The Poisoner’s Handbook Summary and Review

by Deborah Blum
Has The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. In New York’s Jazz Age, there were dangerous chemicals everywhere, on the streets, in the factories, in the home, and even in pharmacies. People were both heedlessly intoxicating themselves, with bootleg alcohol, rubbing lethal substances on to their skin, or making deliberate attempts to get an early inheritance, poison was at everyone's disposal and it was everywhere.  Many of these poisonings, whether they were accidental, or of a murderous intent, were misdiagnosed by the cities bumbling coronors and its incompetent justice system. No one knew much at all about forensic toxicology, or chemistry or even forensics. But this all changed, thanks to two pioneering scientists.  This book summary follows the investigations of the New York City’s first professional medical examiner, Charles Norris and his partner in crime, Alexander Gettler. They looked at the mysterious deaths by poison, while improving and setting standards for forensic toxicology. In this summary you will discover: 
  • Many people would rather risk an early death than go a day without alcohol; 
  • Why science could not convince a jury to give a guilty verdict; 
  • That many beauty products before 1938 could make you bald or even kill you. 

The Poisoner’s Handbook Key Idea #1:Before there was any forensic toxicology, murder was prevelant in New York City.

 We’ve all seen on one of our favorite TV shows, that at some point, someone moves the date of their inheritance forward and poisons their helpless old grandma. In today's world, forensics mean that the plotters never get away with their acts, but this wasn’t always the case.  For quite a long time in New York, murdering someone with poison was a common way to eliminate those people that stood in your way. And because of America’s coroner's systems incompetence, this could be carried out with near impunity! Even though a coroners only job is to determine the cause of someone's death, a report from 1915 revealed that at the time, you didn’t need any medical background or training to become a coroner. This means that often death certificates were completed without any actual effort to find out the cause. Many of the reported causes ranged from ‘Act of God’ to ‘ assault or diabetes. In some cases, the coroner system meant that sentencing was impossible, even when people confessed to poisoning.  An example of this is in the winter of 1915, in Manhattan, Fredric Mors confessed to murdering eight people using chloroform. But, when the coroner stated in error that this couldn’t be true (since he believed that it took longer for chloroform to kill a person than Mors has reported) the prosecutor hesitated to believe the confession.  This is only one example of the ignorance of coroners, many murderers ended up walking free, leaving their crimes unsolved.  Thankfully, the ease in which people could get away with poisoning people came to an end when forensic toxicology - the study of how chemicals affect living organisms became a legitimate science in 1918.  After this weakness in the coroner system attracted public attention, New York City implemented new reforms that elevated forensic toxicology to become a true science and they hired their first trained medical examiner and a chemist who founded the first toxicology laboratory. 

The Poisoner’s Handbook Key Idea #2: Toxicologist Alexander Gettler and Medical Examiner Charles Norris changed forensic toxicology forever. 

The state legislature passed a bill that established a new medical examiner system for New York City after it received negative public attention. It required that the position was to be filled by a qualified forensic scientist - one that had experience in pathology and who was to pass professional tests in order to get the job. The scientist that they hired was Dr. Charles Norris, who would go on to set the forensic standards for the rest of the country. When he was appointed as the new medical examiner in 1918, he had a lot of cleaning up to do. He fought to improve the forensic standards and even spent his own money on equipping his department, this supplemented its low funding.  As well as this, he also developed new rules for handling bodies and this required them to keep files on each case so that each of them could be referenced in court, rather than going off the coroner's memory, as this is what happened in the past.    In addition to this, he also harassed other cities departments in order to make them elevate their forensic standards. For example, he raised attention to the bribery that has caused the police to conceal murders and badgered hospitals to hasten the transport of bodies to the morgue for examination.  As well as this, he hired forensic chemist Alexander Gettler and together they went on to revolutionize forensic toxicology. He was a passionate believer in the power of chemistry, and if a test or research didn’t exist then they would develop one themselves.  An example of this is that he once examined over 700 human organs in order to test the effects of alcohol, discovering that drinking a tumbler of wood alcohol could kill someone within a few hours - a fate that hit many after Prohibition began in 1920.  Together, Norris and Gettler made a wealth of discoveries and tracked innumerable poisons, and in doing so revolutionized forensic toxicology in New York. In the following book summarys you’ll learn more about what they uncovered. Between them, Norris and Gettler made many discoveries and tracked a number of poisons, and while doing this, they revolutionized forensic toxicology in New York. 

The Poisoner’s Handbook Key Idea #3: Investigating two cyanide deaths was complicated but it lead to increased knowledge of forensic toxicology. 

An elderly couple, the Jacksons, were poisoned in a Brooklyn hotel in 1922 and this caused large distress but it also offered a big lesson in toxicology.  The couples lungs contained the deadly poison, cyanide and this was bad news for the hotel management as they had been hiding the fact that the basement was being fumigated at the time of the couples death. In the 1920s, hydrogen cyanide gas was used routinely for pest fumigation and this made it highly likely that the jacksons had been overcome with cyanide gas.  In the trial that followed the incident, the defendants - the fumigator and the manager at the hotel - didn’t deny that fumigation took place. But, they did focus on the fact that there was a lack of scientific evidence put forward by the toxicologist, Gettler and said that cyanide was not detected in the decaying body.  Even though Gettler had inspected the Jacksons’ lungs and had found that there was evidence of cyanide poisoning, toxicology was so new that the jury was at a loss and it proved difficult to educate them as well as convince them.  When the prosecutors then lost the case, Gettler was inspired to do more intense research for longer than a decade and once and for all proved that the defendants had got away with manslaughter.  He published his findings in The Toxicology of Cyanide in 1938 and this text is still referred too by toxicologists and government agencies nearly a century later.  As well as this, the investigation in to the Jacksons death triggered efforts to improve the relationship between medicine and law. The chief medical examiner Norris said that a crusade would force the court to give forensic toxicology the recognition it deserved and it would help set national standards by forming a committee with representatives from other cities across the US. 

The Poisoner’s Handbook Key Idea #4: The detection of arsenic was crucial in the foundation of forensic toxicology,

In the 1920s you couldn’t set foot in a hardware, drug or grocery store without encountering the subtle but lethal arsenic. Rat poison, bug killer, weed killer, and dyes of all sorts contained arsenic in different variations. This, of course, meant that anyone wanting to use the poison for nefarious ends could acquire it both easily and cheaply. Besides its easy availability, arsenic has certain properties that make it an ideal murder weapon. As long as it’s administered in small enough doses, it can easily be slipped into foods or drinks undetected, since it won’t change the appearance or the taste. In the 1920s you could not even set foot in a hardware, grocery or drugstore without encountering the subtle but also lethal arsenic. Rat poison, weed killer, bug killer and many dyes contained different types of arsenic and this meant that anyone who wanted to use the poison for other means meant they could acquire it easily and cheaply.  As well as it’s availability, arsenic also has other properties that make it the ideal murder weapon. Provided that it administered in small doses, it can be put in food or drink and go pretty much undetected as it won’t change the appearance or taste.  Of 820 randomly selected deaths that were caused by arsenic in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, almost half were homicides.  If it was administered gradually, then arsenic proves difficult to detect, this caused doctors to misdiagnose deaths that could be relating to arsenic, claiming they were caused by influence, heart disease, or cholera. As a result of this, it earned the nickname of ‘inheritance powder,’ as people would use it to kill those who stood between them and their share of the family money.  As Arsenic was such a popular murder weapon, learning how to detect it was a hugely important step forward in the field of forensic toxicology and the administration of justice.  Thankfully, there were a variety of reliable tests that were designed to discover arsenic, developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In today's world, arsenic is quite easy to detect, this is because it is a metallic element, meaning it breaks down slowly compared to organic compounds and leaves characteristic lesions in the body.  As well as this, arsenic also mummifies bodies of its victims by slowing down it’s natural decomposition of humans tissues which creates well-preserved corpses!  It is these discoveries that madde poisoning with arsenic a riskier choice for committing murder. However, finding the poison is not the same as finding the killer. 

The Poisoner’s Handbook Key Idea #5: Mercury became a popular way of poisoning because it was available in many commercial products. 

As the industrial innovations were created in the early twentieth century, they brought a flood of risky chemicals into people's everyday lives, and each new chemical created new opportunities for a clever poisoner.  An easily procured, highly toxic metal named Mercury was among these.  Although mercury is acutely dangerous in its purest form, it was again available in a large variety of commercial products and drugs.  Mercury salt, which is named because of its ability to break in to little skittering balls when touched, was sold as an antiseptic, a laxative, bedbug killer, and prescribed for bacterial infections such as syphilis.  Regardless of these uses, mercury is a highly dangerous poison. Our bodies living tissue soaks up the salts and this allows the poison to steadily dissolve our organs in horrifying ways. The stomach can erode and your teeth can loosen in the gums.  This means that mercury is extremely poisonous, but it does not give you a quick death. Gettler came across one case where a woman who had swallowed an entire bottle of mercury tablets suffered two weeks of pain and agony before dying. After a scandal in Hollywood in 1920, the public was finally made aware of the lethal potential of mercury.  A successful actress, Olive Thomas, who had starred in one film after another and was involved in a stormy relationship with a famous actor, Jack Pickford, succumbed to the poison after lingering in hospital for three days. This is because one night after a party, she accidentally swallowed Pickford’s mercury potion (which he used to treat his syphilis sore) instead of her own sleeping medicine.  This was a typical way of dying of mercury poisoning at the time, it is estimated that out of the approximately 20 deaths a year that were caused by mercury poisoning, most were suicides and unfortunate accidents, much like Thomas’s. 

The Poisoner’s Handbook Key Idea #6: Carbon Monoxide proved to be a large killer rather than a benefit to the industry. 

In New York City in 1925, the medical examiner's office counted that 1,272 people had been run over or killed by cars. However, there are more ways to die in a car accident than just being in a head-on collision. Many toxicologists also worry about the chemicals that are released by the engines, for example, carbon monoxide (CO).  Carbon monoxide is found in industrial societies where humans live and work. There are streets that are filled with cars, an increasing reliance on gas stoves or heaters and also the pollution from factories meant that ever living creature who is exposed to city air inhales a steady dose of CO.  This wouldn’t be an issue, but CO is poisonous. Norris estimated that CO itself was responsible for an average of a thousand deaths in New York every year. As there were so many deaths, learning how to detect CO in the body was a crucial way of separating accidents from murders.  A case that was looked in too, involved a man who murdered his victim by forcing a gas tube that was filled with CO into his mouth. The murderer then put the victim in a bathtub and reported that his death was because of drowning. However, the toxicology report proved that the victim's blood was filled with CO and his lungs didn’t contain any water - this was a clear case of murder!However, sometimes the verdict swayed the other way and accidents were mistaken for murders. An example of this is that in 1926, Francesco Travia was caught carrying part of a woman’s body towards the waterfront in New York. Naturally, the detectives suspected her of murder, but the toxicologist, Gettler, proved that the CO gas from Travia’s stove had caused her death.  Travia had panicked and thought that he would be charged with murder, and therefore tried to get rid of the corpse. He ended up serving time for illegally disposing of a body. If it wasn’t for Gettler’s revolutionary methods in detecting CO in the body, Travia would have ended up in the electric chair. This was a hugely important victory in the field as it proved that the sober testimonies of medical experts played a vital role in the courtroom. 

The Poisoner’s Handbook Key Idea #7: Wood Alcohol was the best poison available and this lead to a public health crisis. 

In the United states in the 1920s, prohibition became the law in the United States and alcohol was banned, this was in the hope of ending drinking. But it soon was clear that rather than obeying the law, people were drinking more than before and even more recklessly.  This disregard for the law was made possible by an illegal alcohol trade that flourished on stolen alcohol. From 1906, the government set a requirement that all manufacturers of poison or ‘denature’ their industrial alcohol if they wanted to avoid paying liquor taxes. By the time it was 1920, manufacturers added a number of poisons in order to achieve this, the simplest of these was methyl, or wood alcohol. Bootleggers, which were illegal alcohol suppliers, recruited chemists in order to help them clean their alcohol and keep it safe by filtering out poisonous additives. In order to stop this, the government decided to make drinking industrial alcohol riskier, they did this by adding a larger amount of wood alcohol in to their spirits. This then made the already complicated process even deadlier and difficult to class as safe. The idea behind this was that they thought if people wanted to break the law, then the government would have to make the alcohol contain even better poisons and this made it unrescuable, and therefore undrinkable. But of course, making the alcohol more dangerous didn’t stop people from drinking it and a lot of people were blinded or killed.  In 1926, the consumption of this strength of alcohol meant that around 1,200 people became ill or blind and 400 deaths in New York were caused by this. This exceeded the number of deaths that were caused by alcohol before the prohibition. Medical examiner, Norris was distraught by the number of alcohol-related health problems, and delivered a report to the mayor of New York, describing this as a public health crisis from prohibition. His results sparked a debate amongst the public and it also led to many of the newspapers saying that the federal government was a ‘mass poisoner’ and that they should be charged with the moral responsibility of these deaths. 

The Poisoner’s Handbook Key Idea #8: Ethyl Alcohol was the largest cause of deaths and diseases. 

Prohibition caused many deaths from the government's mixture of alcohol, however, there was also a great deal of deaths that were caused by drinking everyday, normal alcohol, ethyl alcohol. This alcohol has caused more deaths and illnesses than any other poison and it’s consumption escalated during the period of Prohibition. But as you will know, destructive behavior, death and sickness that came from overconsuming ethyl alcohol, was the cause of the Prohibition. However, Prohibition proved counterproductive – now that alcohol was illegal, people drank just to get drunk, causing heavier and more rapid consumption of ethyl alcohol. In 1930, deaths due to alcoholism were 600 percent higher than they were in 1920, when alcohol had just been prohibited. These numbers indicate that Prohibition helped foster a culture of heavy drinking in the United States. The increasing threat posed by ethyl alcohol prompted chemists to research its exact effects on the brain and body, and escalating rates of alcoholism during the Prohibition period offered a great wealth of material for building a scientific understanding of alcohol intoxication. Now that alcohol had been made illegal, people drank to get drunk and there was more of a heavy and rapid consumption of ethyl alcohol - making the Prohibition counterproductive.  In 1930, the deaths that were caused by alcohol were 600 percent higher than they were in 1920, and this was when alcohol was prohibited. This shows that Prohibition helped create a heavy drinking culture in the United States. The heightened threats posed by ethyl alcohol prompted chemists to research the effects that it was having on the brain and the body and the rising rates of alcoholism during Prohibition gave scientists a huge amount of material to build a scientific understanding of alcohol intoxication. Alcohol-related deaths happened every day, this left chemists with a myriad of test subjects that they could use. In this time, toxicologist Gettler decided that he would investigate the effects that ethyl alcohol has on the brain and body. After he had conducted tests on around 6,000 brains and five years of research, he discovered that the degree of intoxication correlated with alcohol levels in the blood and in the brain, this lead him to consider the first scientific intoxication grading method. As well as this, Gettler performed separate tests that used dogs as the test subjects and this showed how the body of a habitual drinker adjusts to alcohol consumption, becoming more efficient at metabolizing ethyl alcohol - no one developed actual immunity.

THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK KEY IDEA #9:Many years of research determined that Radium was a killer as well as a saviour.

In World War I, people had discovered that they were able to make their watch faces glow in the dark by mixing in radium to the paint that they use on their dials. This then made the watches more suited for battlefields. The young workers in the factories who also painted their watch dials luminous were then known as the Radium Girls. In order to help them apply the paint, they would wet the tips of their brushes with their mouths to get them into a sharp point. At this time, no one had any idea that this was a highly reactive element, they thought it was healthy and healing. During the start of the twentieth century, radium was considered to be a miracle cure and ‘radium therapy’ was used by hospitals to try and shrink cancer tumors. As well as this, radium water was considered to have energizing effects, and radium facial creams and powders promised rejuvenation. Little did they know, radium is actually extremely harmful and unlike traditional poisons such as arsenic, which poisons in one direct dose, radium exposure inflicts a lifetime of harm on people.  After a couple of years, the Radium girls gradually began dying in horrible and mysterious ways - their jaws crumbled and their bones broke from under them. By 1924 nine of the girls had died. But luckily, an investigation into their deaths showed that the danger of radium exposure for humans.  In 1928, Norris and Geller were brought in to look at one of the young women who had died in 1923. When doing this, they extracted pieces of her bones and wrapped them in photographic paper to see whether or not they were radioactive. As suspected, this method showed that each piece of the bone was still emitting rays five years later.Their reports were published, but it was more than 20 years before the dangers of radium would be fully understood by members of the public.  

THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK KEY IDEA #10: Using Thallium in Cosmetics lead to many deaths. 

There was a time in history that it appeared as though modern society was addicted to poisons because of their presence in everyday products. It took until 1935 for legislation proposed requirements to safety test before a product was introduced on the American market. Before this, manufacturers and companies didn’t have to consider providing customers with simple information about the ingredients of products such as household cleaners, medicine or cosmetics. One substantially poisonous ingredient that was used in these products was the metallic element, thallium. Not only that, but it was also used in industrial products and rodent poisons, as well as depilatory creams which were used widely in the Jazz Age. These creams did do what they say, removing hair, however, it was a bit too thoroughly. Thallium was supposedly harmless in small doses, however, creams that contained it were making women go bald and blind after applying small amounts to their faces.  As well as this, there was a lack of government regulation and this meant that thallium could also be used as a murder weapon.  Thallium was a well-suited poison, it’s symptoms included vomiting, nausea, trembling and shortness of breath. This meant that it could be easily mistaken for an infectious disease. As well as this, it could also be easily mixed into liquids and is tasteless, colorless and odorless.  At one point in his career, Gettler was involved in a difficult case of thallium poisoning. In 1935, a bookkeeper whose name was Gross, and he was accused of killing his family by mixing thallium in to their cocoa powder.  In his investigations, Gettler found that it would only need a single ounce of thallium salt to quickly kill anyone. But, he also found that it wasn’t Gross who had killed his children, it was his wife who had killed the children, before coincidentally dying of natural causes. The reason she had done this was because she wanted to end her marriage with Gross. Even though these cosmetic ingredients were proved to be poisonous, the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act didn’t make testing and labeling a legal requirement for manufacturers until 1938. 

The Poisoner’s Handbook Book Summary

The key message in this book: Both Norris and Gettler worked incredibly hard to develop the forensic tools that they each needed for criminal investigations. They developed groundbreaking ways of detecting many poisons and improving medicolegal standards.