Book Review

A look at pioneers of forensic science

By Chuck Leddy
March 5, 2010

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Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, describes the foundations of forensic medicine in the United States, showing how two pioneering doctors developed forensic tools to assist police in investigating murders by poisoning. These two doctors, Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, labored at a time when toxicology was in its infancy and lethal poisons like cyanide were both readily available and largely undetectable.

A member of a rich merchant family, Norris would become a crusader for the cause of public health and forensic medicine. As New York City’s medical examiner, he hired Gettler to establish a cutting-edge toxicology lab. Both doctors worked ceaselessly to educate the public about the dangers of corrosive “wood alcohol’’ in the bootleg liquor so popular in Prohibition-era New York. Blum skillfully describes how Gettler studied the devastating impact of wood alcohol, which caused blindness or death.

Blum organizes her narrative by looking at chemical threats from wood alcohol, cyanide, radium, mercury, and more. Her chapter on cyanide, for example, closely examines the mysterious 1922 death of a married couple inside a Brooklyn hotel. Finding no evidence of blunt force or forced entry, investigators were stymied.

Gettler’s autopsies helped break the case: He used chemical analysis to determine that death was caused by cyanide poisoning. The hotel manager had fumigated the basement, and cyanide gas seeped up through the pipes. The doctors lobbied successfully to force New York City to ban cyanide gas fumigation.

In her chapter on arsenic, Blum details how eating pie at a Manhattan restaurant led to the poisoning deaths of six patrons. Gettler found that arsenic had been mixed into the pie crust. As Blum notes, “arsenic was . . . dispensed at drugstores. It was available as a weed killer, a bug killer, a rat killer.’’ Despite the best efforts of Norris, Gettler, and police, the “pie crust killer’’ would never be apprehended.

Blum also looks at radium. It had a number of industrial uses, but those working closely to it had a tendency to die young. Norris and Gettler succeeded in explaining multiple deaths at a watch factory where radium was used. Gettler painstakingly developed a series of tests to show how radium attacked bone marrow. The doctors then publicized the many dangers of close contact with radium.

Blum’s book is heavy on science, especially chemistry, but it’s also an excellent look at the lackluster state of public health in the Jazz Age. She rightfully celebrates Norris and Gettler as brilliant advocates for reform.

Blum also offers many colorful true crime stories from the 1920s. She describes how a Bronx speakeasy owner and three associates tried to kill an alcoholic bar patron, Mike Malloy, after convincing him to sign a life insurance policy.

Malloy’s would-be killers served him a straight shot of “industrial alcohol from a gasoline station,’’ Blum writes, but Malloy just “drained the tumbler and held it out for a refill.’’ Next, they fed him a sandwich filled with ground glass and metal shavings, as well as “oysters marinated in wood alcohol.’’ Failure. They later carried an inebriated Malloy out to the street and paid a cabdriver to run him over. “They left his body for strangers to find, but,’’ writes Blum, “[a] week later Mike Malloy limped back into the bar.’’ The exasperated killers finally “attached a rubber hose to the gas valve and put the other end of the hose into Malloy’s mouth.’’ This killed him. But with the help of forensic medicine trailblazers Norris and Gettler, the killers were sentenced to death. The days of getting away with murder due to lack of forensic evidence were over.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York By Deborah Blum

Penguin, 319 pp., $25.95