43 pages 1 hour read

Deborah Blum

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2010

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The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York is a 2010 non-fiction book by science writer Deborah Blum. This guide follows the first edition of the book. In The Poisoner’s Handbook, Blum explores how Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler laid the foundations for the modern field of forensic science in New York in the 1920s. Through Norris and Gettler’s stories, Blum also narrates a number of important social and historical events, such as Prohibition and the proliferation of industrial chemicals in consumer products.

The Poisoner’s Handbook is structured such that each chapter focuses on a different type of chemical, exploring the chemical’s properties and its various uses, whether as a commercial product or as a poison. In the Prologue and Chapter 1, Blum discusses the history of chemistry as it pertains to identifying poisons. For centuries, poisons were a popular means of committing murder due to the inability to detect them in a corpse. After chemists discover chemical elements in the 19th century, scientists begin to devise methods for identifying the presence of poisons. However, this science remained poorly understood for decades, with little systematic understanding of how poisons affected a human body. Chapter 1 focuses on how this lack of information could lead to murderers avoiding prison time, as in the case of Frederick Mors, who poisoned elderly patients with chloroform.

In 1917, Charles Norris was appointed as New York’s first chief medical examiner, a newly devised position meant to replace New York’s prior system of corrupt coroners. Norris initiated several reforms with the goal of bringing about better cooperation between the police and medical examiner’s office. Norris hired Alexander Gettler to serve as his chemist and charged Gettler with running the newly created forensic toxicology laboratory—the first of its kind in the nation.

As forensic science was still a bourgeoning field, Gettler was tasked with inventing many of the discipline’s methods. In his laboratory, Gettler devised tests for identifying a poison in a cadaver that detected the smallest amount of poison possible. He also undertook comprehensive studies of poisons, investigating how they infiltrated the body, what harm they did to internal organs, and how long they could be detected after death. Though Gettler was often called upon to provide expert analysis in criminal trials, the defense team would often attack Gettler’s testimony by claiming that the science was poorly understood and full of flaws. Such attacks convinced Gettler and Norris of the necessity of publicly advocating for forensic science as a legitimate science and creating a set of standard protocols for scientists to follow.

Chapters 2 through 11 of The Poisoner’s Handbook each describe a different poison that Gettler had to analyze in relation to a high-profile murder investigation. In many cases, Getter’s analysis helped to provide crucial evidence for identifying the murderer. One such instance was the investigation of the murder of Leah Freindlich, discussed in Chapter 6. Gettler’s autopsy reveals that Freindlich could not have died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning, leading police to realize that she had been murdered by her husband, Harry.

At the same time, Gettler’s analysis could also help to exonerate innocent individuals. Chapter 5 discusses how Gettler proved that Charles Webb could not have poisoned his newlywed wife with mercury. Such cases helped prove the usefulness of forensic analysis to both the police and the public. By the time of Charles Norris’s death in 1935, forensic science had become widely accepted as a necessary tool for investigating murders. Blum argues that such acceptance was only due to the work and determination of Norris and Gettler.

As Blum narrates the rise of forensic science in the 1920s, she also tells the story of Prohibition in America. The law was originally passed in response to the campaigning of temperance advocates, who saw liquor and drunkenness as a social evil. Blum describes how Prohibition had the opposite of its intended effect, leading numerous drinkers to consume illegal and often toxic hard liquor. Norris’s role as chief medical examiner allowed him to witness first-hand the number of New Yorkers dying as a result of Prohibition, and he became an outspoken critic of the law. More and more Americans began to see Prohibition as a failure, and the law was eventually repealed with the passing of the 21st Amendment in 1933.  

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By Deborah Blum