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Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

by Deborah Blum

Pub Date: Feb. 22nd, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-59420-243-8
Publisher: Penguin Press

The rollicking story of the creation of modern forensic science by New York researchers during the Prohibition era.

Pulitzer Prize winner Blum (Science Journalism/Univ. of Wisconsin; Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, 2006, etc.) focuses on two main characters. Charles Norris became chief medical examiner of New York City following an era of corrupt coroners with no medical or scientific training. With his head toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, Norris brought a new level of dedication to the job, developing techniques that were still cited decades later by professionals around the world. One of Blum’s themes is the widespread alcohol poisoning caused by the ban on legal booze—unscrupulous bootleggers sold their thirsty patrons everything from wood alcohol to benzene, gasoline, iodine, formaldehyde, ether and mercury salts. “There is practically no pure whiskey available,” Norris warned in 1926. At the same time, he and Gettler were perfecting the means of detecting increasingly sophisticated poisonings. Old-fashioned arsenic was still around, often in the form of Rough on Rats, a widely available rodent bait. But poisoners were now using cyanide, mercury, carbon monoxide and even rare metals like thallium to do in their victims. It was often difficult to distinguish accidents from murder or suicide, and medical experts often had to supplement their findings with more conventional detective work. Blum recounts the famous cases of the day, including the factory workers who painted glow-in-the-dark watch dials with radium paint, poisoned as they put their brushes in their mouths to touch up the point; and Mike Malloy, a homeless alcoholic who miraculously survived poison, exposure and being run over by a taxi, before the gang who’d insured his life finally gassed him. One pair of murderers, exonerated by Gettler’s evidence in 1924, was finally caught in 1936, when they killed again using the same poison. Blum effectively balances the fast-moving detective story with a clear view of the scientific advances that her protagonists brought to the field.

Caviar for true-crime fans and science buffs alike.