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Historical Book Review for the Week:

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum

The Poisoner's Handbook

In the period prior to the 1920’s, neither medical examiners nor the police forces they were aiding, had any idea how to identify the effects of poisons in the bodies of their murder victims and, even more alarmingly, most of these people (including their boss, the mayor) didn’t see this as a problem.  In no one was this more clear than the city’s coroner during the year of 1915.  This man, Patrick Riordan had developed a reputation for showing up at crime scenes drunk to the point of being completely useless which would have been unprofessional and unfortunate if he was at least competent at his job.  But, at this period in time, the city had no requirement of a medical background or, really, any sort of training, for their coroners.  This, was despite the fact that a key part of their job was to  determine the cause of death.

It took the appointment, in 1918, of a man named Charles Norris to the position of medical examiner to break this pattern of untrained individuals which resulted in a trickle-down effect as he insured that everyone working under him was, in fact, qualified for their position.  This was most notable in his hiring of Alexander Gettler as the city’s first toxicologist as this was the man who developed the posthumous tests needed to determine if someone had died under the natural or accidental conditions indicated by the crime scene or if it was, in fact, a scenario of murder by poison.

This book is a quick but fascinating look at the changes brought to the study of poisons between the years of 1915 and the mid-1930’s and how the development of scientific investigation into previously unidentifiable causes of death lead to the modern day medical examiners and coroners that exist within police forces today.




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