Stephanie D. 's Reviews > The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum
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Mar 12, 11

Read in February, 2011

Let's cut to the chase, shall we? You wanna know if someone (not you) was planning on poisoning an unsuspecting victim, would The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum be a good book to consult?

Answer: More or less.

Does that theoretical person want his/her intended victim to die as quickly and painlessly as possible? Then use carbon monoxide.

Second choice would be chloroform.

If said intended victim is meant to suffer a painful and drawn out death then use cyanide, arsenic.

The Poisoner's Handbook is not so much a manual as a frightening look at how dangerous it was to live in New York City in the Jazz Era. You have Prohibition making criminals out of almost everybody and driving desperate people drink nasty, 120 proof industrial alcohol. And then you have all the different ways one can die, either accidentally through being in the wrong place at the wrong time or by murder.

If this were a show, I'd call it CSI: New York - The Beginning. David Caruso would play Charles Norris, the enigmatic chief medical examiner. And William Petersen would play Alexander Gettler, his unassuming but brilliant toxicologist/chemist. Every week they would get a mysterious and unexplained death, try to catch criminals and win against them in court using forensic evidence - all the while trying to score funding from the city to keep their fledgling department afloat.

“The office was short-staffed that night, so Charles Norris was on call. He made his usual entrance, even at three in the morning, stepping out of his chauffeur-driven automobile, dressed against the cold in dark overcoat and fedora. He followed the policemen up the wooden stairs to Travia’s apartment, laid out his outer garments on a chair, and walked over to inspect the dismembered corpse.

“His thick eyebrows drew together in a familiar frown. The blood pooled around the half-body was a bright cherry red. He bent to look closer at the woman’s face. It was flushed pink, even following this horrible death. Norris’s reaction was recorded by a crime writer and would later become part of his often theatrical legend. He walked over to the waiting detectives and announced, 'Boys, you can’t hold this man for murder.'”


Norris would pay out of his own pocket just to get a car for his forensic team to get to the crime scene - otherwise they had to use buses and trolleys. When money was tight, he paid for supplies, equipment, and when the stock market crashed, Gettler's salary. His team got very little money and respect because forensic medicine's applications in the court room were so new. Gettler basically wrote his own manual for criminal forensic medicine and some of the methods he devised close to a hundred years ago are still being practiced today. Some of the procedures described are gruesome - seriously, how many times is he going to ground up dead brain tissue, cook it, and analyze the results???

Also, for animal lovers out there - there are factual accounts of animal testing regarding the effects of certain poisons.

This book doesn't delve into exotic poisons - it's not a comprehensive "poisoner's handbook" in that way. If you are fascinated by true crime, maybe have a slight interest in chemistry, love history, may or may not want to poison someone - The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum is for you.
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