Book Review: 'The Poisoner's Handbook': CSI's Jazz Age Roots Deborah Blum's history of the birth of forensic science details the work of Charles Norris, New York City's first chief medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, Norris' head toxicologist. The two advanced many of the technologies that allow scientists to track toxic substances in the body.
NPR logo 'The Poisoner's Handbook': CSI's Jazz Age Roots

Review

Book Reviews

'The Poisoner's Handbook': CSI's Jazz Age Roots

Poisoner's Handbook
The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
By Deborah Blum
Hardcover, 336 pages
Penguin Press
List price: $25.95

Read An Excerpt

The poisoner, like all who commit murder most foul, acts with malice aforethought. What sets the poisoner apart is not the amount of malice but the amount, and the quality, of forethought: Poisoning requires planning, patience and, if the victim is a lover or family member, a breed of malevolence so icy and affectless that the act might well be described as a crime of dispassion.

For much of history, the poisoner got away with murder. The most frequently used agents mimicked common illnesses, and even when telltale traces of a toxic chemical lingered in a body, science lacked a basic understanding of the biochemical pathways by which the poison went about its sinister purpose. Without that knowledge, tests were crude, proof was lacking, and many poisoners eluded justice.

Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum's new book, The Poisoner's Handbook, fixes on the moment in history when criminal science finally began to catch up, when two men gave birth to modern forensic toxicology in a bright laboratory at New York's Bellevue Hospital during the early decades of the 20th century.

Charles Norris became New York City's first chief medical examiner in 1918, and promptly instituted a wave of reforms that turned a corrupt, indolent coroner's office into a tireless, internationally respected model of criminal investigation. Before his tenure, toxicological evidence was widely derided or simply ignored, but Norris — a gregarious figure whose missionary zeal convinced even the most pecuniary city administrators to cough up funds for his department — changed all that.

He didn't do so singlehandedly. Blum describes the trailblazing work of Alexander Gettler, Norris' head toxicologist, a dry, quiet but rigorously thorough technician. It was Gettler who created chemical analyses to detect new poisons and refined the tests for previously known agents, so that smaller and smaller trace amounts could be used in evidence.

The best science writing avails itself of both metaphor and music — metaphor to make even the driest, most abstract concepts available to the reader's senses, and music to ensure that this metaphoric language is lively, engaging and clear. Blum excels at both, as when she describes how glittery crystals of arsenic reveal themselves during a series of autopsies ("Poison fanned through the bodies like a sparkling dust blown by a prevailing wind"), or when she lets us see what Norris and Gettler see as they go about their investigations. The pages of The Poisoner's Handbook are awash in color: the blue flames of Bunsen burners, the rich maroon of Gettler's macerated-liver-tissue slurries, and the bright vermillion blood that denotes death by carbon monoxide.

Deborah Blum has written about science for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Mother Jones and Rolling Stone. She has also written a number of books that explore the intersection of science and society, including Love at Goon Park and Ghost Hunters. Cynthia Stalker hide caption

toggle caption
Cynthia Stalker

Deborah Blum has written about science for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Mother Jones and Rolling Stone. She has also written a number of books that explore the intersection of science and society, including Love at Goon Park and Ghost Hunters.

Cynthia Stalker

Blum organizes each chapter around a different poison featured in a case Norris and Gettler investigate — chloroform, mercury, arsenic, cyanide, etc. — but weaves a broader, overtly political tale as well. Industrial manufacturing had just arrived in New York City and was already changing it in hidden ways only a scientist could expose. Blum shows Norris challenging the manufacturers of products containing lead, thallium and — in one particularly chilling chapter — the makers of glow-in-the-dark wristwatches who employed teenage girls to paint watch dials with lethally radioactive radium. (Read Blum's account of the case of a Yonkers hospital orderly systematically dispatching patients with chloroform.)

But in any narrative of New York during Prohibition, one poison looms larger than all the rest. It was, after all, a time when the government fought to stay one step ahead of bootleggers by finding novel ways to denature (read: poison) industrial alcohol. But in speak-easies all over town, the tainted liquor flowed freely, and death by alcohol poisoning surged. Norris regarded Prohibition — and in particular the government's practice of poisoning its own people — as a great evil responsible for thousands of unnecessary deaths and said so, publicly and vehemently.

If, in these passages and elsewhere, Blum lets a note of hagiography creep into her portrait of the man-as-crusader, she backs it up with plenty of documented examples of Norris' stalwart commitment to the public good. Rigorously researched and thoroughly engaging, The Poisoner's Handbook is a compelling, comprehensive portrait of the time and place that transformed criminal investigation, and made it much more difficult for that most insidious of murderers to escape the law.

Excerpt: 'The Poisoner's Handbook'

The Poisoner's Handbook
The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
By Deborah Blum
Hardcover, 336 pages
Penguin Press
List price: $25.95

From Chapter 1: Chloroform

Frederic Mors was a small man, short, thin, nervous. He had narrow blue eyes, slightly shaggy dark hair, and a beard dusted with cigarette ash. He smoked constantly, those aromatic Egyptian cigarettes, and he paced, paced, paced as he told his story. He was a recent immigrant from Vienna, and his English was slow, stumbling enough, that the police brought in an interpreter. "Oh, I wish I spoke English better," he exclaimed during the initial police interview, but the officers were able to piece together the story anyway.

He'd come over from Austria in early 1914, wanting to work in medicine. He'd found a job as an orderly at the German Odd Fellows home in Yonkers. The home, a refuge for 250 foundlings and one hundred elderly pensioners, paid only a little — $18 a month plus room and board — but allowed Mors to practice his medical interests. He was soon "made practically a nurse because the men over me realized that I knew something about nursing and was better educated than most orderlies." Shortly later, he said, the superintendent asked him to take on another job, to help with the "removal" of some of the sickliest, and costliest, residents.

In the interview room, Mors shrugged, lit another cigarette, and continued. The superintendent was a bully, he'd realized, and it was best to do what the man wanted. But this assignment, he explained carefully, didn't particularly bother him. "It was really a kind-hearted thing to do. They were all in great pain that could not be relieved. There was no chance for them. Also they were not pleasant physically or mentally to themselves or anyone else." The only challenge was deciding how to carry out the assignment. After reviewing the possibilities, he decided that poison was the obvious answer. In a place where people were old and unwell, it would be easy enough to make it look as if their time had simply come.

The home's nursing dispensary held a witch's closet of poisons, watched over by one of the young orphans, earning her keep. There were bottles filled with sugar of lead, those silvery crystals used to treat skin rashes; painkillers such as codeine, morphine, and powdered opium; atropine, an extract from the nightshade plant, for speeding up a slowing heart; sweet scented chloroform for anesthesia; white, powdery arsenic, for curing everything from syphilis to psoriasis; strychnine for energy tonics; and mercury for infections. The only question was which would best suit his purpose. Mors first tried arsenic, but the elderly man selected for the experiment did not die in an orderly fashion. He was messily sick, then developed a kind of creeping paralysis, living on for several miserable days. Mors found himself on constant, exhausting nursing duty. It was horrible, he said, both for the victim and for himself. They buried the man — whatever his name was, he didn't remember — with great relief.

He went back to the dispensary. It was, maybe, the smell that decided him, that sweet chemical sting in the air, that sugary, seductive promise. He smiled at the detectives and told them why he'd been so pleased with his next choice: "When you give an old person chloroform, it's like putting a child to sleep."

There wasn't a cop in the room who thought of chloroform in terms of a lullaby.

Their experience was otherwise. They knew it purely as a poison, one used by criminals, especially by thieves, who found it useful in robbing occupied homes. Since the turn of the twentieth century, this practice had been increasingly popular. Robbers would knock on an apartment door, force a chloroform-soaked rag over the face of whoever answered, and take what they wanted while their victim remained unconscious. "Burglar uses Chloroform: Attacks a Woman in a Flat, Robs Her and Cuts off her Hair," read one New York Times headline in March 1900. Beautiful hair for wigs was as valuable as some jewelry, the newspaper pointed out. And there were the burglars who "put an entire family under anesthetic" in 1907 before emptying their house; the train robbers who drugged a Pullman car full of passengers and emptied pockets and purses; the party host who put chloroform into his guests' drinks, then went through their wallets and disappeared with $3,000; and the robbers who chloroformed an attorney on a busy Manhattan street in 1910, yanked off his heavy gold and diamond ring, and disappeared into the crowd. Occasionally chloroform played a role in real tragedy; a Long Island father, in 1911, killed his son and two daughters with chloroform and then, leaving a suicide note, walked away into the gray Atlantic.

Mors liked chloroform for its efficiency. He'd used it to kill seven more residents with no problem at all. It was a wonderful poison, really, he said, perhaps a little cloying in its oversweet smell — but perfectly, reliably lethal.

The story went that the doctor who pioneered chloroform as an anesthetic had recognized its potential after it knocked him out cold. James Young Simpson, an Edinburgh physician, had been searching for something better than ether to relieve pain during surgery and childbirth. Ether could be frustratingly slow to act. Also it smelled awful, irritated the lungs, and was prone to ignite, which posed a definite risk at a time when surgeons often worked by candlelight.

Simpson and his two lab assistants decided to experiment on themselves until they found something that worked. They had already tried and dismissed compounds including acetone and benzene when, on the evening of November 4, 1847, they poured out tumblers of chloroform and dipped their faces into the vapor rising from the glass. Within two minutes all three were lying unconscious under the table, "in a trice under the mahogany," as Simpson later wrote. They awoke perhaps half an hour later, lightheaded and dizzy but cheerfully unharmed. "This will change the world," he thought.

For the next five decades chloroform gained steadily in popularity. Every drugstore stocked it; most doctors, barring a few wary holdouts, prescribed it in abundance. It was mixed into cough syrups and liniments; it was dispensed as a sedative, a sleep aid, a painkiller, a treatment for alcoholic DTs, for hiccupping, seasickness, colic, vomiting, and diarrhea. No one was exactly sure how it worked, just that it appeared to slow the body down and sedate the brain, sliding a patient into a much-desired stupor.

The more physicians used chloroform, though, the more they realized that it was a capricious kind of anesthesia. There were reports of patients who inexplicably, unexpectedly died on the operating table before the surgeon even lifted his knife. An invalid would slide away into chloroforminduced unconsciousness and just keep sliding. The breathing would sputter to bare gasps; the heartbeats would decrease in an ever-slowing rhythm. Alarmed doctors began tallying the deaths. On average, it seemed, chloroform anesthesia killed at least one in every three thousand patients.

And no one knew how to fix that because no one was sure why it happened.

Chloroform was a simple enough compound, an uncomplicated arrangement of carbon, hydrogen, and chlorine. Yet somehow that tidy mixture formed a chemical loose cannon, killing without warning or apparent reason. Doctors weren't really even sure what a safe dose was. One patient died after receiving one-third of an ounce; another man, a known chloroform addict, succumbed only after going through a quart of the drug. Chloroform, not surprisingly, was riskiest for children, the elderly, and alcoholics, but it also, unpredictably, killed healthy adults.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the British Medical Association called chloroform the most dangerous anesthetic known, and the American Medical Association urged that hospitals stop using it entirely. But it would be several more decades before chloroform disappeared from the pharmacy shelves. At the time Frederic Mors lifted the bottle off the dispensary shelf, chloroform was still widely used, still known for being miraculous rather than murderous.

The police detectives in their dark wool suits became a familiar sight at the Odd Fellows Home, thumping down the wooden halls, opening closets, looking under beds, asking questions, checking out Mors's story. The more investigators looked and asked, the more they suspected the crazy little man might be telling the truth.

They found, for instance, a German poison manual hidden in the back of his closet. They gathered witnesses who confirmed some of his story, starting with the embalmer who worked at the funeral chapel serving the Odd Fellows home. Mors had told police that he'd put too much chloroform on the rag used to kill one elderly man. The caustic liquid left raw red marks around the man's mouth. The embalmer alarmed him by asking about the marks of injury. From then on, according to Mors's confession, he'd spread Vaseline around the patients' mouths before applying chloroform.

The embalmer promptly corroborated Mors's statement. He remembered being startled by that uneven red scoring of the skin. He'd seen chloroform burns on the faces of patients who'd died during surgery. Mors had told him a cloth used to tie the man's mouth shut after death had rubbed the face raw. That had puzzled the embalmer. The home had never done that before. The marks didn't really seem to match with a cloth burn. But after all, it was just another old man dead. And the next body showed no such signs of damage, so he'd let it go.

That led to another witness — an orderly who'd seen Mors rubbing Vaseline over an old man's face two hours before the patient was found dead. Mors had explained to him that the Vaseline would make it easier for the undertaker to shave the corpse. The orderly had been surprised — after all, the man was still breathing. Following that awkward encounter, Mors told the police, he'd switched to another method, pushing chloroform soaked cotton wool into the noses of his chosen victims. When they searched Mors's room, officers found cotton and tweezers in the pocket of one of his coats.

The embalmer hadn't liked Mors. He found him competent but cold, "indifferent to the suffering and deaths of those in the home." The elderly residents hadn't liked him either. He had a reputation for threatening inmates who complained too much, who insisted on extra attention. The fourteen-year-old girl in charge of the medical dispensary told the police that Mors had commented to her about the uselessness of the residents, adding that it "would be a good thing" to get rid of a few of them. "If you don't stop making so much trouble, I'll send you to where there is more heat than you want," he had snapped at one ninety-one-year-old man.

The elderly residents at the home told police they believed Mors had methodically been removing those who annoyed him. They recalled him warning one woman who kept ringing her bell, requesting assistance, that she would be sorry if she summoned him again. She'd continued calling him. The next day she was dead.

But another orderly told police that he believed Mors had followed orders. Once the orderly had been summoned to help remove a dead patient from a room. When he reached the man's quarters, Mors and Superintendent Adam Banger were standing by the bed together, talking. There was a corpse in the bed, and the room had a sharp, sweet chemical sting to it. "What is it?" he remembered asking, choking slightly. In answer, Mors went to the window and threw it open. The superintendent lit a cigar, filling the air with the acrid burn of tobacco, erasing all trace of anything else.

The district attorney agreed that such interviews were suggestive. But from where he stood, they weren't proof. Now that Mors was in jail and the superintendent was locked up as a hostile and uncooperative witness, the mood at the Odd Fellows home had reached a predictable level of hysteria. Some of these statements were undoubtedly true, but others might be mere dramatics. To prove that these elderly residents had been poisoned, they needed some solid evidence.

Excerpted from Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright February, 2010.

Books Featured In This Story