You might assume after reading the front cover flap of Deborah Blum's book The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, that there are two main characters, Charles Norris, the first medically qualified chief medical examiner serving New York City, and Alexander Mettler, Norris's toxicologist. I left the book feeling there was actually a third major player in the story, the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. Although Blum thoroughly covered all the popular toxins of the times—chloroform, mercury, arsenic, cyanides, thallium, radium, and carbon monoxide—she devoted three entire chapters to alcohol. Two chapters dealt with methyl, or wood, alcohol, a deadly poison that was nevertheless substituted for the illegal forms of liquor when the "real" version couldn't be smuggled in.
As the amendment neared ratification nationwide in 1919, and as their toxicology lab started seeing more and more cases of poisoning by wood alcohol, Gettler sent a simple message to other doctors: "This is poison. Warn everyone. Do it now." Neither he nor Norris believed that prohibition was likely to "create a society that suddenly rejected the pleasures of beer, wine and cocktails." Instead they anticipated an epidemic of alcohol poisonings, and saw most of their worst fears realized.
During the years when prohibition was in effect, Norris and Gettler seemed to spend as much of their time determining deaths by alcohol poisoning as by any other cause or combination of causes. Inebriation was often a contributing factor in other poisoning deaths, as individuals' ability to make sound judgments became impaired. The two scientists were vocal in their support of the movement to repeal the amendment, particularly after they discovered that the federal government was actively trying to increase the toxicity of supplies of bootleg liquor. They viewed ethyl alcohol, the other alcohol with it's own chapter, as much the lesser of the two toxins.
Like many people, I've enjoyed movies like The Untouchables that romanticize the upstanding federal agents fighting the good fight against the lawless bootleggers. But Blum makes it clear that there weren't any clear lines between what some of the agents were doing and what they were supposed to be fighting. All it did in the end was create more victims for Norris and Gettler and their hard-pressed staff to sort out.
And like a lot of other people, I'm addicted to television shows like NCIS, CSI, Bones, and all their spin-offs. Forensics is fascinating, as long as I don't have to be around all the smells. I have enormous admiration for anyone who can actually do the work. I prefer to watch it on TV or read about it in a book.
Many of the stories in Blum's book are hair-raising enough to qualify as great fiction, and yet they're all true. It's astonishing to believe to what lengths some people will go to get a "buzz," or to rid themselves of an annoying relative, or to cover up an accident or a crime. Blum has done an excellent job in putting these tales together and in bringing to life a couple of characters to whom all law-abiding citizens (and fans of crime scene dramas) owe a debt of gratitude.
Pulitzer Prize winner Deborah Blum is a professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin. She worked as a newspaper science writer for twenty years, winning the Pulitzer in 1992 for her writing about primate research. She is the author of Ghost Hunters and coeditor of A Field Guide for Science Writers, and she has written about scientific research for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Discover, Health, Psychology Today, and Mother Jones. Visit her website.
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