Monday, February 24, 2014

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

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

You guys are so lucky you haven’t been within earshot of me when I was reading this book. SO GOOD.

Medicine, murder, politics, and detective work combine to make for fascinating reading. Anyone familiar with crime drama knows you have to talk to the Medical Examiner to find out what happened. But in the beginning of the 20th century, that wasn’t the case. In New York, a few intrepid men developed the field of forensic medicine to help detect cause of death in the morgue. The growing field made it so poison was no longer an easy murder to get away with, as police could then say for sure that someone had been poisoned, and with what, which made tracking down the murderer that much easier.

But this is also Prohibition. We think of bathtub gin and homemade stills, but most of the alcohol on the streets was denatured industrial alcohol, stolen and then resold. In an effort to curb illegal drinking, the government kept demanding that more and more poisons be added to the alcohol. The result didn’t stop people from drinking, but it killed a lot of them. You can read more about it here. They also made an episode of American Experience on PBS about it.

(As that article is also written by Blum, it also gives a good taste of the book.)

And oh! The politics. Tamany Hall was NOT happy about the new medical examiner system and the office was often battling for basic funding and resources.

Blum weaves all these tales together to tell a gruesome and fascinating story about the development of a scientific field that now seems commonplace, a time in history we largely romanticize despite the body count, and well, poisoner and murder! Blum has a gift for story-telling and detail that draws you in (she also has an eye for the gruesome-- the wet chemistry involved wasn't always pretty.)

Excellent reading and a book that made the Outstanding Books for the College bound list!

Book Provided by... my local library

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