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the poisoners handbook


I was disappointed to find out this wasn’t a Oreilly “Howto” book…

What a great book! There are so many interesting aspects and topics covered here, and not just the big obvious one the title hints at.

I heard Deborah Blum talk about her new book on the Scientific America Podcast, which was great and lively, so I put this book on the top of my “Book List” that I keep handy. So, in preparation of our Oregon trip, we (the family) too a trip to our local Barnes and Noble, where within the first minute of being there, I set off the alarmed Nook eReader that was on display. Hey, I have a gift for destruction and mayhem.

The book is organized by a poison per chapter, however, there is the underlying narrative of two Chemists/MD’s/Toxicologists in NY who did some awesome work in the field of forensics. Most notably, developing tests and methodologies for detecting poisons. What is also discussed is the corrupt politicians of the time, and the still ever present jackassery of government organizations that forced Charles Norris to continually fund the NYC medical lab out of his own pocket. The best example was when the new Mayor decided wanted to show everyone he meant business on cutting down on department spending, so he took out EVERY wall clock. The created a real problem for the medical examiners who had to cite the time of death, or keep track of their autopsy’s. Actions like this cause Charles Norris, the Chief Medical Examiner, to pay for the departments supplies out of his own paycheck. This is similar to what most public school teachers have to do.

Another theme in the book was Prohibition, so there are three chapters dedicated to the two big Alcohols, Methyl Alcohol (Wood Alcohol, the industrial kind), and Ethyl Alcohol (Grain Alcohol, the good kind…).

There is a romanticized characature of Bootleggers in the media, and the view is they were sticking it to “The Man” by smuggling bathtub gin and good ol’ whiskey to Speakeasies. This was my impression of Speakeasies:


Good clean fun in a “Flower Shop”

What I didn’t really think of is that the Mob was smuggling alcohol as a means of profit, which meant they didn’t really care about providing a safe beverage, it meant using the cheapest and most widely available form of alcohol at the time. Since Prohibition shutdown legit breweries and Distileries, who specialized in Grain Alcohol, they turned to the deadly Wood Alcohol and denatured alcohol that was used in manufacturing and cleaning.

It’s all alcohol though right? I mean, what could the difference possibly be? How about when Methyl Alcohol metabolizes in your body it creates two deadly by products, formaldahide and then formic acid. What was also interesting is it takes 10 to 30 hours for this reaction to take place, so people would get drunk and die within a few days.

So, that was really bad of the boot leggers, they were making money by selling poison, so how did the governemnt respond? It the way you would expect them to, to stay headstrong on their decision and force manufaturers to put even deadlier chemicals in wood alcohol. Their rational was “If we make it less appealing, they will naturally stop drinking altogether..”.

The flip side to all of this was no matter how deadly methyl alcohol was, ethyl alcohol had it beat hands down. This is a statistics game, but people have been getting drunk and doing stupid things for centuries. That was the goal of Prohibition, to put an end to all the baggage that comes with recreational drinking: Violence, over dose, addition, health issues, etc…

The ironic part was that people drank and killed themselves with Alcohol at a higher rate during Prohibition than before of after.

The Mob wasn’t the only organization to profit from poisons. There were plenty of “legal” companies putting very unhealthy things like Thallium and Radium in all sort of cosmetics and tonics. The biggest problem with this was that Hoover wasn’t after the US Radium Corporation like he was after John Dillinger.

Just look at the products you could have bought under the guise of health back in the day:


This was prescribed as a Revitalizing tonic


Radioactive Chocolate! I’d probably eat it.


Um.. I don’t really need to tell you what these are for… or do I?


These are prophylactics that are fortified with radium. These are for Superman only!

I thoroughly enjoyed the other chapters, and I’m sure my buddy Jenny did as well. I mean, I could just see the look of terror as I came in every other day and talked about how Cyanide kills you, and that Ether is caustic and will leave burn marks if you are not careful… Nothing better when your co-worker who already has that “Quiet Type” look about them is reading up on poisons. So, when I read the Epilogue at the end where the author mentions that she would talk to her husband in the same way, and then he would casually slide his coffee cup out of her reach :) Jenny is safe, she drinks coffee from a travel mug.

Deborah gives great credit to Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, as well as the staff behind them and their past and future colleges. The work Alexander did was truly amazing, the countless hours spent grinding up brain matter, boiling it down, mixing it with all sorts of acids and compounds just to detect the slightest hint of arsenic or cyanide was amazing. He also proved that the Radium Girl’s bones were radioactive by putting the bones on top of a sheet of film; the decaying radiation would show up as white spots on the file like an X-Ray does. Very mediapathic indeed!

I was sad when I read the last pages of this book, I hope there will be a follow up to other poisons like caffeine, nicotine and other radioactive substances. After all, its not always the compound that makes a poison, but the amount. Life will eventually kill you, it typically takes more time.