The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York Reprint Edition, Kindle Edition
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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.
--Deborah Blum --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
- ASIN : B004P1JDM6
- Publisher : Penguin Books; Reprint edition (January 25, 2011)
- Publication date : January 25, 2011
- Language : English
- File size : 1553 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Not Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 338 pages
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #100,476 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
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The title "Poisoner's Handbook" belies the book's true focus, the two amazing men at the center of each of the public histories of the poisons Blum writes about: chloroform, arsenic, cyanide, mercury, carbon monoxide, radium, ethyl and methyl alcohols, and thallium.
Charles Norris, first Chief Medical Examiner of NYC, and his chief toxicologist, Alexander Gettler were, according to Blum, almost solely responsible for modernizing forensic science in the United States. Before Norris' appointment, the office of coroner required no medical training, and death certificates were often incomplete or falsified for bribes if they were filled out at all. Norris and Gettler spent their careers making forensics a rigorous study, and as if that weren't enough, were hugely influential crusaders for regulation of toxic substances, and for the repeal of Prohibition, which engendered a slew of deadly bootleg concoctions, including the industrial wood grain alcohol that the government endeavored to make more poisonous than it already was, knowing that it would be imbibed by prohibition breakers.
Although the writing was snappy and fast-faced, Blum had little work to do to create drama; Norris and Gettler's heroic efforts to identify the effects of these poisons on the body in many cases for the very first time, and the huge failure that was the Prohibition largely did her work for her. I was riveted. I'm not sure why there isn't yet a forensic TV drama about the two men and the poisons they studied.
Blum’s book is easy to read (though it assumes an intelligent reader), the chemistry is never overwhelming, and the two gentlemen that she chose to follow throughout the chemical boom of the Roaring 20’s led fascinating jobs filled with mystery, murder, death, ground brains and Bunsen burners. And at under 300 pages, it is just the right length.
I often use non-fiction books such as this to cleanse my palate (as it were) if I’ve had a bit too much fantasy and SciFi. This book did the trick.
Also, reading the anecdotes in this book makes me want to quit my job and write murder mysteries because there are just so many sneaky ways of killing people! Fortunately, all y’all are safe - I very nearly failed junior Chemistry in high school, and sometimes, even measuring out teaspoons of coffee grounds in too much chemistry for me. I guess I’ll need to hire an evil genius assistant...
The book is not just about crime or homicidal maniacs who use poison as their weapon of choice. It is also about changing technologies, corporate greed, and egregious misuse of chemical compounds that borders on being comical to the modern reader. (Radium health tonics. Blearghhh.)
The book is well written (the crisp, non-academic writing is very refreshing - unlike the radium health tonics) and does not get overly bogged down in scientific terms. The author provides enough medical and scientific background to be relevant, but she presents it in layman's terms. I love reading about the periodic table, but since I am not a scientist, I find that sometimes I get lost when there is too much detail. That is not the case here. I highly recommend this book.