Science And Crime Mix In 'The Poisoner's Handbook'

In her book The Poisoner's Handbookwriter Deborah Blum catalogs the myriad poisons that took the lives of Jazz Age New Yorkers. Part history, part chemistry, part crime novel, the book also chronicles the evolution of forensic medicine in the early 20th century.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Now, changing gears. Poison, murder and forensic investigation, and it's not "CSI" but a precursor to "CSI" in the early 20th-century New York City.

Back then, a lot of people were dying, it seems, of poisoning. Poison was a good way to knock someone off back them because the police really didn't have the tools to test a corpse for poisoning like we see on TV and "CSI" and all those things they have.

They didn't have them then. So if your Uncle Harry was hanging around a little too long, spending your inheritance, you might take it upon yourself to slip a little arsenic in his oatmeal. The poison was easy to get it. It was hard to detect. You had arsenic and cyanide and chloroform and wood alcohol.

These are some of the poisons that were covered in "The Poisoner's Handbook." It's the latest book from Pulitzer Prize-winner Deborah Blum, and it chronicles how all these poisonings eventually led medical investigators to develop the techniques and the systems that we now for granted in our modern-day forensic medicine.

And joining me now to talk more about it is Deborah Blum. She is a science writer and professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and she joins us from Wisconsin Public Radio. Welcome, Deborah.

Ms. DEBORAH BLUM (Author, "The Poisoner's Handbook"): Thanks, it's great to be here.

FLATOW: Great to have you back. What gave you an idea to do this kind of book this time?

Ms. BLUM: Well, I know it's going to make me sound really twisted, but I've always been interested in poison.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, okay. You did a lot of Hitchcock watching.

Ms. BLUM: Everyone who knows me worries about this kind of character trait. But yeah, I grew up reading Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers and all those elegant murders based on poison. And I was, briefly, a chemistry major, and something about the two - a bad chemistry major, but a chemistry major -something about the two made me start thinking that I wanted to write about poisons, the kind of mystery of how they kill us. And that was how I started.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number, if you'd like to talk with Deborah Blum, author of "The Poisoner's Handbook." You know, when I started reading this, I was having a deja vu at some points. I was thinking of Berton Roueche, you know, a writer for the New Yorker who had a whole series of these articles and books about forensic medicine about 50 years ago. Was he in your mind at all during this research?

Ms. BLUM: Yes, because he's one of the best early sort of literary tellers of medical mysteries, and there's a wonderful article that he wrote called "Ten Blue Men."

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. BLUM: I think - which actually Alexander Gettler who's, you know, one of the hero scientists in my book, is in that because he helped solve the mystery of why these men are dying and turning blue. But yes, if I could have a standard bearer, it would be Berton Roueche.

FLATOW: Tell us when all of this began. You go through it in an early case. Tell us when people started to decide that gee, we need to put some science into this detective work.

Ms. BLUM: Well, you were mentioning arsenic and how popular it was earlier, and that really came out of a period that people called the golden age of poisoners - which was probably from about the late 18th through the 19th, into the early 20th century.

And arsenic actually was nicknamed the inheritance powder then, because it was such a shortcut to getting to the wealth you felt you deserved, I guess. And gradually, you start seeing scientists, especially starting with arsenic, responding to this problem.

People are dying, they don't know how to catch them. You see tests for arsenic develop. You see poisoners shifting away from arsenic because poisoners are such, you know, planners and plotters. And throughout the 19th century, you really see scientists kind of chasing poisoners.

In the 20th century, I really think we hit a period where scientists themselves said, enough. This is enough. Too many people are dying and not getting caught. The people are not working with us. We have to change it. And that was the moment that really caught me and caught my, sort of, attention and imagination - the moment where we say, okay, this pre - if you will, pre-"CSI" era, is leading to a lot of unsolved murders. Let's fix it.

FLATOW: Tell us about a man named Charles Norris and who he was.

Ms. BLUM: Charles Norris was the first medical examiner of New York City, and he came into office in 1918 over the angry protest of New York City government. And it's interesting, because at that time - we were just talking about the difficulty in catching poisoners. In 1918, New York City actually published a report saying that poisoners could operate in the city with impunity, and yet the...

FLATOW: Wow.

Ms. BLUM: Yeah. It's really scary in a lot of ways.

FLATOW: Want to poison somebody, come to New York.

Ms. BLUM: Yeah, we're the best place, really. Although I imagine you could probably say that about anywhere then... But so they published this report. The state of New York says okay, then let's have a professional medical examiner. And Tammany Hall, which is running the coroner's office - they had a coroner who assisted them - is hugely resistant to this.

They like the political plum coroner in place. It works really well for them, and so when they first advertise this job, Norris was one of three doctors who applied.

This is one of my favorite stories about how Tammany Hall worked, and they all were required to do autopsies for their application process, and the city then criminally prosecuted them for doing the autopsies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BLUM: And they really didn't want to give away this cushy coroner job.

FLATOW: It was a political appointee, right? You didn't have to know anything about being a coroner.

Ms. BLUM: That's right, and when you go back - I mean, it's fascinating to go back and look at the death certificates in sort of the pre-Norris era because it's obvious that the coroners know nothing about medicine and nothing about how to decide cause of death.

So you have milkmen as coroners. You have sign painters as coroners. And literally, there are death certificates in which the coroner is guessing cause of death. They'll write: Could be diabetes or could be an auto accident.

FLATOW: That's why it's so easy to bump somebody off because they would have no idea what really killed them.

Ms. BLUM: That's right, and Norris was then the first professional medical examiner. He had trained in forensics in Europe, because at that point, we didn't even teach forensics in this country. He was - came from an old East Coast family. His family had founded Norristown, Pennsylvania, the Norrises of Norristown.

So he was independently wealthy. And he turned out to be just the most amazing person for that job. He had a real old-fashioned sense of public service. He was a born crusader who really enjoyed a good fight and did fight. And he funded the office when the city refused to do it. He paid salaries, bought equipment. What it took, was what he was willing to do.

FLATOW: And so he acquires a partner of sorts, Alexander Gettler, and the two of them really get - work setting up a system for medical examinations that hadn't really existed before.

Ms. BLUM: Yes, Gettler was the first forensic chemist ever to be attached to a U.S. city. And when you go into the footnotes, you'll see him referred to as the father of American forensic toxicology.

He was very different from Norris. He was a Hungarian immigrant. He had put himself through school as a ticket-taker on a night ferry, and he was an absolute obsessive genius about chemistry. He would sit up in bed at night, you know, drafting new equipment and designing new tests and I think probably making his wife crazy. But he also developed - he was the first person in the world to figure out how to tell someone was drunk at time of death.

He was the first person in the world to figure out how to detect a paralyzing level of anesthesia in the brain at time of death. He was - wrote the fundamental work on cyanide that is still cited by the EPA today. He was a remarkable, tireless chemist, and they made an amazing team.

FLATOW: And were they viewed - were they welcomed by the normal police of the time who were investigating, or were these just two interlopers who are coming onto the crime scene?

Ms. BLUM: That's a great question. Interlopers is probably exactly the right word, and when you go back, when I - I went through the documents of Norris' office, went to the New York City municipal archives and dug those out. And you see him constantly saying to the police department, for instance, you need to call us when there's a murder.

You're calling us, like, the next day. We can't do the work. You need to provide these things. We need to work together. And I actually in the book looked at a couple of cases where you see either the prosecutor's not even sure what to do with a scientist. No one's done this, right?

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. BLUM: They're not sure how to use them, and there were also cases where Norris and Gettler and the police department go head to head over a particular murder, with the police, for instance, saying yes, it's a murder, and Norris and Gettler - this was a carbon monoxide death - saying, you're wrong, it's not.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to calls before we run out of time - so many. Caroline(ph) in Akron, Ohio.

CAROLINE: Hi, Ms. Blum, as soon as I heard about your book, I ran out and bought it because like yourself, I'm very interested in poisons, not that I want to poison anybody, either..

Ms. BLUM: Oh yay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CAROLINE: But I'm a forensic science teacher, and any time I can find a book about the history or the development of forensic science, you know, it's just great, and I love to share the stories with my kids, and I just found your book fascinating. I read it probably in a day and a half because I couldn't put it down.

FLATOW: Wow.

Ms. BLUM: Oh, that's a wonderful thing to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CAROLINE: Also, I was wondering if you - I don't know if you'll have time, but I was just blown away when you were talking about all the different ways that people were finding to get alcohol, because this was during Prohibition.

Ms. BLUM: Mm-hmm.

CAROLINE: And like the wood alcohol, I - that - I couldn't believe that, that somebody would actually drink that.

FLATOW: Yeah.

CAROLINE: It was just amazing to me.

FLATOW: All right, Carolyn. Thanks for your call.

CAROLINE: Thank you.

Ms. BLUM: Yes. Thank you. And I agree. Some of the bizarre cocktails that people mixed up in Prohibition and willingly drank, you kind of think, you know, in a kind of what-were-they-thinking way.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BLUM: And some of them - and one of the ones to me that was the strangest was Smoke. It was made of fuel alcohol and water, made a kind of cloudy drink.

FLATOW: Wow.

Ms. BLUM: They were seeing one to three deaths a day in the poorer neighborhoods of New York from Smoke. But it continued and continued and continued. There is something about the attraction of these slightly devious illegal drinks...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BLUM: ...I think that just pull people in.

FLATOW: Even today, you talk about in your book that people can probably still get away with poisoning other people, unless someone suspects something, complains or points something out.

Ms. BLUM: Yeah. That's been one of the fascinating things that's occurred to me as I - you know, going beyond the book and thought about its implications for today. But - and this is not an invitation to poison, all right. I want to say that carefully.

FLATOW: We're not giving any secrets away.

Ms. BLUM: No tips, right, but...

FLATOW: Just between us, Deborah, do you know the perfect way - the perfect way to poison somebody?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BLUM: Well, I'll tell you, Ira, when we get together...

FLATOW: Okay.

Ms. BLUM: ...for that cocktail in New York City.

FLATOW: Continue, please.

Ms. BLUM: Yes. But one of things that really is an issue is...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. BLUM: ...you know, I was just describing the sort of inept and dangerous coroner system in New York, and I am not saying this is a blanket condemnation...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BLUM: ...but we still have elected, say, coroners in many places in the country and they are not required to have medical knowledge. And sometimes I think that can really pose a problem. And the other thing is - and you need to be aware of this - if someone dies and it looks like a natural death - not every death flags the medical examiner system, right? It has to look peculiar in some way.

And so if your doctor just signs off on something being a natural death, there's ways to weasel. What often happens is that people get caught the second time around. There was a woman in Georgia last year or so who killed her husband with antifreeze, which has a very potent poison in it.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Ms. BLUM: And it's very tasteless. She mixed it into his Jell-O - I don't like Jell-O, so I'd be safe from that, but she mixed it into his Jell-O. And her doctor considered it kidney disease. And if she hadn't gone back and then tried to poison other people by the same method, she probably would have gotten away with it.

FLATOW: Wow.

Ms. BLUM: When they dug up her husband's body, then it really popped.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. BLUM: So one of the things for me - not to go on indefinitely here - is that I wrote my book as a handbook of poisons and partly - not to guide poisoners, because I think the rest of us really need to know...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. BLUM: ...something about the chemistry of these.

FLATOW: Talking with Deborah Blum, author of "The Poisoner's Handbook," on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

What was the, you know - the question you always ask authors: what surprised you the most when you did your research? What fact did you say, oh my goodness, you stumbled on something that you never would have suspected?

Ms. BLUM: Good question. You know, and I worry in answering that, that I probably was not cynical enough, because I was so surprised...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BLUM: ...about the fact that the U.S. government was the largest mass-poisoner of the 1920s and...

FLATOW: The U.S. government?

Ms. BLUM: Yes. It's such an incredible story to me. And you know, our earlier caller was talking about the sort of poison alcohol that was floating around. And this is Prohibition. The 18th Amendment had passed in 1918 and the laws enforcing that had gone into effect, and so starting in 1920 it was illegal to do commerce in alcohol, drinkable spirits. And immediately - the 1920s is the most anarchistic decade on American history, I believe.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BLUM: Immediately people start defying the Constitution, the law, drinking like the proverbial fish. And the government is trying to enforce the law. And eventually, they do - the government does a great job of blockading good whiskey from being smuggled in. And so the crime syndicates that have sprung up to supply a thirsty country start stealing industrial alcohol, which is actually drinkable ethanol, grain alcohol that's just been contaminated a little to make it unpotable.

And so now 60 million gallons of this is being stolen a year. And the Treasury Department under Calvin Coolidge says, okay, what we're going to do is we're going to make this alcohol so poisonous that no one will drink it. That'll fix it. And they required - such a strange way of thinking.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. BLUM: They required the manufacturers to make their industrial alcohol up to 10 percent pure poison. They put in methyl alcohol, they put in cyanide, they put in benzene, they put in mercury. And literally people started dropping dead. I think I wrote in the book about a period right when this starts - in December of 1926, when between Christmas - when people are going to their Christmas parties - and New Year's, more than 30 people are dead just in Manhattan.

And people were going to the government to say you've got to stop this. You're killing people. Literally, Norris - Charles Norris wrote a national magazine article called "Our Experiment in Extermination." But this - and this was a program that effectively killed more than 10,000 American citizens.

FLATOW: Wow.

Ms. BLUM: And the government...

FLATOW: Did this go all the way through - go to Prohibition when it was repealed, did it go all the way?

Ms. BLUM: Yes.

FLATOW: Wow.

Ms. BLUM: And you can go into the newspapers of the 1920s, you know, all politicians were either "wet" or "dry" then. And you see the wet politicians trying and trying to get the government to roll back these regulations, a fascinating history, and the dry politicians saying, well, if these sleazy illegal drinkers are going to, you know, break the law and, you know, exhibit bad morals, too bad for them. And I was shocked, I really was surprised and shocked. And I also wondered how that had disappeared - you know, it was a surprise to me and many other people.

FLATOW: Yeah. 1-800-989-8255 is the number.

We're talking with Deborah Blum, author of "The Poisoner's Handbook," and the little subtitle is "Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in the Jazz Age -in Jazz Age New York." As you say, the 1920s were some time to be alive with all that going on - and Babe Ruth. We're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we're going to talk more with Deborah Blum, "The Poisoner's Handbook." Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Pulitzer Prize winner Deborah Blum, author of "The Prisoner's" - the prisoner's - "The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York."

Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can get a phone call and hear from Mary in Berwyn, PA. Hi, Mary.

MARY (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

MARY: Hey, I was just thinking that it seems that throughout history women have resorted to poison more frequently than men. And I assume it's because men -women didn't have the strength to defend themselves with hard weapons, and this was their one way of getting rid of potential enemies.

FLATOW: Hmm. Deborah, what do you say about that?

Ms. BLUM: Yeah, that's a really interesting question. You hear of poison being described as, you know, the woman's weapon. Actually, when you go back and when you actually go look at the statistics, what you find is this: It's about half men, half women as poisoners. But compared to any other weapon - baseball bats, knives, guns, it's like in the 80 percent range or so, male-female. People had actually thought with guns you would see more of an equality.

So poison, it brings us a really interesting sense of equality. And you find a lot more killers who are women in that context.

FLATOW: I guess people feel like they can get away with it if you use poison, right? You hit somebody with a baseball bat, there's sort of a bruise there for a while.

Ms. BLUM: Right. There's some definite evidence, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Yes. Yes. Yeah, I guess you'd feel like, well, they have to catch me, you know?

Ms. BLUM: Right. And that's why - I mean, poisoners are really interesting killers. They don't kill by impulse, right?

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. BLUM: You don't say I'm really mad at you and so next week I'm going to, you know, pick up a little rat poison. You act, you plan it and you plot it and you're hopefully calculating it - hopefully from the point of view of the poisoner - to get away with it. And yeah, so they do think it through.

And I mean, I think with women there's two things: One is, you know, a lot of poisons in the 1920s were all over the house. They were in cosmetics, they were in medicines that you picked up at the grocery store, they were easily at hand.

There was a - just to give you a bad poison example, there was a doc in Cincinnati, I think, who was convicted a couple of weeks ago of killing his wife with cyanide. And he had very cleverly injected the cyanide into some fish oil capsule kinds of things, so that the capsule would prevent her from tasting cyanide, which is very bitter.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Ms. BLUM: But cyanide is a really dumb homicidal poison. Sorry. And...

FLATOW: Because it's so easy to detect or...

Ms. BLUM: Yes. You - you know, your skin gets mottled with blue. It's a chemical suffocation. You go into convulsions. She went into convulsions driving, crashed the car. And so, you know, he was nailed by his poison choice. So I think if anything that makes a point, it's, yeah, poisoners plan but they're not always as smart as they think.

FLATOW: And you're now writing a blog site called Women in Crime Ink.

Ms. BLUM: Yeah.

FLATOW: You really have gotten onto that. I can see - listen to you in your voice, saying, I've really found something interesting to write about.

Ms. BLUM: I am. I'm fascinated by this. So it's been a lot of fun for me to talk about it. But the other thing for me is - just between us, Ira...

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Ms. BLUM: I am a complete geek at heart. And I love the chemistry in the book. So when Women in Crime Ink, which is about a two-year-old blog of mystery writers and true crime writers and prosecutors asked me if I would become a regular blogger, part of it for me is I thought this is a great chance for a science writer like me to reach an audience that I don't normally get across to.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. BLUM: And so I've loved doing it. I've written about several murder cases out of my book. And I found myself looking at modern murder cases in a different way. It's a fascinating way at getting at some of that initial question I had - why do you have, you know, carbon and hydrogen and oxygen and they make glucose one way and strychnine the other? That's fascinating to me.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah, that's a very geeky but very interesting - I find that fascinating too.

Ms. BLUM: Yeah.

FLATOW: And you will find Deborah's book very fascinating, if I could segue that way, because it's great. It's "The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York."

And Deborah Blum, I want to thank you very much again, as always, for taking time to be with us.

Ms. BLUM: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

FLATOW: Great book. I highly recommend it.

Ms. BLUM: Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

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