Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Book Review: 'The Poisoner's Handbook' & The Revolution In Forensic Medicine

Shooting, stabbing, striking, burning, bombing and the occasional lynching and crucifixion aside, the best way to get away with murder for centuries was poisoning. Although the occasional pre-death sickness could be a giveaway, there were few tools to detect toxic substances in corpses and murder by poisoning -- often doing in a wealthy person who inconveniently stayed alive for a greedy heir -- was so common that those witty French nicknamed arsenic, which frequently was the weapon of choice, poudre de succession, the inheritance powder.

While there still is the occasional murder by poisoning today, the science of detecting poisons has become extraordinarily sophisticated. This is because of the pioneering work of two forensic toxicologists in early 20th century New York -- Charles Norris, Manhattan's first trained chief medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, its first toxicologist.

Norris and Gettler are the primary subjects of Deborah Blum's newly published The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, which is a great read in its own right (except for queasy readers) and all the more so because of the easy-to-understand manner in which she explains the biochemical makeups of
arsenic, mercury, carbon monoxide, chloroform and other poisons, what they do when they are ingested or inhaled in lethal doses, and how Norris and Gettler brilliantly devised test after test to detect the tiniest amounts in corpses, something than infamous 16th century noblewoman and poisoner Lucrezia Borgia (below, left) did not have to worry about.

In fact, Blum (above, right), who is a professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin and a Pulitzer Prize winner when she was a science reporter, organizes the chapters in The
Poisoner's Handbook by poison.

* * * * *
When Tammany Hall-backed chief coroner Patrick Riordan was finally pushed out and replaced by Norris in 1918, New York City still didn't require a medical background, let alone training, for its coroners.

The result, Blum writes, was a politically-connected list that "included eight undertakers, seven politicians, six real estate dealers, two saloonkeepers, two plumbers, a lawyer, a printer, an auctioneer, a wood carver, a carpenter, a painter, a butcher, a marble cutter, a milkman, an insurance agent, a
labor leader and a musician." And while there were 17 physicians, as well, few of them exhibited any knowledge of poisons or interest in suspicious deaths.

Norris , a workaholic of independent means, put the office on a professional footing in short order. He hired Gettler and other competent physicians and opened a laboratory at infamous Bellevue Hospital where their pioneering work was carried out.

Most fascinating are the cases that Norris and Gettler took
on, including the mysteriously stricken Barnum and Bailey's Blue Man, a mass poisoning at a diner serving poisoned blackberry and huckleberry pies and my fave, suburban housewife Mary Frances Creighton (right), who was nicknamed "America's Lucrezia Borgia."

Creighton was a deeply disturbed woman who was acquitted at two arsenic-poisoning murder trials and later killed her boyfriend's wife with arsenic-laced eggnog so he could marry her 14-year-old daughter.

Then there was Francesco Travia, a longshoreman charged with murdering a neighbor who had sought out his bootleg whiskey whom Norris saved from the electric chair when he was able to prove that she had died from carbon monoxide poisoning while Travia was passed out.

* * * * *
Greedy heirs and husbands with wandering eyes are not the only poisoners covered in The Poisoner's Handbook.

Major corporations who used poisons in their manufacturing processes and products constantly fought rear-guard actions against people like Norris and Gettler, state health officials and the federal Food and Drug Administration.

In its own way, the case of the so-called Radium Girls is the most outrageous.

This was a group of
workers who contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with glow-in-the dark paint at the United States Radium factory in Orange, New Jersey. The women, who were told the paint was harmless, ingested deadly amounts of poisonous radium by licking their paintbrushes to sharpen them. Some also painted their fingernails with the glowing substance.

Beginning in 1917, the girls started falling ill. Their teeth fell out, their mouths filled
with sores and their jaws rotted away. By 1924, nine of the painters were dead but U.S. Radium continued to insist despite the proof provided by Norris, Gettler and a New Jersey county medical examiner, that there must be an explanation other than radium even after reaching out-of-court settlements.

Norris and Gettler are all but forgotten today, which makes The Poisoner's Handbook even more pertinent. But they were revolutionaries in their day and the work of these two dedicated civil servants radically changed our understanding of how in the right combination some of our planet's most commonplace elements can be killers.

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