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Continued: Dark side of the Jazz Age

  • Article by: KIM SCHMIDT , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Last update: March 13, 2010 - 3:52 PM
Imagine New York City in the 1920s and certain images come to mind: women dancing in flapper dresses, smoky jazz clubs and speakeasies hiding in plain sight, shiny new vehicles jamming the roads. In her new book, "The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York," Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum sees another, darker side -- one where busy Manhattan diners serve arsenic-laced huckleberry pies and would-be killers can purchase deadly toxins at their local pharmacy. Where desperate young mothers choose to feed their family rat poison rather than live in poverty, and where technological advances cause factory workers' bones to crumble and their hair to glow in the dark.

As industry boomed in the beginning of the 20th century, Americans were exposed to a new wave of poisonous materials. In response, the heroes of Blum's brilliant and gripping new book, Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, worked tirelessly to advance forensic science, not only to catch killers but also to protect the public from some very unlikely poisoners -- including the American government.

Hired in 1918, Norris was New York City's first trained chief medical examiner, and Gettler his chief toxicologist. Of them, Blum writes, "Trailblazing scientific detectives, they earned a respected place in the courtroom, crusaded against compounds dangerous to public health, and stopped a great many Jazz Age poisoners in their tracks."

Norris and Gettler share the stage with the poisons themselves. Each of Blum's chapters focuses on a poison, from mercury to thallium, chloroform to cyanide. She is eerily evocative in her descriptions of how these toxins traveled through the body, leaving clues for Norris and Gettler to find. She is equally meticulous in her descriptions of Gettler's laboratory, where the reader experiences the colors and smells and textures found in his beakers and test tubes.

Take this line from her chapter on carbon monoxide: "Left for weeks during time tests, residing in stoppered bottles on the wooden counters of Gettler's lab, solutions containing carboxyhemoglobin would glow like the crimson hourglass on the abdomen of a black widow spider, like the clear carmine red of warning lights signaling danger to those who got too close."

Blum's stories of Prohibition and the chemical concoctions bootleggers served to their clients are among the most interesting. All sorts of chemicals made their way into alcohol served illegally during this time, including gasoline, nicotine, formaldehyde, chloroform, acetone, benzene, methyl alcohol and more. Deaths from alcoholic poisoning rose drastically during Prohibition, and Norris was very outspoken about the dangers to the unsuspecting public. Especially when it came to light that, in order to dissuade people from drinking, the American government was responsible for adding these chemicals to the alcohol supply. The result was the poisoning of thousands of people, many of whom were paralyzed, struck blind or died.

Blum's brilliant book is many things at once: a science lesson, peppered with historical anecdotes, tucked inside a compelling narrative that, in the end, is perfectly pitched and compulsively readable. Readers will be eager to share these stories around the water cooler, though they may get a similarly odd reception as did Blum herself. "There are mornings, lit by the cold winter light, when I start talking about a poison in my book, revealing my own dangerous expertise, and as I do, I watch my husband quietly, not really thinking about it, slide his cup out of my reach."

Kim Schmidt is a writer in Illinois.

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  • The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum

  • THE POISONER'S HANDBOOK

    By: Deborah Blum.

    Publisher: Penguin Press, 287 pages, $25.95.

    Review: A science lesson, a history book and a compelling narrative all rolled into one, Blum's book is both illuminating and irresistibly readable.

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