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The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York Paperback – January 25, 2011

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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Exclusive: Author Deborah Blum's Top Ten Poisons

On a recent radio show, I heard myself telling the host "And carbon monoxide is such a good poison.” We both started laughing--there’s just something about a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist waxing enthusiastic about something so lethal. But then he became curious--“Why?” he asked. “Why do you like it so much?”

These days, as I travel the country talking about The Poisoner’s Handbook, I’m frequently asked that question or variations on it. What’s your favorite poison? What’s the perfect poison? The answer to the latter is that it doesn’t exist--except in the plots of crime novels.

But in reality, poisons really are fascinatingly wicked chemical compounds and many of them have fascinating histories as well. Just between us, then, here’s a list of my personal favorites.

1. Carbon Monoxide (really)--It’s so beautifully simple (just two atoms--one of carbon, one of oxygen) and so amazingly efficient a killer. There’s a story I tell in the book about a murder syndicate trying to kill an amazingly resilient victim. They try everything from serving him poison alcohol to running over him with a car. But in the end, it’s carbon monoxide that does him in.

2. Arsenic--This used to be the murderer’s poison of poisons, so commonly used in the early 19th century that it was nicknamed “the inheritance powder”. It’s also the first poison that forensic scientists really figured out how to detect in a corpse. And it stays in the body for centuries, which is why we keep digging up historic figures like Napoleon or U.S. President Zachary Taylor to check their remains for poison.

3. Radium--I love the fact that this rare radioactive element used to be considered good for your health. It was mixed into medicines, face creams, health drinks in the 1920s. People thought of it like a tiny glowing sun that would give them its power. Boy, were they wrong. The two scientists in my book, Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, proved in 1928 that the bones of people exposed to radium became radioactive--and stayed that way for years.

4. Nicotine--This was the first plant poison that scientists learned to detect in a human body. Just an incredible case in which a French aristocrat and her husband decided to kill her brother for money. They actually stewed up tobacco leaves in a barn to brew a nicotine potion. And their amateur chemical experiments inspired a very determined professional chemist to hunt them down.

5. Chloroform--Developed for surgical anesthesia in the 19th century, this rapidly became a favorite tool of home invasion robbers. If you read newspapers around the turn of the 20th century, they’re full of accounts of people who answered a knock on the door, only to be knocked out by a chloroform soaked rag. One woman woke up to find her hair shaved off--undoubtedly sold for the lucrative wig trade.

6. Mercury--In its pure state, mercury appears as a bright silver liquid, which scatters into shiny droplets when touched. No wonder it’s nicknamed quicksilver. People used to drink it as a medicine more than 100 years ago. No, they didn’t drop dead. Those silvery balls just slid right through them. Mercury is much more poisonous if it’s mixed with other chemicals and can be absorbed by the body directly. That’s why methylmercury in fish turns out to be so risky a contaminant.

7. Cyanide--One of the most famous of the homicidal poisons and--in my opinion--not a particularly good choice. Yes, it’s amazingly lethal--a teaspoon of the pure stuff can kill in a few minutes. But it’s a violent and obvious death. In early March, in fact, an Ohio doctor was convicted of murder for putting cyanide in his wife’s vitamin supplements.

8. Aconite--A heart-stoppingly deadly natural poison. It forms in ornamental plants that include the blue-flowering monkshood. The ancient Greeks called it “the queen of poisons” and considered it so evil that they believed that it derived from the saliva of Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the gates of hell.

9. Silver--Swallowing silver nitrate probably won’t kill you but if you do it long enough it will turn you blue. One of my favorite stories (involving a silver bullet) concerns the Famous Blue Man of Barnum and Bailey’s Circus who was analyzed by one of the heroes of my book, Alexander Gettler.

10. Thallium--Agatha Christie put this poison at the heart of one of her creepiest mysteries, The Pale Horse, and I looked at it terms of a murdered family in real life. An element discovered in the 19th century, it’s a perfect homicidal poison--tasteless and odorless--except for one obvious giveaway--the victim’s hair falls out as a result of the poisoning!

Now that I’ve written this list, I realize I could probably name ten more. But I don’t want to scare you.

--Deborah Blum --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Blum's spine-tingling thriller about early 20th-century poisoners, their innovations in undetectable killing methods, and New York City's first medical examiner and toxicologist who documented the telltale signs of poisoning is given a theatrical twist in Coleen Marlo's reading. Her voice is smoky and tinged with humor, irony, and light mocking as she revisits the rudimentary methods of the murder and equally rudimentary science of the Jazz Age. She's an able guide to the science and her voices are pitch-perfect—especially her humorously masculine characterizations of Blum's male subjects. A Penguin Press hardcover (Reviews, Dec. 14). (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (January 25, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 014311882X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143118824
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (285 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #15,723 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Deborah Blum has always considered herself a southerner, although she has no real Southern accent and was born in Illinois (Urbana, 1954). Still, her parents moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana when she was two, and to Athens, Georgia, when she was twelve. And she has always believed that the Southern culture of story-telling had a real influence on the way she uses narrative in writing about science.
After high school, Blum received a journalism degree from the University of Georgia in 1976, with a double minor in anthropology and political science. She worked for two newspapers in Georgia and one in Florida (St. Petersburg Times) before deciding to become a science writer and going to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. A University of Wisconsin fellow, she received her degree in 1982 and moved to California to work for McClatchy newspapers, first in Fresno and then in Sacramento. During her 13 years, at The Sacramento Bee, she won numerous awards for her work, culminating in the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in beat reporting for a series investigating ethical issues in primate research.
The series became her first book, The Monkey Wars (Oxford, 1994), which was named a Library Journal Best Sci-Tech book of the year. Three years later, she published Sex on the Brain: The Biological Differences Between Men and Women (Viking, 1997), which was named a New York Times Notable Book. Her 2002 book, Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection, (Perseus Books) was a finalist for The Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She followed that with Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death (Penguin Press, 2006). Her latest book, The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, will be published in February 2010.
Blum is also the co-editor of a widely used guide to science writing, A Field Guide for Science Writers (Oxford, 2006). She is currently the Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she teaches science journalism, creative-non-fiction, magazine writing and investigative reporting. A past-president of the National Association of Science Writers, she currently serves as the North American board member to the World Federation of Science Journalists. She also sits on the board of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and on the board of trustees for the Society for Society and the Public.

Customer Reviews

One of the most interesting, informative books I have ever read!
Anne Johnson
Into this, she weaves the story of forensic medicine and highlights the work of medical examiner Dr. Charles Norris and NYC's first toxicologist Alexander Gettler.
D. Sorel
This book is of interest to anyone who is interested in the history of crime or science or just wants to read a really entertaining book.
Lionel S. Taylor

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

124 of 136 people found the following review helpful By Lynne E. TOP 100 REVIEWER on December 31, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I love reading about famous crimes, medical oddities, and cases solved by forensics. This book has them all, and is every bit as entertainingly well-written as my old favorite, THE MEDICAL DETECTIVES. by Berton Roueche.

Better yet, the title, THE POISONER'S HANDBOOK, is not just hyperbole. In describing famous New York City crimes committed with poison, the author discusses the chemical makeup, toxic effects, and early-20th-century sources of (1) chloroform, (2) methyl alcohol, (3) cyanide, (4) arsenic, (5) mercury, (6) carbon monoxide, (7) radium, and (8) thallium.

In reading this book, you will probably find that there is a lot you thought you knew but didn't really know about well-known poisons frequently encountered in mystery novels and television shows. Did you think that fast-acting cyanide delivers a "one whiff, you're done" death? Think again! Did you think that only Skid Row bums drank wood alcohol during Prohibition? Not so! Did you know that Marie Curie died of radiation poisoning? Probably, but did you know exactly how radium works in the body to produce aplastic anemia and death?

In reading this book, you will also learn about pioneering forensics efforts that required the grinding up of large samples of brain and organ tissue prior to laboratory testing. (In the early 20th century, testing was done with "wet" chemistry; today it is done with "dry" chemistry that only requires smears for testing.) The testing itself required many time-consuming steps and tricky procedures. Some of the testing involved tissue samples that were retained in room-temperature containers for weeks and months.
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258 of 287 people found the following review helpful By Valentin Rodionov on February 10, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I am a professor of chemistry at a major university, and Deborah Blum's book was an impulse buy for me.
After all, you can't go wrong with a popular science book about forensic toxicology and chemistry, can you?

It appears that this is the first book I regret buying for my Kindle (I am trying to get a refund now).
Most, if not all of the chemistry (and physics) in this book is entirely disconnected from the reality of science. Blum's treatment of poisons, analytical procedures and basic science ranges from simple misstatements, inaccuracies and misunderstandings to statements that are outright wrong. Some of these are listed below:

* The action of mustard chemical warfare agents has nothing to do with "becoming a ferocious form of sulfuric acid". Mustards act through alkylative damage of DNA (and other biomolecules).
* Sodium carbonate is not an acidic chemical.
* HCN is not a "potent acid".
* No additional source of hydrogen is needed to perform a Marsh test for arsenic.
* It is not likely that arsenic compounds will crystallize in the tissues of a poisoning victim.
* The Reinsch test is not a simple color test, as is implied by Blum's description. This is according to Gettler himself: [...]
* Electrical current is not measured in volts.
* Blum's description of radioactive decay, to borrow a phrase from Wolfgang Pauli, "is not even wrong".

This list is by no means comprehensive - these are just some of the many cringe-inducing parts in the book.
Blum spends pages upon pages on this bad science, talking about "ooze", "bubbling mess", "whizzing" elementary particles, "crystals of white arsenic" found in bodies, and "synthetic methyl alcohol called methanol".
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349 of 400 people found the following review helpful By Andrew Charig on October 21, 2010
Format: Hardcover
As I started "The Poisoner's Handbook", I thought this was a great book: a fine history of modern American forensic science, told through a double biography of Norris and Gettler, two of its major founders, and illuminated with engrossing tales of murder, mayhem, and nightmarish misadventure. That thought died as soon as I started to spot the technical explanations that were uninformative, misleading, or downright wrong. Will a dozen examples do?

p. 56: Hydrocyanic acid (HCN) is not a potent acid or corrosive; it is just about the weakest acid known. The fact that it is ferociously toxic has nothing to do with its acidic strength.

p. 22: Chloroform is not terribly corrosive; on keratinized tissue (normal skin) it has no effect at all.

p. 86: You cannot get anything by mixing arsenic (As), copper (Cu) and hydrogen (H2) because the first two are metals and the last is a gas that does not react spontaneously with either of them.

p. 179: Radium (Ra) does not react with water to produce radon (Rn); it produces Rn by atomic decay.

p. 183: Radium (Ra) does not decay to produce polonium (Po) and radon (Rn) - its atomic weight is far less than that of Po and Rn combined so it cannot produce both. It can decay to produce Rn, which then decays to produce Po.

p. 187: Sodium carbonate (Na2CO3) is not slightly acidic; as any highschooler knows, it is moderately basic.

p. 191: There is no such thing as diethyl phlatate. (Did Blum mean diethyl phthalate? Did anyone proofread this book?)

p. 201: Ethanol (EtOH) does not "dissolve" into acetic acid; it is converted to acetic acid by tissue enxymatic activity.

p. 206: DDT is not an organophosphate; it contains no phosphorous at all.
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