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1 Beaverton Health and Medicine- History of Medicine

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

by

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York Cover

 

 

Excerpt

PROLOGUE

THE POISON GAME

Until the early nineteenth century few tools existed to detect a toxic substance in a corpse. Sometimes investigators deduced poison from the violent sickness that preceded death, or built a case by feeding animals a victim's last meal, but more often than not poisoners walked free. As a result murder by poison flourished. It became so common in eliminating perceived difficulties, such as a wealthy parent who stayed alive too long, that the French nicknamed the metallic element arsenic poudre de succession, the inheritance powder.

The chemical revolution of the 1800s changed the relative ease of such killings. Scientists learned to isolate and identify the basic elements and the chemical compounds that define life on Earth, gradually building a catalog, The Periodic Table of the Elements. In 1804, the elements palladium, cerium, iridium, osmium, and rhodium were discovered; potassium and sodium were isolated in 1807; barium, calcium, magnesium, and strontium in 1808; chlorine in 1810. Once researchers understood individual elements they went on to study them in combination, examining how elements bonded to create exotic compounds and familiar substances, such as the sodiumchlorine combination that creates basic table salt (NaCl).

The pioneering scientists who worked in elemental chemistry weren't thinking about poisons in particular. But others were. In 1814, in the midst of this blaze of discovery, the Spanish chemist Mathieu Orfila published a treatise on poisons and their detection, the first book of its kind. Orfila suspected that metallic poisons like arsenic might be the easiest to detect in the body's tissues and pushed his research in that direction. By the late 1830s the first test for isolating arsenic had been developed. Within a decade more reliable tests had been devised and were being used successfully in criminal prosecutions.

But the very science that made it possible to identify the old poisons, like arsenic, also made available a lethal array of new ones. Morphine was isolated in 1804, the same year that palladium was discovered. In 1819 strychnine was extracted from the seeds of the Asian vomit button tree (Strychnos nux vomica). The lethal compound coniine was isolated from hemlock the same year. Chemists neatly extracted nicotine from tobacco leaves in 1828. Aconitine— described by one toxicologist as "in its pure state, perhaps the most potent poison known"— was found in the beautifully flowering monkshood plant in 1832.

And although researchers had learned to isolate these alkaloids— organic (carbon-based) compounds with some nitrogen mixed in— they had no idea how to find such poisons in human tissue. Orfila himself, conducting one failed attempt after another, worried that it was an impossible task. One exasperated French prosecutor, during a mid-nineteenth-century trial involving a morphine murder, exclaimed: "Henceforth let us tell would be poisoners; do not use metallic poisons for they leave traces. Use plant poisons… Fear nothing; your crime will go unpunished. There is no corpus delecti [physical evidence] for it cannot be found."

So began a deadly cat and mouse game—scientists and poisoners as intellectual adversaries. A gun may be fired in a flash of anger, a rock carelessly hurled, a shovel swung in sudden fury, but a homicidal poisoning requires a calculating intelligence. Unsurprisingly, then, when metallic poisons, such as arsenic, became detectable in bodies, informed killers turned away from them. A survey of poison prosecutions in Britain found that, by the mid- nineteenth century, arsenic killings were decreasing. The trickier plant alkaloids were by then more popular among murderers.

In response, scientists increased their efforts to capture alkaloids in human tissue. Finally, in 1860, a reclusive and single-minded French chemist, Jean Servais Stas, figured out how to isolate nicotine, an alkaloid of the tobacco plant, from a corpse. Other plant poisons soon became more accessible and chemists were able to offer new assistance to criminal investigations. The field of toxicology was becoming something to be reckoned with, especially in Europe.

The knowledge, and the scientific determination, spread across the Atlantic to the United States. The 1896 book Medical Jurisprudence, Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, cowritten by a New York research chemist and a law professor, documented the still-fierce competition between scientists and killers. In one remarkable case in New York, a physician had killed his wife with morphine and then put belladonna drops into her eyes to counter the telltale contraction of her pupils. He was convicted only after Columbia University chemist Rudolph Witthaus, one of the authors of the 1896 text, demonstrated the process to the jury by killing a cat in the courtroom using the same gruesome technique. There was as much showmanship as science, Witthaus admitted; toxicology remained a primitive field of research filled with "questions still unanswerable."

Product Details

ISBN:
9781594202438
Author:
Blum, Deborah
Publisher:
Penguin Press
Author:
Schechter, Harold
Subject:
Toxicology
Subject:
Forensic Medicine
Subject:
United States - State & Local - Middle Atlantic
Subject:
Poisoning - New York (State) - History
Subject:
Forensic toxicology - New York (State) -
Subject:
Health and Medicine-Medical Specialties
Subject:
Pathological Psychology
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Paperback / softback
Publication Date:
20100231
Binding:
Paperback
Grade Level:
from 12
Language:
English
Illustrations:
23 b/w on 8 page insert
Pages:
336
Dimensions:
9 x 6 in 1.26 lb
Age Level:
18-17

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Health and Self-Help » Health and Medicine » History of Medicine
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History and Social Science » World History » General
Science and Mathematics » Chemistry » Chemical Engineering
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The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York Used Hardcover
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Product details 336 pages Penguin Press - English 9781594202438 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Pulitzer Prize — winning science journalist Blum (Ghost Hunters) makes chemistry come alive in her enthralling account of two forensic pioneers in early 20th-century New York. Blum follows the often unglamorous but monumentally important careers of Dr. Charles Norris, Manhattan's first trained chief medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, its first toxicologist. Moving chronologically from Norris's appointment in 1918 through his death in 1936, Blum cleverly divides her narrative by poison, providing not only a puzzling case for each noxious substance but the ingenious methods devised by the medical examiner's office to detect them. Before the advent of forensic toxicology, which made it possible for the first time to identify poisons in corpses, Gettler learned the telltale signs of everything from cyanide (it leaves a corrosive trail in the digestive system) to the bright pink flush that signals carbon monoxide poisoning. In a particularly illuminating section, Blum examines the dangers of bootleg liquor (commonly known as wood, or methyl, alcohol) produced during Prohibition. With the pacing and rich characterization of a first-rate suspense novelist, Blum makes science accessible and fascinating." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Synopsis" by , Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Blum follows New York City's first forensic scientists to discover a fascinating Jazz Age story of chemistry and detection, poison and murder.
"Synopsis" by , A riveting account of a gruesome triple-homicide at Beekman Place in Depression Era New York, with an intriguing cast of characters including the brilliant but mentally-disturbed sculptor, Robert Irwin.
"Synopsis" by , Beekman Place, once one of the most exclusive addresses in Manhattan, had a curious way of making it into the tabloids in the 1930s: and#8220;SKYSCRAPER SLAYER,and#8221; and#8220;BEAUTY SLAIN IN BATHTUBand#8221; read the headlines. On Easter Sunday in 1937, the discovery of a grisly triple homicide at Beekman Place would rock the neighborhood yet againand#8212;and enthrall the nation. The young man who committed the murders would come to be known in the annals of American crime as the Mad Sculptor.

and#160;

Caught up in the Easter Sunday slayings was a bizarre and sensationalistic cast of characters, seemingly cooked up in a tabloid editorand#8217;s overheated imagination. The charismatic perpetrator, Robert Irwin, was a brilliant young sculptor who had studied with some of the masters of the era. But with his genius also came a deeply disturbed psyche; Irwin was obsessed with sexual self-mutilation and was frequently overcome by outbursts of violent rage.

and#160;

Irwinand#8217;s primary victim, Veronica Gedeon, was a figure from the world of pulp fantasyand#8212;a stunning photographer's model whose scandalous seminude pinups would titillate the public for weeks after her death. Irwinand#8217;s defense attorney, Samuel Leibowitz, was a courtroom celebrity with an unmatched record of acquittals and clients ranging from Al Capone to the Scottsboro Boys. And Dr. Fredric Wertham, psychiatrist and forensic scientist, befriended Irwin years before the murders and had predicted them in a public lecture months before the crime.

and#160;

Based on extensive research and archival records, The Mad Sculptor recounts the chilling story of the Easter Sunday murdersand#8212;a case that sparked a nationwide manhunt and endures as one of the most engrossing American crime dramas of the twentieth century. Harold Schechterand#8217;s masterful prose evokes the faded glory of post-depression New York and the singular madness of a brilliant mind turned against itself. It will keep you riveted until the very last page.

"Synopsis" by ,
***PBS's AMERICAN EXPERIENCE released a film based on The Poisoner's Handbook in January 2014***

Equal parts true crime, twentieth-century history, and science thriller, The Poisoner's Handbook is "a vicious, page-turning story that reads more like Raymond Chandler than Madame Curie" (The New York Observer)

A fascinating Jazz Age tale of chemistry and detection, poison and murder, The Poisoner's Handbook is a page-turning account of a forgotten era. In early twentieth-century New York, poisons offered an easy path to the perfect crime. Science had no place in the Tammany Hall-controlled coroner's office, and corruption ran rampant. However, with the appointment of chief medical examiner Charles Norris in 1918, the poison game changed forever. Together with toxicologist Alexander Gettler, the duo set the justice system on fire with their trailblazing scientific detective work, triumphing over seemingly unbeatable odds to become the pioneers of forensic chemistry and the gatekeepers of justice.

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