Monday, January 31, 2011

The Poisoner's Handbook

By Deborah Blum

 My book, The Poisoner's Handbook, comes out in paperback this week. It was published a year ago, and I had the pleasure of joining Women in Crime Ink as a blogger shortly later.

It's been a wonderful year to be the author of a story about 1920's forensic detectives figuring out how to catch poison killers. The book was named one of the top 100 books of 2010 by Amazon. I've visited more than 15 cities to talk about it, and I am actually booked to continue talking about through October of this year. I do sometimes show up wearing the Victorian poison ring that I purchased in honor of the book.

"Where did women actually get those rings?" my son asked me. "Did they go to the jeweler and ask to see the rings kept under the counter?"

As you may guess, my family and friends worry a little about my ongoing obsession with poison, murder, and the more sinister aspects of chemistry. I'm awfully prone upon hearing the name of a poison - say, mercury - to relate the story of 1920's film star Olive Thomas (Mary Pickford's sister-in-law) who was killed by mercury. And don't get me started on arsenic. My neighbors have promised my husband that they are looking out for him. My husband now drinks his coffee at a distance.

But I continue to find the subject endlessly fascinating. Poisoners themselves, with their devious ways and cold-hearted plotting, tell us a lot about who we are, often at our worst. Poisons themselves are a reminder that we need to navigate with care and knowledge through the chemical world in which we live.

Of course, poisons really are fascinatingly wicked chemical compounds and many of them have fascinating histories as well. In honor of the paperback publication, I thought I'd share with you a few of my favorites:

1. Carbon Monoxide: It’s so beautifully simple (just two atoms--one of carbon, one of oxygen) and so amazingly efficient a killer. There’s a story I tell in the book about a murder syndicate trying to kill an amazingly resilient victim. They try everything from serving him poison alcohol to running over him with a car. But in the end, it’s carbon monoxide that does him in.
2. Arsenic: This used to be the murderer’s poison of poisons, so commonly used in the early 19th century that it was nicknamed the inheritance powder. It’s also the first poison that forensic scientists really figured out how to detect in a corpse. It stays in the body for centuries, which is why we keep digging up historic figures like Napoleon or U.S. President Zachary Taylor to check their remains for poison.
3. Radium: I love the fact that this rare radioactive element used to be considered good for your health. It was mixed into medicines, face creams, and health drinks in the 1920's. People thought of it like a tiny glowing sun that would give them its power. Boy, were they wrong. The two scientists in my book, Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, proved in 1928 that the bones of people exposed to radium became radioactive, and stayed that way for years.

4. Nicotine: This was the first plant poison that scientists learned to detect in a human body. Just an incredible case in which a French aristocrat and her husband decided to kill her brother for money. They actually stewed up tobacco leaves in a barn to brew a nicotine potion. Their amateur chemical experiments inspired a very determined professional chemist to hunt them down.

5. Chloroform: Developed for surgical anesthesia in the 19th century, this rapidly became a favorite tool of home invasion robbers. If you read newspapers around the turn of the 20th century, they’re full of accounts of people who answered a knock on the door, only to be knocked out by a chloroform soaked rag. One woman woke up to find her hair shaved off, and undoubtedly sold for the lucrative wig trade.

6. Mercury: In its pure state, mercury appears as a bright silver liquid, which scatters into shiny droplets when touched. No wonder it’s nicknamed quicksilver. People used to drink it as a medicine more than 100 years ago. No, they didn’t drop dead. Those silvery balls just slid right through them. Mercury is much more poisonous if it’s mixed with other chemicals and can be absorbed by the body directly. That’s why methylmercury in fish turns out to be so risky a contaminant.

7. Cyanide: One of the most famous of the homicidal poisons and, in my opinion, not a particularly good choice. Yes, it’s amazingly lethal--a teaspoon of the pure stuff can kill in a few minutes. But it’s a violent and obvious death. In early March of last year, in fact, an Ohio doctor was convicted of murder for putting cyanide in his wife’s vitamin supplements.

8. Aconite: A heart-stoppingly, deadly natural poison. It forms in ornamental plants that include the blue-flowering monkshood. The ancient Greeks called it the queen of poisons and considered it so evil that they believed that it derived from the saliva of Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the gates of hell.

9. Silver: Swallowing silver nitrate probably won’t kill you, but if you do it long enough it will turn you blue. One of my favorite stories involving a silver bullet concerns the Famous Blue Man of Barnum and Bailey’s Circus who was analyzed by one of the heroes of my book, Alexander Gettler.

10. Thallium: Agatha Christie put this poison at the heart of one of her creepiest mysteries, The Pale Horse, and I looked at it in terms of a murdered family in real life. An element discovered in the 19th century, it’s a perfect homicidal poison. Tasteless and odorless, except for one obvious giveaway, the victim’s hair falls out as a result of the poisoning!

Now that I’ve written this list, I realize I could probably name ten more. But, I don’t want to scare you.


Dr. Gina Simmons said...

You already did scare me. Fascinating post! Can't wait to read the book.

Bluewaters said...

I have been following the "Doctor on the Run" case and honestly I had thought it was at the moment instead of last yr. The conviction does not surprise me due to the "implied evidence" that juries but not defense lawyers care about.