The Poisoner’s Handbook

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The Poisoner’s Handbook
Deborah Blum • Penguin Books, 2010. 319 pp.
Cover of Deborah Blum's book: The Poisoner's Handbook

Could good come from a wave of poisonings eight decades ago? Yes, argues Deborah Blum, in a quick, entertaining read that, for better not worse, does not teach exactly what the title promises.

Rather than a handbook for agents of arsenic or quaffers of chloroform, the book instead shows how a scientific establishment grew up to detect poison and deter poisoners.

Writing in the daily-paper style she honed while writing for newspapers, Blum, a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is deft, direct and matter of-fact. Introducing an outbreak of arsenic poisoning in 1922 (60 cases, six deaths), she writes, “According to police reports, on July 31 Lillian ordered a tongue sandwich, coffee and a slice of huckleberry pie. It was the pie that killed her.”

Blum then gives as much detail as you’d want on the gory steps of an arsenic-poisoning autopsy, and ends: Lillian’s poisoner “walked away.”

The ’20s became a heyday of poisoning, with chloroform and mercury joining arsenic in the anti-medicine chest. It was a time when even over-the-counter medicines contained a bewildering array of poisons, including thallium and radium.

New York City in the 1920s saw the rise of the professional medical examiner to replace a corrupt coroner, and Blum’s hero is the City’s exemplary examiner, Charles Norris, a public servant dedicated to preventing poisoning and prosecuting poisoners, in addition to solving common crimes.

In what would seem a paranoid fantasy rather than a fact of history, thousands of those poisonings were the inevitable consequence of a federal campaign to enforce Prohibition — the ban on drinking ethyl alcohol that lasted from 1920 until 1933. The feds coerced manufacturers to make industrial alcohol undrinkable — or deadly — by adding toxic compounds like acetone, benzene, mercury, chloroform, formaldehyde, and the old standby, wood alcohol.

In 1926, toxic alcohol killed 400 in New York City.

If the idea of your government poisoning your drink is, well, unpalatable, you cannot not like the tales of skunky characters and their poisoning campaigns. But I would have appreciated more coverage of workplace poisoning.

Blum does deal with lead at a Standard Oil refinery, and radium, used to illuminate watch dials. But during her period of interest, pioneers in industrial hygiene were revealing the occupational carnage due, for example, to the neurotoxin carbon disulfide, used to make rayon. And the same fight against poisoning that occupied the medical examiners was also being pursued by industrial-hygiene crusaders like Alice Hamilton.

Still, Blum has written a painless history that both recounts the roots of forensic science and yet retains the momentum of “you were there” newspaper stories. Count on her for a nice kicker to close a section and keep you turning pages:

“It was a rough beginning, a bloody one, and a messy one, but he had to start somewhere.”

“That meant the investigation was back where it had started, with two dead bodies and no good answers.”

If you dig skullduggery in general or CSI in particular, here’s your read.

– David J. Tenenbaum