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Monday, Feb. 8, 2010

Deborah Blum Delivers ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook’

Tracking murder through forensic science

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As a professor of science journalism at UW-Madison, Deborah Blum has not lost the storytelling skills she honed as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. She put them to excellent use a couple of years back in Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, a wonderful account of 19th-century investigations into supernatural and extrasensory manifestations, and they show no diminishment in The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York (Penguin Press).

Take Mike the Durable, as New York City newspapers in 1933 called him (after his durability had run out). Mike Malloy was a frail, drink-sodden wretch whom fellow barflies determined to kill for the insurance money. Trouble was, Mike resisted dying, despite being fed poisonous booze and a sandwich of rotting sardines, ground glass and metal shavings, and later being soaked in icy water on a cold night and run down by a car.

Finally he succumbed to carbon monoxide from a gas lamp. But the murderers, none a criminal mastermind, were quickly found out and nearly as quickly tried, found guilty and executed.

The grimly comic anecdote of Malloy is typical of cases, both odd and fearsome, that Blum uses to illustrate the development of forensic science in New York and the United States during the first four decades of the 20th century. The story, engagingly written and extensively researched, is structured around the heroic efforts of Charles Norris, named the city’s first professional medical examiner in 1918, working with Alexander Gettler, a Hungarian immigrant who eventually became the country’s leading toxicologist, to improve the standing of toxicology in both advancing public health and solving crimes.

It is a considerable understatement to say that the men were dedicated to their work; Norris, from a prominent family, often used his own funds to pay staff salaries and buy equipment. They had need of dedication, for they started at a time of corrupt and incompetent coroners, when the United States was far behind Europe in forensic investigation and regulation of food, drugs and poisonous elements.

The author divides her book into poisons, devoting a chapter (sometimes two) to each: chloroform, methyl (or wood) alcohol, cyanide, arsenic, mercury, carbon monoxide, radium, ethyl (or grain) alcohol and thallium. Famous crimes are connected with many of them, probably the most famous being the 1927 Snyder-Gray case in which Ruth Snyder and her lover Judd Gray murdered her husband in a frenzy of overkill using a sash weight, picture wire and bichloride of mercury.

But criminals weren’t the only culprits. Poisons were in the air we breathed, water we drank and commercial products we used or ingested. Mercury compounds, for example, were sold as bedbug killers, laxatives, antiseptics and diuretics.

The different ways that elements sicken and kill are gruesomely fascinating. Among the worst is radium, once widely used in liniments and other health aids and to illuminate clock faces. Workers handling radium eventually became literal physical wrecks, their bones shattering.

Businesses profiting from radium, like those selling other poisons, refused to acknowledge the element’s danger and went to court to fight compensating their dying former workers. It took the death of a wealthy, prominent industrialist from drinking a radium-dosed tonic for the government to begin restricting radium.

Norris and Gettler immensely advanced toxicology, forensic science and the public health. They were, Blum writes, “revolutionaries who worked in civil service” and “changed the poison game.”

Norris died in 1935. Gettler, whose chemistry had decided the outcome of many trials, retired in 1959 from a career that involved examining more than 100,000 bodies and died in 1968.

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