This is a fascinating and breezy read, somewhat in the style of "The Devil and the White City" by Erik Larsen. "Poisoner's Handbook" draws the reader into history and issues which are still relevant today, namely, Prohibition and government regulation. Focusing on the newly established medical examiner's office of Charles Norris and his top scientist Alexander Gettler, it follows a number of poisonings both intentional and accidental.
This book is not for the squeamish. Many of the cases were gruesome and quite sensational back in the day. There are many unpleasant descriptions of how certain elements affect the human body. One case involved a dismembered body; another case details the horrible consequences of ingesting radium.
But it's also very interesting to look back and see how both regulation and the lack thereof killed and maimed people.The latter category included cyanide gas being used as a pesticide, and radium as medicine and used very unsafely in manufacturing. The contrasting case and elephant in the room is Prohibition, which killed and maimed thousands of people. The federal government's attempts to discourage drinking led to many more alcohol-related deaths than when alcohol was legal.
Another great aspect of the book are the career trajectories of Norris and Gettler. Norris struggled with politics in New York City and the national stage; he was a wealthy doctor who could have lived in luxury, but spent most of his time and money on his medical examiners office. His efforts led to a decrease in the corruption surrounding cororner's practices at the time. Gettler spent countless hours at the study of toxicology and published many influential papers. (If you look up Gettler, AO as author in Web of Science, you will see a distinguished number of articles with high citation counts). Both men fought against Prohibition, as a practical result of seeing so many alcohol-related deaths pass through their office; but they also supported banning substances like cyanide pesticide and lead in manufacturing.
The only criticism I can make of "Poisoner's Handbook" is the author's habit of writing out long lists, which I suspect was a method of padding out the text. Other than that, it's a good read.
PBS recently made an "American Experience" special based on this book which is enjoyable to watch, although not as informative, of course, as the book. I recommend this to anyone who enjoyed "Devil in the White City" or who enjoys the true crime genre. Thanks McKinley for the recommendation on reading it!
Alexander Gettler and Charles Norris. From Library of Congress.