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

April 3, 2010 at 1:34 am (Book review, books)

What a terrific idea for a book!

In The Poisoner’s Handbook, Deborah Blum chronicles the transformation of the New York City coroner’s office from a den of slovenly corruption to world class investigative organization. This dramatic change was effected primarily through the efforts of two men: chief medical examiner Charles Norris and forensic toxicologist (and brilliant chemist) Alexander Gettler.

Most of the events described in this book take place during Prohibition. I was astonished by Blum’s revelations about this era in American history. Illegal alcohol flowing like a river in full spate! The incidence of alcoholism rising to new heights! The government deliberately poisoning illegal alcohol and folks drinking it anyway and being blinded and/ or killed as a result!

Then there’s the story of the U.S. Radium Corporation‘s factory, where watch dials were made with paint specially formulated to glow in the dark. The young women who worked there were taught to shape the paint brushes with their lips, so that the tips were sharp enough to do fine work.  (This plant, which opened in 1917 and closed ten years later, was located in Orange, New Jersey. Though I was born there – in 1944 – I had never heard of U.S. Radium until I encountered it in this book – not at all a pleasant encounter, as you’ll find if  you read it.)

The mind boggles… it’s a classic case of truth being stranger than fiction – far stranger. Blum here recounts some astonishing tales of true crime. And there are other, even more poignant stories of ordinary people driven by desperation to do terrible things:

‘In his annual report, issued that spring [of 1931], Charles Norris announced that New York City had reached a new high in violent deaths the previous year–6,525 across the five boroughs, driven by the leaping suicides that followed the economy’s downward spiral. Self-terminations totaled 1,471, an average of three deaths per day. That meant that nearly one fourth of the city’s violent deaths could be attributed to despair.

Click here for the review posted on NPR, plus an excerpt from The Poisoner’s Handbook.

Deborah Blum


  1. Martin Edwards said,

    This sounds truly fascinating.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Oh, believe me – it is!

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