The Poisoner's Handbook

Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

By Deborah Blum
(Penguin Press, Hardcover, 9781594202438, 336pp.)

Publication Date: February 18, 2010

Other Editions of This Title: Paperback, Compact Disc, Compact Disc, MP3 CD, Hardcover

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Video From "The Chemist's War" (Slate Magazine), by Deborah BlumPulitzer 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.

About the Author

Pulitzer Prize winner Deborah Blum is a professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin. She worked as a newspaper science writer for twenty years, winning the Pulitzer in 1992 for her writing about primate research, which she turned into a book, The Monkey Wars (Oxford, 1994). Her other books include Sex on the Brain (Viking, 1997) and Love at Goon Park (Perseus, 2002). She has written about scientific research for The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Discover, Health, Psychology Today, and Mother Jones. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers and now serves on an advisory board to the World Federation of Science Journalists and the National Academy of Sciences.

Friday, Apr 2, 2010

In her book The Poisoner�s Handbookwriter Deborah Blum catalogs the myriad poisons that took the lives of Jazz Age New Yorkers. Part history, part chemistry, part crime novel, the book also chronicles the evolution of forensic medicine in the early 20th century. More at

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Saturday, Mar 6, 2010

At the start of the 20th century, poisoning was one of the easiest crimes to get away with. Until, that is, Dr. Charles Norris developed an early form of forensic medicine. Author Deborah Blum's new book, The Poisoner's Handbook, follows New York's first trained chief medical examiner as he solves a series of sensational cases. More at

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Praise For The Poisoner's Handbook

“The Poisoner’s Handbook is aninventive history that, like arsenic, mixed into blackberry pie, goesdown with ease.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Blum illuminates these tales of Norris and Gettler and their era witha dedication and exuberance that reflect the men themselves. Not onlyis The Poisoner's Handbook asthrilling as any CSI episode, but it also offers something even better:an education in how forensics really works.” —The Washington Post

“Blum, a longtime newspaper writer and now a professor of sciencejournalism at the University of Wisconsin, skillfully explains thechemistry behind Gettler's experiments. Her book is sure to appeal tomystery lovers, science nerds and history buffs. . . .”—Associated Press

“Fast-paced and suspenseful, ThePoisoner’s Handbook breathes deadly life into the RoaringTwenties.”—FinancialTimes

“All the nitty-gritty about death by arsenic, by thallium, by woodalcohol, is here in precise, gruesome detail.  It makes for astomach-turning read. . . . .Ms. Blum’s combination of chemistry andcrime fiction creates a vicious, page-turning story that reads morelike Raymond Chandler than Madame Curie.”—New York Observer

“In this bubbling beaker of a book, [Blum] mixes up a heady potion offorensic toxicology, history and true crime. . . . The Poisoner's Handbook will getinto your head. You'll find yourself questioning the chemicals in oureveryday lives. What's really in our food, cosmetics, pesticides,cleaning supplies, children's toys and pet dinners? This isn't just agood read. It's a summons to study labels, research, think and act.”—Dallas Morning News

“The Poisoner's Handbook succeeds as science, as history, asentertainment and as an argument for the power and purpose of popularscience writing.”—MilwaukeeJournal-Sentinel

 “One thinks of Erik Larson's Devil in the White City . . . a bookthat gave splendiferously disgusting descriptions of horrible murdersand did it so dexterously and intelligently that even readers whowouldn't normally read a true crime book were happily sucked in.Deborah Blum's The Poisoner'sHandbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New Yorkis that kind of book.” —New Haven Advocate

“Blum has cooked up a delicious, addictive brew:  murder, forensictoxicology, New York City in the 20s, the biochemistry ofpoison.  I loved this book. I knocked it back in one go and now Iwant more!”—Mary Roach, author of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Scienceand Sex and Stiff: The Curious Livesof Human Cadavers

“The Poisoner's Handbook opensoneriveting murder case after another in this chronicle of Jazz Agechemical crimes where the real-life twists and turns are as startlingas anything in fiction. Deborah Blum turns us all into forensicdetectives by the end of this expertly written, dramatic page-turnerthat will transform the way you think about the power of science tothreaten and save our lives.”—MatthewPearl, author of The Last Dickensand The Dante Club

“The Poisoner's Handbook is awonderfully compelling hybrid of history and science built aroundeccentric characters. One scene reads like Patricia Cornwell and thenext like Oliver Sacks. From movie stars and aristocrats to homicidalgrandmothers and entrepreneurial gangsters, from the government'spoisoning of alcohol during Prohibition to the dangers of radiation andautomobile pollution, Blum follows an amazing array of poignanttragedies through the laboratory of these crusading public servants.—Michael Sims, author of Apollo's Fire and Adam's Navel

“With the pacing and rich characterization of a first-rate suspensenovelist, Blum makes science accessible and fascinating.” —PublishersWeekly, starred review

“Caviar for true-crime fans and science buffs alike.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Formative figures in forensics, Norris and Gettler become fascinatingcrusaders in Blum’s fine depiction of their work in the law-floutingatmosphere of Prohibition-era New York.”—Booklist

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