The Poisoner’s Handbook

Blurb: Deborah Blum, writing with the high style and skill for suspense that is characteristic of the very best mystery fiction, shares the untold story of how poison rocked Jazz Age New York City. In The Poisoner’s Handbook Blum draws from highly original research to track the fascinating, perilous days when a pair of forensic scientists began their trailblazing chemical detective work, fighting to end an era when untraceable poisons offered an easy path to the perfect crime. 

Drama unfolds case by case as the heroes of The Poisoner’s Handbook—chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler—investigate a family mysteriously stricken bald, Barnum and Bailey’s Famous Blue Man, factory workers with crumbling bones, a diner serving poisoned pies, and many others. Each case presents a deadly new puzzle and Norris and Gettler work with a creativity that rivals that of the most imaginative murderer, creating revolutionary experiments to tease out even the wiliest compounds from human tissue. Yet in the tricky game of toxins, even science can’t always be trusted, as proven when one of Gettler’s experiments erroneously sets free a suburban housewife later nicknamed “America’s Lucretia Borgia” to continue her nefarious work. 

From the vantage of Norris and Gettler’s laboratory in the infamous Bellevue Hospital it becomes clear that killers aren’t the only toxic threat to New Yorkers. Modern life has created a kind of poison playground, and danger lurks around every corner. Automobiles choke the city streets with carbon monoxide; potent compounds, such as morphine, can be found on store shelves in products ranging from pesticides to cosmetics. Prohibition incites a chemist’s war between bootleggers and government chemists while in Gotham’s crowded speakeasies each round of cocktails becomes a game of Russian roulette. Norris and Gettler triumph over seemingly unbeatable odds to become the pioneers of forensic chemistry and the gatekeepers of justice during a remarkably deadly time. A beguiling concoction that is equal parts true crime, twentieth-century history, and science thriller, The Poisoner’s Handbook is a page-turning account of a forgotten New York. 

The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum was engrossing. I love reading interesting parts of history and this is a lesser-known but fascinating bit. We’ve all heard stories about some of the ingredients we used to have in products but reading about how prevalent it was, and how government/business sometimes disregarded the danger, was eye-opening. It’s made me look at today’s world with more open eyes, too. Whether it be vaccines, sunscreen, vitamins, corn syrup – we would do well to be informed and not blindly trusting. Though I also believe in using discernment and not going overboard either. I also learned a lot more about prohibition and I can see how some people might correlate prohibition with the marijuana debate. I’ll be mulling all of that over for a long while.

There are many critical reviews online that dislike the science as explained in the book. Science is not one of my fortes – plus I was interested in the stories, not the chemistry details. So I have absolutely no idea on the matter. With so many complaints, I’d assume there’s truth in the scientific inaccuracy; it’s just not something I cared about.

One other dorky aside: it tickled me a little too much that the chief medical examiner’s name was Charles Norris. It made me want to make a bunch of Chuck Norris memes involving forensic science. 😉

A caveat: the tests the doctors used were… icky (gory details plus a lot of animal testing). As were the details of what some of these poisons do to a person. (I had no idea how nasty mustard gas is – no wonder chemical weapons are banned!) I tended to skim those parts. I can be very sensitive to certain content but this book didn’t bother me as long as I flew past those parts and didn’t think about them. As the book itself points out, this was in the days before dry chemistry – no drops of blood or strands of hair testing here. Frankly, this just made me respect those doctors all the more.

All in all, a recommended read! 🙂  And it gave me some food for thought on one of my works in progress!
How important is scientific accuracy to you when reading historical nonfiction?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

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