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The Poisoner's Handbook | Timeline

Chemistry and Forensic Science in America

The use of poison as a murder weapon goes back thousands of years. Forensic toxicology, however, only became an essential tool in criminal investigations and court trials in the U.S. relatively recently. Browse some of the milestones of forensic toxicology in America, and learn more about the historical events that aided scientific understanding of poison and helped establish the field of forensic science.

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"An Introduction to Chemical Pharmacology" A depiction of the Marsh Test

British chemist James M. Marsh develops a method for testing the presence of arsenic in human tissue. Using zinc and sulfuric acid to create arsine gas, this test is highly sensitive to even small levels of arsenic. The Marsh Test, as it was known, was the first use of toxicology in a jury trial.

University of Pennsylvania professor Theodore Wromley writes Microchemistry of Poisons, the first American book dedicated to "the study of the chemical properties of poisons as revealed by the aid of the microscope," as he writes in the preface.

December 4, 1867
Charles Norris is born in Hoboken, NJ to an aristocratic family of scholars and bankers.

Alexander Gettler is born in Austria-Hungary. His family will emigrate to the U.S. in 1889 and live in a small apartment in Brooklyn.

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Warning label for denatured alcohol, Courtesy: Maine Historical Society

The U.S. government requires producers of industrial alcohol to denature it (make it undrinkable) to avoid paying a hefty alcohol beverage tax. Most companies add methyl alcohol as the primary denaturing agent, making the industrial alcohol poisonous -- and even lethal.

February 1906
Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle exposes the unsanitary practices of the American meatpacking industry in the early 20th century. The novel is credited with finally pushing inspiring political leaders to pass the first American consumer protection laws for food and drugs.

June 30, 1906
President Theodore Roosevelt signs the Pure Food and Drugs Act into law, the first federal legislation calling for stricter labeling of U.S. food and drug products. The act prevents the production and trafficking of mislabeled, adulterated, or poisonous foods, pharmaceuticals, patent medicines and liquors, and paves the way for the modern Food and Drug Administration.

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Marie Curie, 1913, Courtesy: Library of Congress

Twelve years after discovering radium chloride, Marie and Pierre Curie isolate a gram of pure radium. The discovery leads to innovations in cancer treatments and the coinage of a new word: radioactivity.

In popular culture, Radium is touted as health additive and miracle cure for ailments from rheumatism to appendicitis; women buy radium-based facial creams, children enjoy radium-laced candy and soda, and clinics offer free injections of the new wonder drug.

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Dial painters at Radium Dial Company, 1922, Courtesy: Argonne National Lab

April 6, 1917
Congress approves the United States' entrance into the World War I.

Use of tear gas, mustard gas, chlorine gas, phosgene, and other deadly poisons by both sides in the conflict earned WWI the dubious nickname of "the Chemists' War."

The same year, at the U.S. Radium Company in New Jersey, factory workers assembling wristwatches for the troops abroad use radium to paint the faces so they will glow in the dark. The girls have fun with the radium -- painting their fingernails with it and sprinkling it in their hair.

January 31, 1918
Dr. Charles Norris is appointed as the new chief medical examiner for the city of New York. Coming from Bellevue Hospital in New York, Norris brings with him talented young chemist Alexander Gettler.

October 28, 1919
The Volstead Act bans the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcohol. Also known as Prohibition, the act goes into effect January 1, 1920. But rather than discouraging people from drinking alcohol, it inadvertently encourages bootlegging, which introduces unsafe and often poisonous alcoholic beverages onto the black market.

In the early 1920s, there are two rats for every person in New York City. Rat poison, often made with arsenic, becomes easily and cheaply available in local stores.

In New York City, 101 people hang themselves, 444 die in car accidents, 20 are crushed in elevators, 237 die from gunshot wounds, 34 people are stabbed and 997 people die of poisoning.

April 25, 1922
Fremont and Annie Jackson are discovered dead inside their locked Manhattan apartment. Though police initially suspect a dual suicide, Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler find cyanide in the victims lungs and police suspect a recent fumigation in the building caused the couple's untimely death.

When prosecutors lose the case in court, Gettler is inspired to do further research. He will publish "The Toxicology of Cyanide" in 1938 -- a text still referenced nearly century later.

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A 1932 ad for Ethyl gasoline additive, Courtesy: Ethyl Gasoline Corporation

August 1924
General Motors and its part-owner DuPont aligns with Standard Oil Company to market leaded gasoline in conjunction with the Ethyl Corporation. The new leaded gas allows car engines to run more smoothly and quietly.

When workers at Standard Oil's tetraethyllead plant in Bayway, New Jersey (in the "looney gas building") begin to show signs of mental deterioration, the Public Health Service makes an inquiry, but determines that the additive posed no serious threat to the public. Leaded gasoline will be used to fuel cars until 1996, when the Environmental Protection Agency will fully phase out its use.

In 1925, 4,154 people die from poisoned liquor, up from 1,064 in 1920.

An investigative task force called by the U.S. Surgeon General releases its finding that leaded gasoline is essentially safe, provided workers use the recommended precautions such as gloves and masks.

Summer 1926
Newspaper articles cite quotes from government officials warning of increased toxicity in bootlegged alcohol. In an effort to enforce Prohibition, the United States government researches more poisonous chemicals, such as kerosene, acetone and formaldehyde, to use to denature alcohol, to prevent consumption. But that does not stop tens of thousands of people from drinking it, often with fatal consequences.

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Norris and Gettler together in the lab, Courtesy: Dorothea Atzl

November 30, 1926
Francesco Travia is caught lugging part of Anna Fredericksen's body towards the waterfront. Detectives suspect murder, but Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler prove that the carbon monoxide gas from Travia's stove had poisoned her to death. Travia will serve time for illegally disposing of a body.

December 28, 1926
After 112 holiday revelers are hospitalized or killed by poisoned liquor Charles Norris issues a harshly-worded public statement denouncing the government for deliberately adding poisons to alcohol: “The United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes.”

February 4, 1927
Charles Norris is elected as Chairman to the Advisory Board of the Association Against Impure Liquor, an organization of physicians, hospital administrators, and pharmacists dedicated to keeping some industrial alcohol pure and un-poisoned for medical purposes.

February 8, 1928
The Geneva Protocol officially goes into effect, prohibiting the use of chemical or biological weapons in war.

October 24, 1929
The Stock Market crashes, sending the economy into a depression. By the end of 1930 over four million Americans will be unemployed. In New York City, murder by poison becomes a more common crime.

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Mike Malloy's murderers all were sentenced to death, Courtesy: Getty Images

 February 22, 1933
Durable Mike Malloy finally succumbs to death from carbon monoxide poisoning. A group of men hoping to collect on Malloy's life insurance policy had attempted to poison the homeless alcoholic on several occasions by using wood alcohol, methanol, ethylene glycol (antifreeze), arsenic, and food poisoning, as well as by trying to freeze him to death and by hitting him with a car. The men finally succeeded in murdering Malloy by connecting a hose from a gas jet to the passed-out Malloy's mouth.

Malloy would become an iconic figure of The Great Depression.

March 22, 1933
In response to a growing public opposition for Prohibition, President Franklin Roosevelt signs the Cullen-Harrison Act, which permits sale of beer that is 3.2% alcohol or less and wine.

December 5, 1933
The 21st Amendment repeals Prohibition, and the number of deaths by poisoned alcohol drops with access to safely distilled alcohol.

September 11, 1935
After vacationing in South America to improve his health, Charles Norris dies in New York on September 11, 1935 from heart failure. He was 67.

February 1938
Alexander Gettler publishes “The Toxicology of Cyanide,” in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences. Considered the first significant research on cyanide in the human body, this paper is still referenced today.

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Lash Lure brow dye caused blindness, Courtesy: U.S. Food and Drug Administration

June 25, 1938
President Franklin Roosevelt signs the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, further increasing government oversights and regulations. The act requires food companies to conform to three different sets of standards, drugs and cosmetics to be properly labeled, and drugs to be proven safe for use before they are sold.

The American Academy of Forensic Science is founded. It becomes well-known for it publication of the Journal of Forensic Sciences.

The first poison control center is opened in Chicago. By 1957, there will be 17 poison control centers in the United States. The American Association of Poison Control Centers will be founded one year later to connect poison control centers across the United States and standardize their operations.

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Alexander Gettler in 1957, Courtesy: Getty Images

January 1, 1959
Alexander Gettler retires at age 75 after evaluating over 100,000 bodies. He will pass away August 3, 1968.

April 15, 1962
The first meeting of the professional Society of Toxicology is held in Atlantic City.

Originally published in 2013.

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