would never meet them (being conte ...more
Feh. In the afterward, the author thanks a whole bunch of people for helping her with the technical aspects of the chemistry. And I was like "ahaha what technical aspects? What chemistry?" This book is like the Youtube video of chemistry: the "technical" sections would read something like, "he ground the tissue into a paste, then boiled it in a simple solution. And then he added nitric acid and the whole thing flared green!"

That isn't chemistry, that's a Mr. Rogers voice over. And this is not sc
Book Concierge
Book on CD read by Coleen Marlo.

The subtitle describes the book perfectly: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. In the early 20th century poison was often the method of choice for murderers. Corruption ran rampant in New York City’s Tammany Hall-controlled coroner’s office. However, when Charles Norris was appointed chief medical examiner in 1918 things changed. With the help of toxicologist Alexander Gettler, Norris quickly set about making “cause of death” dependent
This is my favorite kind of history book. It's a suspenseful, engrossing story that reads like fiction, full of larger-than-life personalities: bungling criminals, muckraking journalists, crusading prohibitionists, Tammany Hall politicos, and the brilliant scientists caught in the middle ("the middle" here being the NYC medical examiner's office).
Deborah Blum breaks the chemistry down in a way that seems effortless, and (I know you're wondering) there's plenty of gore, too, as she describes in
Aug 24, 2010 Mark rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, science
This is the story of how forensic medicine was established and strengthened during the early 1900s in New York under the leadership of a remarkable medical examiner, Charles Norris, and his obsessively perfectionist pathologist and toxicologist, Alexander Gettler.

Because Deborah Blum writes so well and is such a good storyteller, a book that could have been a dry recitation of scientific history has all the flow and crackle of a good novel. Each chapter is divided up by certain organic chemicals
Apr 26, 2010 Christiane rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
With the appointment of Charles Norris as chief medical examiner in 1918, New York City for the first time had someone with the skills and determination to track down poisoners and murderers, establishing forensic science along the way. Along with toxicologist Alexander Gettler, Norris took on not only private murderers but big business and even the U.S. Government. (During Prohibition government chemists fought a savage war with bootleggers in which the poorest segment of society paid the price ...more
An unexpected treat! There are many kinds of poisons, but back in the early 20th century, there wasn't much knowledge about them. Often it was the case that a substance wasn't even known to be poisonous. Other poisons were known about but it wasn't known how to measure them or assess their action.
It is written with a deceptively breezy style: there's a fair amount of science hiding in there but you barely notice it because the book is heavily laced with tales of nefarious doings and dastardly c
Jan 05, 2012 K rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to K by: goodreads
Eh. That is to say, please don't mistake my lukewarm rating for a comment on the quality of this book. As I read this, I chided myself for not appreciating it more as it was certainly well-written, well-researched, and engaging at times. But there you have it. I was simply not a sufficiently appreciative (or curious, maybe) reader for this book and found myself dragging my way through it as opposed to eagerly picking it up. So I can't honestly give it more than three stars, despite its admirable ...more
Aaron Wolfson
The Poisoner’s Handbook is packed with scandalous murders. There’s Tammany Hall corruption, “drys” and “wets” fighting over Prohibition, and creepy science. These are all lots of fun, and very educational. But the centerpiece of the book is the story of how two men, Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, created modern forensic science in America against overwhelming odds. While little-known today, the two are an archetypal example of the founding duo, in the mold of Gates/Allen, Jobs/Wozniak, ev ...more
Writer's Relief
Jun 18, 2015 Writer's Relief rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Deborah Blum’s THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK is steeped in history, Tammany Hall politics, and early forensics. The book follows Charles Norris, the chief medical inspector of New York City, and his toxicologist Alexander Gettler as they become trailblazers in the study of poisons. Each chapter focuses on a specific poison—arsenic, wood alcohol, mercury, and more—and presents an actual case of death by poisoning that Gettler and Norris must solve using techniques that were exceptionally innovative at ...more
Neil Hepworth
Apr 23, 2015 Neil Hepworth rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The Poisoner’s Handbook is a captivating blend of 1920’s crime stories and the chemistry that made it all possible.

Blum’s book is easy to read (though it assumes an intelligent reader), the chemistry is never overwhelming, and the two gentlemen that she chose to follow throughout the chemical boom of the Roaring 20’s led fascinating jobs filled with mystery, murder, death, ground brains and Bunsen burners. And at under 300 pages, it is just the right length.

I often use non-fiction books such as
Jan 27, 2015 Beth rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2015
Holy Moley! This one is a smokin' good read. All about poisoning, both deliberate and accidental. It tells about the beginnings of forensic medicine, and how two men pioneered the modern era of pathology by uncovering the infinitely various causes of death by exposure to toxic substances...many of which were long believed to be benign, or even beneficial. The chapters on radium absolutely stunned me! For a terrifyingly long period of time, people handled, ingested, and even bathed in it, which l ...more
Jul 06, 2010 Kyra rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Wanted to like it more than I did. Didn't make it past the mercury chapter (around page 130). Actually I probably would've kept reading but it was due at the library.

I think the writing style and the grouping by drug, rather than a chronological order threw me off.
The story kept bouncing around in time, yet going back to the same people, and even referencing the poisons from earlier chapters.

Also, not being a chemist I was a little bored when they actually described every element and every stage
Mar 03, 2012 Jan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Can a book about poison be fun? Sure it can, if you're morbid like me.

Each chapter of Blum's book is about a different kind of poison. You learn how each poison kills, what the symptoms are, and what your body looks like on the inside after you're killed by it. She also provides very detailed descriptions of how chemists test body tissues for various poisons, which was interesting. She intersperses all of this with details of real poisoning cases, in addition to an analyses of how Prohibition af
Oct 10, 2012 Wealhtheow rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A well-researched, well-documented, and very well-written tale of chemical mysteries in early twentieth century New York. Dr. Charles Norris, the chief medical examiner of NYC, and his devoted toxicologist, Dr. Alexander Gettler, revolutionized New York's justice system by forcing it to pay attention to scientific evidence. Their painstaking, meticulous, and yet audacious work into chemicals' interactions with mammals helped catch and convict murderers. This isn't all forensic pathology and chem ...more
I am going to preface my review by saying that I do not know if this was a fascinating book because it inherently is or because I find anything fascinating when I don’t know anything about it. This book has it all, poison, daring-do, prohibition, mobsters, murder, heroes, brilliance, and SCIENCE. It packs a whollop. This book will definitely make you realize that everyone has always been deranged, and it apparently takes very little to set people off. Frankly, I don’t know how any of us survived ...more
Mar 03, 2012 Amanda rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book has one heck of a catchy title. It also can draw some worried looks from people who take a glance at what you are reading, and slowly inch away. It is the fascinating tale of the birth of modern toxicology in the 1920s and 1930s. In my professional life, I work closely with toxicologists to receive pertinent health information to protect workers. So this book connected the current field with its origins for me. The origins stemmed from the need to track down criminals for poisoning cas ...more
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Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author.

As a science writer for the Sacramento Bee, Blum (rhymes with gum) wrote a series of articles examining the professional, ethical, and emotional conflicts between scientists who use animals in their research and animal rights activists who oppose that research. Titled "The Monkey Wars", the series won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Beat R
More about Deborah Blum...

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“In a best-selling book, 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs (reprinted nine times by 1935), a pair of consumer-advocate authors complained that American citizens had become test animals for chemical industries that were indifferent to their customers' well-being. The government, they added bitterly, was complicit.” 4 likes
“In his examination of the young dial painters, he’d discovered a fact that was impossible to dismiss. The women were exhaling radon gas.” 1 likes
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