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The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York Hardcover – February 18, 2010
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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.
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More About the Author
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.
Top Customer Reviews
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".Read more ›
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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
An extraordinary book about early forensic science and the amazing people who pursued knowledge at great personal costs. Fascinating, inspiringPublished 15 days ago by Jane A. Kirkpatrick
I received this book as a Christmas gift from my DH, after telling him that it sounded interesting as we watched a documentary that featured the author and subject matter. Read morePublished 21 days ago by JL Olsen
This non fiction book about poisons that ruled mostly in New York city in the 20th century. The poisons included chloroform, wood alcohol, arsenic, mercury, carbon monoxide and... Read morePublished 26 days ago by Amazon Customer
I started reading this book expecting to love it, and ended up just liking it. I'd give it 3.5 stars if that were an option. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Stewart Bushman
I watched the PBS special ams decided k had to read the book. It was fun and engaging. A quick read.Published 1 month ago by Thomas O'Connell
I saw the short film that shared the same name as the book on Netflix. After I watched the film, which was focused on the works of Dr. Charles Norris and Dr. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Amazon Customer
A fascinating view on the history of forensic science, the men who built it, and the murderers who spurred the need. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Kari W.
A great book showing the role of chemistry in forensic science during prohibition. Separate chapters deal with the various poisons.Published 1 month ago by Bob Zuidema