The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
by Deborah Blum
Published Date: February 2010
We didn’t pick up The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum to learn about New York City history but by its end we were surprised how much we learned about the city we love. Handbook is a fast-paced, well-written accounting of the birth of forensic medicine – pioneered and perfected in New York City.
To tell the story Ms. Blum centered on a tumultuous and infamous time in America and New York, the Jazz Age, in which the advent, passing and repeal of Prohibition caused the well-publicized surge in organized crime but also the lesser of murder by poison.
Indeed, the banning of spirits led desperate consumers to accept anything in its place, leading to a new kind of poison administered from criminals and shockingly, the government itself. Though that is just one kind of death by poisoning that Ms. Blum details, all are fascinating accounts of both the way they were administered and the tools the fledgling medical examiners created to detect them.
The reader is transformed to a time of political corruption and greed where the unsung heroes are Dr. Charles Norris, Manhattan’s first trained chief medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, its first toxicologist. These men sacrificed their own fortunes and careers and changed the autopsies are done. Simply learning about the various ways New Yorkers did each other in wove a tapestry of the time, and the extremely humble but necessary beginnings for what we now know as crime scene investigation.
Entertaining, educational, shocking and at times spooky, Handbook is a great read for nonfiction and real or imagined crime junkies everywhere…an added bonus is the historical glimpse of a crime- and scandal-soaked Gotham.
Reviewed by: Paul Austin and Jennifer Rota