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The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York Hardcover – Bargain Price, February 18, 2010

4.5 out of 5 stars 354 customer reviews

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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

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Pulitzer Prize–winning science journalist Blum (Ghost Hunters) makes chemistry come alive in her enthralling account of two forensic pioneers in early 20th-century New York. Blum follows the often unglamorous but monumentally important careers of Dr. Charles Norris, Manhattan's first trained chief medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, its first toxicologist. Moving chronologically from Norris's appointment in 1918 through his death in 1936, Blum cleverly divides her narrative by poison, providing not only a puzzling case for each noxious substance but the ingenious methods devised by the medical examiner's office to detect them. Before the advent of forensic toxicology, which made it possible for the first time to identify poisons in corpses, Gettler learned the telltale signs of everything from cyanide (it leaves a corrosive trail in the digestive system) to the bright pink flush that signals carbon monoxide poisoning. In a particularly illuminating section, Blum examines the dangers of bootleg liquor (commonly known as wood, or methyl, alcohol) produced during Prohibition. With the pacing and rich characterization of a first-rate suspense novelist, Blum makes science accessible and fascinating. (Feb. 22)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The; First Edition edition (February 18, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594202435
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594202438
  • ASIN: B0040RMEF8
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (354 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,111,796 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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