In the early 1900s, the average American's medicine cabinet was a would-be poisoner's treasure chest. Deadly chemicals such as radioactive radium, thallium, potassium cyanide, and morphine lurked in health tonics, depilatory creams, teething medicine, and cleaning supplies. As industrial innovation increased, the tools of the murderer's trade multiplied, but the scientific knowledge to detect crime and the political will to prevent it lagged behind.
In 1918 New York City was on the brink of becoming the largest metropolis in the world, but it lacked a system for accurately recording deaths. Unnatural deaths were handled by the coroner, a position typically filled by corrupt and unqualified candidates as political payback. New York City's coroners were particularly notorious for taking kickbacks from funeral homes and changing death certificates for a price.
All this changed when Charles Norris, the scion of one of Philadelphia's wealthiest families, signed on to be New York's first scientifically trained medical examiner. Alexander Gettler, the son of poor immigrants, was Norris' extraordinarily driven and talented chief toxicologist. Against the opposition of corrupt politicians and powerful industrialists, Norris and Gettler redefined criminal investigation and led the first campaigns against the dangers of a new chemical age. Using chemistry to explain the causes of violent or suspicious deaths, Norris and Gettler championed a criminal justice system based on forensic science. Their work led to corporate and government regulations on chemicals used in workplaces and included in consumer products, and helped lay the groundwork for the creation of the Food and Drug Administration.
Based on Deborah Blum's bestselling book of the same title, The Poisoner's Handbook looks back at Norris and Gettler's most notorious cases, including the fatal radium poisoning of the dial painter girls at a New Jersey watch factory; battle with Standard Oil over leaded gasoline; the mysterious poisoning of Mr. and Mrs. Fremont Jackson who died alone in their New York apartment; the puzzling death and dismemberment of Anna Fredericksen; and the cold-hearted serial killer Fanny Creighton. While Norris passed away in 1935, Alexander Gettler remained New York's chief toxicologist until his retirement in 1959. Together, one autopsy and one case at a time, Norris and Gettler elevated forensic science into a highly respected discipline that has revolutionized the criminal justice system in America.
My American Experience
Radium used to be an ingredient in face creams. Thallium was in depilatory lotions. Arsenic was in rat poison -- until relatively recently! What chemical ingredients are in your household products? Share your story with American Experience!