The Poisoner's Handbook
Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
by Deborah Blum
This nonfiction book covers a two decade period in history (1915-1936) when forensic knowledge increased dramatically. During this time the police realized that with the right information a killer could be convicted using only forensic evidence. Before that revelation most poisoning deaths went unpunished because there was no way to prove how the person had been killed.
One of the main players in this process was a toxicologist named Alexander Gettler. He’s often called the “Father of forensic toxicology” because of his work during this time. He was instrumental in the conviction of many killers and the exoneration of a few individuals who were wrongly convicted.
The book covers different poisons in each chapter including cyanide, radium and arsenic. Some deaths were intentional murders, others were caused by environmental sources, but with the increased knowledge what caused the deaths, the same situation could be avoided in the future.
I read this while re-reading The Great Gatsby and it was perfect timing. Both books are set during the Jazz Age and I loved learning more about what was happening in the real world during the time period.
A Few Fascinating Bits:
- Polonium was named after Poland, the country of Marie Curie who discovered it.
- The famous picture of a woman being electrocuted is of Ruth Snyder. She is the same woman whose crime (her husband’s murder) inspired the famous novels James M. Cain novels Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.
- The government added ridiculous things to alcohol during prohibition to discourage drinking. The result was the blinding, paralyzing or death of so many people who drank it anyway.
BOTTOM LINE: This one has all my favorite elements in a nonfiction read. It was interesting, filled with interesting stories and examples, filled with anecdotes and well-researched historical facts, etc. I really enjoyed learning more about the development of forensic science.
Image of Alexander Gettler's laboratory from here.