I normally do not write my reviws as soon and I have finished a book, but in this case I could not help myself. The Poisoner’s Handbook Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum, is amazing. This has been on my TBR list for a while and I wish now that I had not put off reading it. OMG, this is like a history book, murder mystery who done it, and a book on chemistry all at the same time.
The book starts out in 1915, and then goes up to 1940 with some of the end pages going into the 1950’s and a bit beyond. This book tells the history of the first forensic lab in the US, and of the men who helped found it. It is not only that it is also about the chemicals that were rampant in that time period, and it is about death. Not just any death but murder, accidental deaths, and attempted killings.
Each chapter is title is that of a poison, most all that have been heard of and some that we are still dealing with today. Chloroform, Arsenic, Carbon Monoxide get two chapters. There are case studies in here the who, the what and the why of murder. Men who kill for money, women for love, both to cover up acts of things not wanting to be known. I will have to say that my favorite one in the book is that of Mike Malloy or as he was also know as “Mike the Durable.”
Not only was this book informative it was also entertaining. There were times I was grossed out (hard to do with me working in the medical field), laughed, got angry, and a time or two there was a tear in my eye. Yes, there are parts of this book that are very graphic, not in the violence of a murder, but in what happened in the labs. Without our modern day equipment some of the tests involved boiling tissues, and I can see where for some people that is a nasty factor.
I remember my grandfather talking about something called “Jake Leg” when we would see someone walking down the street. I never knew what that was until I read this book. At one point in Prohibition one of the drinks more popular in the south was a drink called “Ginger Jake”. It was originally a cough elixir called “Jamaican Ginger”. Well Jake had a neurotoxin in it that would cause small motor skills to go. The toxin organophosphate. Grandpa also use to talk about “smoke joints” I thought he was talking about a place to buy cigarettes, but not so. There was a drink that was cheap, easy to get called “Smoke”. Smoke was Smokey in color and caused blindness, coma, and death it was mostly methyl alcohol.
Amazing book I am going to keep this one on my shelf of forever books.
Pg. 144 ” Norris decided to let Gettler experiment on three of the Bowery dead, currently residing in the refrigerated drawers of the mogue’s storage room, destined of unmarked pauper’s graves.”
Pg. 207 “The work could best be described as gruesomely tedious.”
Pg. 225 “Elsewhere, at other speakeasies, patrons were dropping dead with no problem at all.”