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

really liked it 4.00  ·  Rating details ·  25,908 ratings  ·  2,631 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 ...more
Hardcover, 319 pages
Published February 18th 2010 by Penguin Press (first published January 1st 2010)
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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)

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Hannah Greendale
Jun 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, science
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 advantage.
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
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
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
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,
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
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 the
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.
[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
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 ...more
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
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: nonfic, library, 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.
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 ...more
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
Lauren Stoolfire
Sep 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, non-fiction
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 ...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!
Jan 22, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: crime, nonfiction, history
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
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 ...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
BAM The Bibliomaniac
Oct 09, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science, own
Audio #151
Jan 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, historic
This is the story of Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, who contributed much of the groundwork for modern forensics and toxicology. I absolutely loved this book but I feel the need to warn animal lovers that they that the research of poisons in that era involved animal testing. The book starts with Prohibition and the fight against wood alcohol. It also covers Cyanide poisoning, Arsenic, Mercury, Carbon monoxide, Radium, Nicotine and Thallium. But mostly it's a good portrait of the first half ...more
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
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 ...more
Aug 11, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Craig Monson
Feb 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
Organized by poison (chloroform, wood alcohol, cyanides, arsenic, etc.) and chronologically (1915, 1918-19, 1920-22, 1922-23, etc.), the book opens a window onto the exploitation of chemicals for lethal ends and the development of forensic techniques specifically to discover and prove their use in any number of nefarious crimes. Writing for a general, “Science Friday”-type audience (but in a more literate and less long-winded style than that of many “Science Friday”-type speakers), Blum avoids ...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
“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
“There was the Bennett Cocktail (gin, lime juice, bitters), the Bee’s Knees (gin, honey, lemon juice), the Gin Fizz (gin, lemon juice, sugar, seltzer water), and the Southside (lemon juice, sugar syrup, mint leaves, gin, seltzer water).” 3 likes
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