Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Murder By The Drop: The Poisoner's Handbook

A recent book, Murder by the Drop By ELYSSA EAST, discusses the government's complicity in the alcohol poisoning during prohibition,
from a recent nytimes article
At the beginning of Deborah Blum’s “Poisoner’s Handbook,” a murderer named Frederic Mors gets off virtually scot-free after confessing to multiple killings by poison, then disappears without a trace. Though Blum leaves the reader with the impression that Mors — whose adopted surname means “death” in Latin — will return, she never comes back to his story. But death moves throughout her latest book via myriad poisons administered by impatient heirs, unhappy spouses and psychopaths — or innocently ingested, because the science of forensic toxicology has not yet caught up with these deadly chemicals.
To further complicate the situation in this rich history of the development of forensics in New York, which spans the years from 1915 to 1936, Tammany Hall’s corruption has spilled over into one of the grittiest public service jobs, that of coroner. The city’s early-20th-century coroners were notorious bunglers known to appear in court with whiskey breath and to leave crime scenes with palms freshly greased with graft (they would regularly falsify death certificates). Murderers roamed free until enough political will was mustered to implement a new medical examiner system in 1918.
Into this office strode Dr. Charles Norris, the blue-blooded son of a banking power couple, who could easily have chosen a life of leisure over one of public service, and his appointee Alexander Gettler, a forensic chemist with a penchant for gambling, the cigar-chomping progeny of a Hungarian immigrant. Norris and Gettler, Blum’s heroes in white coats, formed a duo whose innovative lab work remains significant. The fruits of their labors helped advance government policy and the science of forensics, and have saved countless lives from exposure to previously hard-to-detect toxic substances like thallium and to the then unknown deadly side effects of radium (once a crucial ingredient in a popular health tonic called ­Radithor: Certified Radioactive Water).
“The Poisoner’s Handbook” is structured like a collection of linked short stories. Each chapter centers on a mysterious death by poison that Norris and Gett­ler investigate, but the reader never gets to know these principals well enough to find out what drives their tireless devotion to scientific inquiry. Instead, Blum lavishes her attention on her chosen villains — the poisons — and their deadly maneuverings through the body. A Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, she provides the gruesome particulars of autopsies and laboratory work — like the pulverizing of organs and the boiling of bones — and a variety of chemical tests. With descriptive talents and a knack for detail, she introduces us to lively killers. One, carbon monoxide, is a “chemical thug” that works “by muscling oxygen out of the way.”

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