Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York” as Want to Read:
The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

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

3.99  ·  Rating details ·  33,537 ratings  ·  2,949 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 detecti ...more
Hardcover, 319 pages
Published February 18th 2010 by Penguin Press
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The Poisoner's Handbook, please sign up.
Popular Answered Questions
Christine Howard Having the cases and how they developed was one of the most interesting things about the book. How can you understand if it isn't illustrated how the …moreHaving the cases and how they developed was one of the most interesting things about the book. How can you understand if it isn't illustrated how the murders occurred.(less)

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.99  · 
Rating details
 ·  33,537 ratings  ·  2,949 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
Nov 22, 2012 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: not recommended for junior poisoners
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Hannah Greendale
Jun 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
Click here to watch a video review of this book on my channel, From Beginning to Bookend.

Combine prohibition, bootleggers, and poison. Mix and pour. Drink at your own risk.

The Poisoner's Handbook is a murderous romp through Jazz Age New York and an enthralling look at the birth of forensic medicine, developed in response to the growing number of poisons in illegal alcohol, common household products, and in the hands of calculating murderers using toxic substances to their nefarious advantag
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
Feb 28, 2021 rated it it was amazing
The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum is a 2010 Penguin Press publication.

Interesting history of forensic pioneers!

After some initial push-back, Charles Norris was named the first official Chief Medical Examiner in 1917 by the city of New York. He then brought in Alexander Gettler to create a toxicology lab. Although, forensic science was met with skepticism, Norris and Gettler were beneficial in uncovering deaths attributed to tainted alcohol during prohibition, and deaths caused by carbon
Aug 24, 2011 rated it liked it
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
Diane S ☔
Jul 04, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: 5000-2019
Can a book be both interesting and dry? Never thought so before, but here it applies well. Taking place between 1915-1936, the book opens with a self confessed murderer claiming he has poisoned many. The problem here is that there is no evidence to convict him, and he gets away with his crimes. The problem is that there are no tests to detect poison in corpses. Plus, so many poisons are do readily available, used in common household cleaners, in beauty products and in medicines.

The Uber corrupt
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
Ginger K
Oct 08, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Nancy Oakes
Mar 23, 2016 rated it really liked it
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 t
Jun 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Connie G
Jun 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
Deborah Blum has combined true crime with Jazz Age history and science to create a fascinating book. Medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler headed New York City's first scientifically trained forensic team. Each chapter features a different poison--chloroform, cyanide, arsenic, lead, radium, carbon monoxide, etc--with the story of a questionable death, the way the poison attacks the body, and the methods used by the toxicologists to identify the toxin.

The most importa
Jody McGrath
Apr 02, 2017 rated it liked it
I was really excited for this book and I was a little let down. It was very interesting, but so dry in parts that I had to set it down. The story was broke up in strange chunks with the ongoing problems of prohibition running throughout. There was a lot of information about forensic scientist and medical examiners fighting for budgets and prestige. I am glad I read it, it I wouldn't read it again. ...more
[Name Redacted]
Aug 04, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 31, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 25, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Ashley Daviau
Nov 03, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I had no idea this was non fiction when I bought it, it just sounded like a cool murdery story to me and I was interested. Imagine my surprise and delight when I realized this was not fictional and actually real. It was such a fascinating read, I kept stopping to read bits out loud to my dad because I needed to share with someone the mind blowing facts I was learning. To think that so many poisons were used for remedies and other household things before people realized that these substances were ...more
Jan 07, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Rosa, really
Jan 22, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audio, library, nonfic

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.
Trigger warnings: death, murder, suicide, execution, death of a child, graphic medical procedures, animal experimentation.

4.5 stars.

This was absolutely phenomenal. Each chapter deals with a different poison prevalent in the 1920s, including carbon monoxide, wood alcohol, and radium. It was so compelling and well written, the perfect mix of forensics and history.

I'm knocking off half a star simply because I could NOT deal with the number of times it was like "They needed to test their theory so
Stephanie (That's What She Read)
Oct 21, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: audiobook, non-fic
I have so many random facts to share with people now! Which is the best post non-fiction book feeling
The Captain
Dec 30, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Ahoy there me mateys!  For those of ye who are new to me log, a word: though this log’s focus is on sci-fi, fantasy, and young adult, this Captain does have broader reading tastes.  Occasionally I will share some novels that I enjoyed that are off the charts (a non sci-fi, fantasy, or young adult novel), as it were.  So today I bring ye a non-fiction title:

the poisoner's handbook (Deborah Blum)

Except this review has a twist.  The First Mate and I listened to this one together.  We discussed the
Feb 18, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 22, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction, history, crime
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
Dec 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favs-nonfic, favs2020
A non-fiction book discussing how forensic medicine came about in Manhattan from around the 1920s-1930s. The book is a great mix of science and history, telling the story of New York's first chief medical examiner, Charles Norris, and the toxicologist, Alexander Gettler.

The book uses a mix of poetic descriptions and scientific explanations, and a true-crime-esque writing style. Included is a lot of fascinating history and background into various poisons/toxins, their effects on the human body,
Lauren Stoolfire
Sep 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, history
The Poisoner's Handbook is absolutely fascinating and not for the faint of heart. It follows the careers of Charles Norris, an NYC medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, a toxicologist, who modernized and completely changed the game when it comes to forensic toxicology from about 1918-1936. Their work helped get the innocent out of murder charges and convict the guilty. One of the more well known cases today that they worked on was the Snyder-Gray case which inspired both The Postman Always Ri ...more
Carly Friedman
I really enjoyed this informative and engaging book about the start and development of forensic medicine. I loved learning about Gettler and Norris and their early research in forensic science. I learned a good deal of new information about poisons and their use in crime in the early and mid-1900s. My favorite sections detailed the research they engaged in and discussed more common toxins like leaded gasoline, lead, and alcohol.

I am so glad I read this book!
Jill Hutchinson
Oct 15, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: american-history
This is an unusual but interesting book as it is a mix of the history, science, and true crime. The author traces the birth of forensic medicine which basically began in the office of the Medical Examiner of New York City. The use of poison as a means of murder was all-pervasive and had been since the days of the infamous Borgia dynasty. Science was at a loss to determine the presence of poison in a human body and murderers were having a field day. Drs. Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler chang ...more
DNF at 45%

I had a great time read true crime books back at the beginning of 2019. But this one just dragged for me and I never picked it back up. I don’t think I’ll be getting to this one again, but it honestly was pretty dang cool. I’d recommend it if you want to read about poisons and their histories.
Lovely book on the birth of modern forensics. When two men - Carles Norris and Alexander Gettler, - took it upon themselves to revolutionize toxicology science and the methods used by medical examiners, murder by poison ran rampant in New York City. Prior to their contributions it was incredibly easy to get away with poisoning, because no real tests were created to find harmful substances in dead tissue. Often, medical examiners weren't even real physicians, but incompetent officials, guessing t ...more
Dec 01, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This was a book challenge read or I probably would have never picked it up. So, I'm happy to say that I really enjoyed this....A LOT. I found the history fascinating. The author did a great job in detailing the information so it didn't sound like a wikipedia report. It amazes me how easy it was to poison people to get rid of them back in the day and how far research has come in determining certain causes of death regarding poison. I understand that research was important, but the dog experiments ...more
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »

Readers also enjoyed

  • The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements
  • Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Strange and Fascinating Cases of a Forensic Anthropologist
  • Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
  • Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World
  • The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World
  • The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science
  • In Our Bones
  • The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss
  • The Ancestor
  • Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
  • Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World
  • Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
  • Protective Behavior (Bad Behavior #5)
  • The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean
  • Adoption Stories: Excerpts from Adoption Books for Adults
  • The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History
  • American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI
  • Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution
See similar books…
See top shelves…
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

Articles featuring this book

Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark are the cohosts of the wildly popular true-crime podcast My Favorite Murder. This spring they'll...
101 likes · 42 comments
“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.” 7 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.” 3 likes
More quotes…