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The poisoner's handbook : murder and the birth of forensic medicine in Jazz age New York
2010
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Summary
Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum follows New York City's first forensic scientists to discover a fascinating Jazz Age story of chemistry and detection, poison and murder.

Deborah Blum, writing with the high style and skill for suspense that is characteristic of the very best mystery fiction, shares the untold story of how poison rocked Jazz Age New York City. In The Poisoner's Handbook Blum draws from highly original research to track the fascinating, perilous days when a pair of forensic scientists began their trailblazing chemical detective work, fighting to end an era when untraceable poisons offered an easy path to the perfect crime.

Drama unfolds case by case as the heroes of The Poisoner's Handbook --chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler--investigate a family mysteriously stricken bald, Barnum and Bailey's Famous Blue Man, factory workers with crumbling bones, a diner serving poisoned pies, and many others. Each case presents a deadly new puzzle and Norris and Gettler work with a creativity that rivals that of the most imaginative murderer, creating revolutionary experiments to tease out even the wiliest compounds from human tissue. Yet in the tricky game of toxins, even science can't always be trusted, as proven when one of Gettler's experiments erroneously sets free a suburban housewife later nicknamed "America's Lucretia Borgia" to continue her nefarious work.

From the vantage of Norris and Gettler's laboratory in the infamous Bellevue Hospital it becomes clear that killers aren't the only toxic threat to New Yorkers. Modern life has created a kind of poison playground, and danger lurks around every corner. Automobiles choke the city streets with carbon monoxide; potent compounds, such as morphine, can be found on store shelves in products ranging from pesticides to cosmetics. Prohibition incites a chemist's war between bootleggers and government chemists while in Gotham's crowded speakeasies each round of cocktails becomes a game of Russian roulette. Norris and Gettler triumph over seemingly unbeatable odds to become the pioneers of forensic chemistry and the gatekeepers of justice during a remarkably deadly time. A beguiling concoction that is equal parts true crime, twentieth-century history, and science thriller, The Poisoner's Handbook is a page-turning account of a forgotten New York.
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Booklist Review
Author of a bemusing account of research into the afterlife (Ghost Hunters, 2006), Blum turns from the ethereal to the material for this story about New York City's chief medical examiner in the 1920s. Charles Norris took the politics out of pathology and put science in, ably assisted by expert toxicologist Alexander Gettler. Classifying Norris' death investigations according to the chemical (arsenic, cyanide, etc.) detected in corpses by Gettler, Blum dramatizes the contest between murder suspects and Gettler's laboratory methods, which improved markedly during the decade. He and Norris contended with a suite of deadly substances, including chloroform, bad booze because of Prohibition, and industrial toxins such as radium and carbon monoxide, from which many people keeled over. Intentional killers could thus cloak their crimes as natural or accidental deaths; Blum sets forth the facts of such cases, attentive to chemical clues the suspect overlooked but Gettler didn't. Formative figures in forensics, Norris and Gettler become fascinating crusaders in Blum's fine depiction of their work in the law-flouting atmosphere of Prohibition-era New York.--Taylor, Gilbert Copyright 2010 Booklist
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Table of Contents
Prologue:The Poison Gamep. 1
1Chloroform (CHCL 2 )p. 5
2Wood Alcohol (CH 3 OH)p. 26
3Cyanides (HCN, KCN, NaCN)p. 50
4bsenic(As)p. 75
5Mercury (Hg)p. 103
6Carbon Monoxide (Co), Part1p. 128
7Methyl Alcohol (CH 3 OH)p. 152
8Radium (Ra)p. 176
9Ethyl Alcohol (C 2 H 5 OH)p. 196
10Carbon Monoxide (Co) 3 , Part IIp. 224
11Thallium (TI)p. 245
Epilogue: The Surest Poisonp. 275
Author'S Notep. 279
Gratitudesp. 281
A Guide to the Handbookp. 285
Notesp. 289
Indexp. 307
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