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The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison

38 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0641823893
ISBN-10: 0641823894
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Emsley (Vanity, Vitality, and Virility: The Science Behind the Products You Love to Buy) hits a bull's eye in this fascinating, wonderfully readable forensic history of five deadly chemicals (mercury, arsenic, antimony, lead and thallium) and their starring role in that most intoxicating drama of pure evil: murder. A deeply knowledgeable chemist (he's science writer in residence at Cambridge University) with a gift for making accessible the dry and bewilderingly arcane, Emsley's at his best in case studies of infamous poisoners and their victims. During the reign of James I of England, for instance, the poet Thomas Overbury, having fallen out of royal favor, was administered three fatal doses of mercury, only to survive. For his stubbornness he was administered a fourth dose—by enema—and finally succumbed. Mary Bateman, the "Yorkshire Witch," was equally unlucky. Convicted in 1809 of poisoning a client, Mary was hanged and her corpse skinned so pieces could be sold as charms. Not all the incidents are in the past: Emsley also discusses contemporary environmental poisoning from mercury and Saddam Hussein's use of thallium sulfate on his enemies. Fanatical devotees of the macabre might thumb past sections devoted to less sensational history. But the general reader will not be disappointed: each of these deadly toxins was at one time or another promoted for its unique health or beauty benefits. 15 b&w illus. (June)
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From Booklist

Readers seduced by this book's provocative title into expecting a spicy catalog of murder and mayhem may be a bit disappointed by its somewhat dry and technical tone. The author, a veteran science writer, certainly knows his stuff, but he may have slightly overestimated his audience's tolerance for discussions of chemical formulas. Still, for the patient reader, there is a wealth of intriguing information here. Emsley traces the evolution of alchemy and explains the central role that the quest to turn metal into gold plays in the history of poison, pausing along the way to note that Isaac Newton's obsession with alchemy may have contributed to his madness. Later chapters discuss the history, uses, and murderous abuses of mercury, arsenic, antimony, lead, and thallium. Yes, it's technical, but just keep plodding: it's not all formulas. Emsley retells enough juicy and lurid (and sometimes famous) stories of murder by poison to enthrall both true-crime fans and budding mystery writers. David Pitt
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 436 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (July 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0641823894
  • ISBN-13: 978-0641823893
  • ASIN: 0192805991
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 1.7 x 5.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,374,473 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

48 of 49 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on June 20, 2005
Format: Hardcover
We are mere bundles of chemicals, most of which are shuttled back and forth with astonishing speed, accuracy, and efficiency. It is so fine-tuned a system that it is not hard to find chemicals that will make it all go wrong. Some of these chemicals are so basic as to be the very elements of the universe around us, and in _The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison_ (Oxford University Press), John Emsley has given us a chemistry text dressed in the entertaining garb of famous poisoning cases in history and in popular culture. Chemistry is often presented as neither exciting nor fun, but Emsley (whose most recent book was an entertaining history of phosphorus) knows that even a big book on the big five elements (arsenic, antimony, lead, mercury, and thallium) is going to be attractive reading for many of us, if the elements are connected with lethality. The publisher, staid old Oxford, knows it, too, and has dressed the book with a lurid picture of a fearsome bearded man holding a small bottle with a skull and crossbones on it. Students of the physical sciences: prepare for a bit of morbid fun.

The alchemists developed poisons, but mostly set about poisoning themselves. Newton's hair, for instance, has been analyzed, and it had greatly elevated levels of mercury, lead, arsenic, and antimony; he often tried to volatilize compounds of these, and could not help breathing them in. He did live to be 84, and was certainly productive, but he was an unpleasant and paranoid man; to what extent the poisons (especially mercury) addled his brain we will never know. Hatters (as in "mad as a hatter") were famously subject to the derangement mercury brought since they used mercury nitrate to make felt. Another career field that had a surprising danger from mercury: detective work.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Crocker on August 28, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Professor John Emsley is my favorite guide to the world of chemistry and I look forward to every book that bears his good name. The Elements Of Murder was no exception and I ordered it long before it came out. I wanted to give it a 5 star rating even before I read it, but I must give it a 4 star rating after a thorough reading. Professor Emsley has authored many books: The Elements and Nature's Building Blocks are references [for professional and layperson respectively], Molecules at an Exhibition is a collection of essays, and The 13th Element takes on a single subject [phosphorus]. Vanity, Vitality, and Virility, his previous book, seems to be the model for The Elements of Murder. In Vanity, Vitality, and Virility, Emsley takes on multiple chemical subjects in short vignettes, has an introduction and postscript, and includes a glossary. The problem I have with The Elements of Murder involves what it is missing: there is no postscript or epilogue. I enjoyed the stories of death and murder involving the elements mercury, arsenic, antimony, lead, and thallium. I enjoyed the short tales of other poisonous elements in the last chapter. I also felt that the book ended rather abruptly. I still recommend this book to anyone with an interest in chemistry [especially chemistry and history], but I hope that when it comes out in paperback [or in the later hardback printings] that some kind of conclusion is added to the book.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By E. A. Lovitt HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on June 10, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The poisonous elements spotlighted in this book--mercury, arsenic, antimony, lead, and thallium--also served as medications for most of recorded history. It is amazing what people would concoct and swallow to cure constipation, including mercury laxatives and antimony `perpetual pills' that passed through the gut and irritated it into expelling its contents. These pills could be washed off and recycled. In fact, "there are reports that such pills were highly effective and passed from generation to generation."

"The Elements of Murder" makes it clear that it was sometimes impossible to determine whether a victim was poisoned by his enemies or his doctors.

The author, John Emsley is both a chemist and an award-winning science writer. He chronicles the characteristics of each element with a magisterial British presence that eludes many American science writers, who sometimes place a heavy reliance on adjectives. Emsley goes for the telling anecdote. The insanity of men slowly poisoned by lead is revealed in a list of items they stored in a lifeboat: "button polish, silk handkerchiefs, curtain rods, and a portable writing desk." The largest mass poisoning by arsenic was actually funded by UNICEF in an effort to provide clean drinking water to the people of West Bengal, India and Bangladesh.

Although the stories of individual poisoners and their victims are interesting, the author's investigations into the wholesale slaughter of people by insidious, omnipresent elements in their environment are equally compelling. Were both the Roman AND British Empires brought low by lead?

Read "The Elements of Murder" and decide for yourself.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Aimee Thor on October 17, 2005
Format: Hardcover
John Emsley made chemistry 101 come alive in this book! I was never good at chemistry but have had a fascination with the mysteries of certain toxic elements that occur in nature. The book weaves lurid, shocking, and even comical tales of the use and abuse of such elements as arsenic, mercury, antimony, and thallium. I couldn't put this book and finished it in a couple of days! It is absolutely great and one that I highly recommend to anyone interested in science and true crime-this book is the perfect blend of both genres. Truly a great read!
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