Archive for the ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook’ Category

A “New York” cheesecake for a book about the New York Medical Examiner’s Office!


Booked for the Day had a lively discussion about “The Poisoner’s Handbook: murder and the birth of forensic medicine in Jazz Age New York” by Deborah Blum. There was no one at the discussion who disliked the book, and reaction ranged from general enjoyment to really loving it. When asked if they would recommend the book to someone else; almost everyone said they already had, or would, or would for the right person – a person who liked science book.

Most people said they found the science interesting; and that the chemistry actually seemed more graphic than the murders described in the book. We talked about the most memorable cases in the story; and how even though the book takes place 80 years ago; there were still some parallels to our modern time – like a big corporation not taking responsibility for all of the potentially harmful action to its workers.

We also talked about how far forensic science seems to have come, and how the book did a great job of really painting the picture of the birth of this science, of how much work went into developing procedures and experiments to further forensic medicine.

We discussed the structure of the book as well; how many of us when starting the book thought it would have a more narrative tone of following a handful of characters – and while Norris and Gettler remain the constants in each chapter, the arc of the book is really around each chapter’s poison and the story of forensic medicine. While everyone agreed that they liked the book, many of us admitted that it was easy to put down and then pick up a couple days later – it didn’t stick with us or seem like a “page-turner”.

But overall, everyone did find the book highly enjoyable and it provided for a great discussion.


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Young women using radium laced paint to create glowing watch faces at a watch factory.

Chapter Eight in “The Poisoner’s Handbook” by Deborah Blum details the disturbing side-effects of Radium poisoning; primarily before we knew what a dangerous substance it is. Marie Curie discovered the element and published the first article on it wither her husband Pierre in 1898.  Almost twenty years later in 1925, New Jersey Medical Examiner Harrison Stanford Martland was publishing his article on radiation poisoning from radium in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Martland published his findings based largely on the study of the bones of a woman who had been a worker at a watch factory in New Jersey;  she, along with many other young women, had been employed to pain the faces of watches with paint laced with radium which allowed the watch faces to glow. There is a Wikipedia page, here, on these girls, known in the press as “Radium Girls. It also seems that there was a similar Radium Dial factory in Ottawa Illinois, where workers were poisoned by radium; Chicago magazine has an article and documentary about this here.

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author James M. Cain; his two most famous works were made into films

Chapter Seven in “The Poisoner’s Handbook” focuses on Methyl Alcohol, as well as the murder of Albert Snyder by his wife Ruth Snyder and her lover Judd Gray. As author Deborah Blum notes on page 164, “The plotting of Snyder murder….was so bizarre that novelist James M. Cain would later use it as a basis for his two best-known novels, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity.”

Both works were also created into films; and both are in the Lisle Library collection, along with many of his stories.

Author Deborah Blum ends the chapter with a graphic depiction of Ruth and Judd’s execution; along with a detailed description of the photograph that was taken of Ruth’s execution. I’m not posting the photo on the blog due to its graphic nature, but you can find the photo by using Google Images and searching “Ruth Snyder”.

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Wondering what “vituperative” means? Me too! Author Deborah Blum uses it on page 156 of “The Poisoner’s Handbook”; “Butler’s declaration, though, received less attention than the vituperative answers it generated.”

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s website; here, defines the word as “uttering or given to censure : containing or characterized by verbal abuse”.


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Chapter Five of “The Poisoner’s Handbook” covers the element of mercury; and also the tale of Gertie E. Gorman and her husband Charles Webb, who was accused of her murder.

It is noted in the chapter that Webb donated an empty plot that Gorman had owned on the city’s Upper West Side to be set aside as a park. In the park, “along one edge, Webb ordered the construction of a silvery stone wall. Embedded in the stone, he had placed a small plaque dedicating the park to Gertie A. Gorman,” (Gertie A. was Gertie E.’s mother) (page 127).

You can read more about the engraving here; and about the park on New York City’s Parks and Recreations’ website, here.

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Are you wondering about Argyria and the case of the Blue Man from Barnum and Bailey’s? Author Deborah Blum talks about the disease argyria and autopsy done on The Blue Man (who died while at Bellevue); where records indicate that he had glistening white hair and matching mustache, but that his skin, lips, tongue, and even what would normally be the whites of his eyes, were all blue (page 118).

All of this was because of argyria; a condition that deposits silver throughout the body. There is a wikipedia page on the disease here, and searching in the medical database MedlinePlus for “argyria” does bring up two results, specifically on silver poisoning.

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Author Deborah Blum makes a small mention of the great mystery author Agatha Christie in the chapter on the Mercury, saying “For all the novelists’ fascination with more exotic toxins – the British writer Agatha Christie, for instance, launched her career in 1920 with a tale of strychnine and murder – the everyday poisons kept the city toxicology laboratory occupided,” (page 117) in “The Poisoner’s Handbook”.

The tale Blum is referencing is Agatha Christie’s first publication; “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”; and the Lisle Library has both the novel and DVD of the BBC series Poirot; you can check their status here. You can also read more about Agatha Christie on her official webpage, or Wikipedia page.


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