Ms.pegasus'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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's review
Aug 12, 2011

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bookshelves: medical-history, nonfiction
Recommended for: anyone interested in American social history, chemistry, or medicine
Read in August, 2011 — I own a copy

For me, the centerpiece of this historical narrative was Prohibition, with its legacy of methyl alcohol poisoning. Just after the turn of the century, the government distinguished between industrial and potable alcohol for taxation purposes by requiring industrial alcohols to be denatured. With the passage of the 18th Amendment, the public began turning its attention to cheap and easily attainable methyl alcohol concoctions with unintended but predictable results. Depending on the skill and vigilance of the distiller's chemists, bootleg alcohol could contain dangerous levels of lethal methyl alcohol. Those who did drink, drank heavily and according to insurance estimates, the Prohibition decade saw a drastic rise in alcoholism and alcohol related fatalities. Even “good” (ethyl alcohol) liquor could be fatal – higher concentrations increased the likelihood of overdose. Finally, by the end of the decade, a new brew, Ginger Jake, was in circulation. It's ingredients, when mixed with alcohol, produced a neurotoxin whose notoriety is well documented in Depression-era lore. Blum further points out that the “Speakeasy Culture” gave alcohol a glamorous and daring allure. Whereas most Prohibition sagas focus on the bootleggers, POISONER'S HANDBOOK focuses on the society the approved and then flaunted the Volstead Act. At the same time, there was an ugly current of belief that the people willing to take such risks were only getting what they deserved.

As a history, Blum's book is a rambling account loosely based on the stories of key poisons: Chloroform, alcohol, cyanide, arsenic, mercury, carbon monoxide, radium, carbon monoxide, and thallium. Instead of approaching this as a unified narrative, the reader would do well to attack this book by “picking her poison,” for the stories are not in chronological order. The various poisons are fitted into a context of social history. Perhaps most remarkable is the casual and ubiquitous use of such poisons in everyday life. Chloroform was used as an anaesthetic, despite its unpredictability. Cyanide was commonly used in fumigants. Mercury was an ingredient in calomel, a prescriptive laxative. Radium was an ingredient in Radithor, a “health” drink. It's an interesting glimpse at pre-FDA life (or death).

Blum's love of chemistry is evident in the verve of her prose. “Cyanide's action is murderously precise. It attaches [to hemoglobin] with stunning speed...” Arsenic's introduction almost feels like name-dropping. Apparently, the Borgias never left home without it! And “Carbon monoxide can be considered as a kind of chemical thug. It suffocates its victims simply by muscling oxygen out of the way.” At times, the chemicals seem more alive than the people.

A secondary narrative is the birth of forensic medicine, which lagged behind European science. The discipline owes its birth in American to two men: Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler. The meticulous and unsettling experiments they performed and their political and legal impact dramatize the transition of the coroner's office from political sinecure (not only were coroners once political appointments, but they worked on commission based on quantity of bodies) to serious forensic investigation.


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