by Michael Edmonds
REVIEW: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the birth of forensic medicine in Jazz Age New York
by Deborah Blum
In the early 20th century, New York City was a good place to be a murderer. City coroners were often unqualified and corrupt officials, earning additional income from the production of fake and erroneous death certificates. In 1918, everything changed with the appointment of Charles Norris as the city’s medical examiner.
A trained and experienced pathologist, Dr Norris brought integrity, medical knowledge and exacting standards to the new position and his appointment of chemist, Alexander Gettler, to the position of toxicologist, would eventually lead to a forensic service respected by law makers and feared by criminals, particularly those who chose poison to dispatch their victims.
In The Poisoner’s Handbook Deborah Blum deftly describes the development of forensic science in early 20th century New York, against a background of corrupt and obstructive city officials, callous killers, Prohibition, and an initially resistant judicial system.
Incorporating detailed cases of murder and poisoning of the time, she weaves a scintillating story of the triumphs (and mistakes) of the early NYC medical examiners’ office, in their ongoing battle to convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent.
Deborah Blum’s skills as a researcher and master storyteller combine in “The Poisoner’s Handbook” to produce a fascinating, easy to read and hard to put down book.
One of the best books I have read – even if the title does result in wary glances from those around you!
Dr Michael Edmonds is a chemist by training and a science educator/communicator by choice. He is currently Head of Engineering & Architectural Studies at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology