The Poisoner’s Handbook : Murder And The Birth Of Forensic Medicine In Jazz Age New York / Deborah Blum

In this fascinating account of the birth of forensic medicine, science writer Deborah Blum takes the reader back to early-twentieth-century New York.  It is a city with a corrupt government and an inept coroner’s office.  This is at a time when poisonings, intentional and otherwise, were common and usually impossible to detect in autopsied bodies.  The situation began to change in 1918 when Charles Norris was appointed the city’s chief medical officer.  Working with toxicologist Alexander Gettler, Norris would help to establish the discipline of forensic science.  From their laboratory in Bellevue Hospital, they perfected tests for identifying poisons in the human body and spread the tests’ use throughout the country.  The book is a combination chemistry lesson and detective story.  Blum highlights many of Norris and Gettler’s most interesting and challenging cases.  It is not only murders they investigated; they also studied the dangerous compounds found in products like pesticides and cosmetics.  Their tenure took place during Prohibition, when the federal government intentionally poisoned industrial alcohol in an attempt to keep bootleggers from stealing it to use in lethal alcoholic beverages.  This did not stop the thefts and countless people died as a result.  Norris decried the government’s practice and was an early vocal opponent of Prohibition.  What a delicious concoction Blum has created here—equal parts history and science with murder investigations as a chaser.  It is an amazing story and a worthy tribute to forensic detectives Norris and Gettler.

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