Science Writer Deborah Blum’s Book Teaches us About the Chemistry of Poisons.
In “The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York,” Deborah Blum tells the intricate and compelling true story of how, starting in 1915, New York chief medical examiner, Charles Norris, and toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, established the authoritative and reliable field that forensic medicine is today. By carefully selecting detailed court cases and news reports, Blum deftly explains the political and social intrigue, as well as the science, a world in which doctors are hard-pressed to tell the difference between a death caused by influenza and a death caused by criminal arsenic poisoning.
From the very beginning, Blum adopts a heroic tone in order to tell the tale of how forensic medicine came to be: “Together, Norris and Gettler elevated forensic chemistry in this country to a formidable science.” This will appeal to readers who are interested in the murder-mystery aspect of Norris and Gettler’s story.
Unfortunately, the mounting tension she creates never reaches the triumphant climax for which she sets the reader up. There is no “final court case” to end all court cases. In her defence, finding a sudden and irrevocable moment of glory in a country where even the government participates in the regular poisoning of its citizens by adding lethal chemicals to the industrial alcohol used by bootleggers to make prohibition-era booze might be too great of a task.
In fact, one of the last court cases Blum mentions, the Creighton case, is much more bittersweet than it is victorious. Mary Frances Creighton had been erroneously found not guilty of poisoning her brother because of a testimony Gettler had given. Twelve years later, she was, once again, charged with murder, but this second time around she is accused of killing the wife of her fifteen-year-old daughter’s boyfriend. Acknowledging his initial defeat, Gettler does not let her get away again. Ending with this particular case is both a demonstration of the book’s strengths and weaknesses, as Blum forgoes the classic crime-fighter ending by choosing not to venture beyond the limits of non-fiction in order to give the reader what he or she wants. Rather, Blum uses this bittersweet moment to illustrate the tremendous amount of work both Norris and Gettler achieved in their time at Bellevue Hospital in advancing science and the public’s perception thereof.
She writes: “During Creighton’s first trial for the death of her brother, defense attorneys had been able to mock the prosecution’s scientific evidence. By the time of her second trial, defense attorneys were complaining that the city lab’s reputation was too strong, and that Gettler was so well respected that jurors tended to accept whatever he said.” Indeed, at the time of Norris’ appointment as medical examiner, forensic techniques existed, but they were unreliable and lacked the credibility necessary to send a murderer to jail. Science and its practical applications were poorly understood, as they still belonged to the world of the wealthy hobbyist.
In addition, Norris was the first medical examiner to be appointed on a merit-basis. Previous New York medical examiners had been elected officials, often friends of politicians, that had had no previous scientific training, and who were known to engage in less than ethical activities, such as billing the city for examining the same drowning victim over a dozen times.
By focusing not only on the intrigue inherent in a murder trial but also on the politics of a governmental position, Blum gives the reader a much more complete and accurate view of what it was like to be a scientist between 1915 and 1936. The intrigue, however, does not disappoint.
Blum has the uncanny ability to bifurcate several times into a number of murder plots, while still retaining the initial narrative thread. The organization of the book, where each chapter deals with a specific chemical or poison, is a masterful way of organizing potentially confusing overlapping murder trials, forensic examinations, and experiments.
She tells the stories of methyl and ethyl alcohol’s role in prohibition, the eventual banning of tetraethyl lead-laced gasoline, the radium-tonic fad, and, of course, of murders by chloroform and cyanide, just to name a few.
When Blum writes: “…People who chugged ethyl alcohol often didn’t live long enough to develop the signs of chronic liver destruction. Their autopsies revealed a different damage: the stomach and esophagus were a deep, irritated red; tiny blooms of blood patterned the mucous lining of the stomach; the brain was bruised-looking and flushed with excess blood”, one discovers a whole new meaning to the question “What’s your poison?”
Each story is more intriguing, surprising and pleasantly infuriating than the next, making the book very hard to put down and, somehow, through all these stories, Blum also does what every high school chemistry teacher wishes they could do: she makes chemistry captivating.
Throughout the book, Blum inserts colourful descriptions of molecules such as this one “…phosphorus hangs on to the [cresol] ring like an exhausted swimmer gripping a life preserver”. Thus, she makes the often-misunderstood science that is chemistry accessible to the lay-person, truly earning the “popular science” genre title with which this book is associated.
“The Poisoner’s Handbook” is a thrilling scientific detective story where the main characters battle both social and political ills in a quest to improve a field whose previous representatives had been found wanting. In this book, Blum, a seasoned science writer, demonstrates her talent for breaking down complex scientific concepts in a comprehensible way. Combined with a powerful narrative thread, she keeps her audience’s attention long enough for them to gain a deeper understanding of the topic at hand. Although the ending falls a bit flat, the excitement she conveys to the reader throughout the book more than makes up for it. “The Poisoner’s Handbook” is a pleasure to read, and a worthy addition to anyone’s collection.