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The Poisoner’s Handbook

Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

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

The Poisoner’s Handbook details the work of New York City’s first scientifically trained medical examiner, Charles Norris, and his partner, Alexander Gettler, the city’s first toxicologist. It offers an insider’s view of how forensic science really works by walking readers through their investigations into notorious and mysterious poisonings.

  • Anyone interested in forensic medicine
  • Anyone who wants to learn more about the poisonous chemicals in everyone’s pantry
  • Anyone who enjoys a good murder mystery

Deborah Blum is an American professor of journalism who writes for the New York Times and blogs for Wired. She received a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for a series of articles entitled The Monkey Wars, and is also the author of Ghost Hunters.

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The Poisoner’s Handbook

Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

Von Deborah Blum
  • Lesedauer: 18 Minuten
  • 11 Kernaussagen
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The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York von Deborah Blum
Worum geht's

The Poisoner’s Handbook details the work of New York City’s first scientifically trained medical examiner, Charles Norris, and his partner, Alexander Gettler, the city’s first toxicologist. It offers an insider’s view of how forensic science really works by walking readers through their investigations into notorious and mysterious poisonings.

Kernaussage 1 von 11

Before forensic toxicology became a science in New York, murder by poison flourished in the city.

We’ve all seen it at some point on our favorite TV detective drama – someone moves the date of their inheritance forward by poisoning their helpless old grandma. Today, the sophisticated methods of modern forensics mean that the plotters never get away with it, but this wasn’t the case in the not-too-distant past.

For a long time in New York, murder by poison was a common way to eliminate those who stood in your way. And due to the utter incompetence of the American coroner system, poisoning could be carried out with near impunity!

Despite the fact that coroners’ only job was to determine the cause of someone’s death, a report from 1915 revealed that coroners at the time didn’t need any medical background or even training. This meant that death certificates were completed without any effort to determine the cause. Reported causes of death ranged from things like “either assault or diabetes” to “act of God.”

There were cases where the coroner system made sentencing impossible, even when people confessed to poisonings.

For example, in the winter of 1915 in Manhattan, Frederic Mors confessed to murdering eight people using chloroform. However, when the coroner erroneously stated that this couldn’t be true (since he believed it took longer for chloroform to kill a person than Mors had reported) the prosecutor hesitated to believe the confession.

This is just one example; due to the ignorance of coroners, many murderers ended up walking free and leaving their crimes unsolved.

Thankfully, the relative ease by which people could get away with murder by poison came to an end when forensic toxicology – the study of how chemicals adversely affect living organisms – became a fully legitimate science in 1918.

After the weaknesses of the coroner system attracted public attention, New York City implemented reforms that elevated forensic toxicology to a true science, hiring its first trained medical examiner and a chemist who founded the first toxicology laboratory.

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