Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York-Book review


Cover courtesy of Amazon.com

Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
By Deborah Blum
614.13 B658p

Interested in true crime? Have you watched all the Forensic Files episodes on Netflix? This book is the story of how forensics began in the early decades of the 20th century, and what cases were pivotal in developing some of the techniques used to pinpoint the guilty.

Although substantive work had been done in chemistry in the 1800s, most physicians didn’t know how to isolate those compounds as processed by the human body. Furthermore, coroners or medical examiners were often appointed positions, with little expectation that they would possess specific knowledge needed for this type of detective work. Enter Charles Norris, who, along with toxicologist Alexander Gettler, was able to set up a methodical system that became the basis for modern forensics.

Each of the eleven chapters cover a different poison, and the time period varies from the years 1915-the mid-30s. You will recognize some of the poisons, such as cyanide or arsenic, but others such as wood alcohol or thallium may be unfamiliar. Each poison is illustrated by a case involving that poison. Some cases involve the poor and unknown, and some were media sensations. All throughout the retelling, the author tells a spellbinding tale of how Norris and his team dedicated themselves to finding justice for the victims (the chapter on radium is particularly heart-wrenching.)

Part history, part science, this work will both horrify and fascinate you and is a worthwhile read for those interested in crime, forensics, and justice.

–Reviewed by Maria Bagshaw, Reference/Instruction Librarian


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