Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum

I'm getting ready to talk about this book to fellow associates at work tomorrow (Thursday).  It's one of the few books I've reread; plus I bought the PBS DVD and have watched that twice.  My fascination with the many ways people die is a strange part of my personality that I just can't deny.  Forensics have always interested me, and this book is a sure hit for anyone who is a fan of chemistry, medicine, forensics,  true crime, and the history of New York City.

Dr. Charles Norris was appointed the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City in 1918, following an outcry from the legislative bodies of the state of New York.  Too many people were being murdered by poisons, and the coroners were complete incompetents.  Usually coroners were undertakers, barkeeps, lawyers, disbarred doctors, and sometimes even shopkeepers.  They took bribes from any and all, altered death certificates, and often times showed up drunk to a crime scene.  There was no procedure, and toxicology was not practiced.  It was quite easy to get away with murder in New York City.  

Dr. Norris was a different bird.  A wealthy and brilliant doctor with high standards, he hired Alexander Gettler as his chief toxicologist, and began the process of building a forensic department in New York City.  These two men were quite simply willing to go to great lengths to prove a cause of death.  Dr. Norris demanded standards for death scenes, taught police the proper protocol for crime scenes, and refused to play the bribe game. Gettler devoted his life to developing tests to accurately measure different poisons in the body, and what these poisons did to people.  His testimony at trials often times was the deciding factor in sending someone to the electric chair, or sparing an innocent life.  

Each chapter is about a different poison:  wood alcohol, carbon monoxide, arsenic, thallium, radiation.  A big portion of the book discusses the disaster of prohibition, and the increase in alcohol deaths that ravaged the city of New York.  The stuff people drank to get a buzz was truly horrifying, with equally horrifying results.  

I love this book.  It was first published in 2010 and I could swear I published a review on it years ago--but no luck finding it on my blog.  This would make an excellent Father's Day gift for your favorite history buff or armchair detective.  Or who knows?  Give it to a budding young scientist and you never know--she may become a toxicologist.  

Available in paperback, audio, and e-book format.  You can also buy the DVD from PBS or your local bookstore.  I bought mine from Barnes and Noble.  

Rating:  9/10 for an excellent science book that is neither boring or slow.  It will keep you turning the pages, cheering on Norris and Gettler.  Almost 100 years after the founding of the New York Medical Examiner's Office, look how far we've come, thanks to these two pioneers.  


  1. Hi Sue.....I read this a while ago.. It was a GREAT read. I took it to one of my doctor visits at Mayo and was up in the cafeteria and a gentlemen next to me commented on the book. I told him....no I wasn't planning on poisoning anyone! He laughed.
    But he asked me where he could get a copy.....LOL LOL