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

In the days before forensic scientists roamed the globe, poisoners frequently got away with murder. Arsenic was frequently used in situations where a relative lived beyond their expiration date for the inheritors, and thus nicknamed “the inheritance powder.” It was added to drinks (think port, like in the movie Arsenic & Old Lace, a Cary Grant classic) and virtually undetectable by the victim.
The book details the career of Charles Norris (the first Chuck Norris?!) as medical examiner of New York City, a position where the mayor slashed his department’s budget and thus Norris personally funded such things as car service for his agents to get to crime scenes, laboratory equipment, etc. Working in tandem with Norris was his chief toxicologist, Alexander Gettler. The two of them set a high standard for forensic science that permeated the country after Gettler taught a new crop of Gettler Boys the methods of ascertaining whether a poison was present in a corpse.
Along with all the standard poisons (arsenic, carbon monoxide, chloroform), we are enthralled by tales of radium poisoning of the girls who painted glow-in-the-dark clockfaces (and who wet the brushes with their lips before each stroke, ingesting radium which weakened their bones and slowly destroyed them). Also thallium, which rendered its victims hairless before killing them.
During this time, Prohibition went into effect, and the amount of poisonings by wood alcohol skyrocketed. Norris was an outspoken critic of the government’s deliberate poisoning of wood alcohol, and in his own way helped to generate momentum to overturn the amendment.
Enjoyable book that may make you think twice about eating or drinking anything that wasn’t prepared by your own hand.