Thursday, February 11, 2010

Jazz Age Science Enters Courtroom

by Deborah Blum 

The first week of December 1926 was clouded in fog. The mist lapped along the rivers, muffled the harbors, made eerie the dry creak of boats rubbing against docks in the water. 

Far too early one morning a Brooklyn police officer patrolling along the East River caught a half-glimpse of a man hurrying through the fog.  As the figure neared the edge of a wharf, the officer could see that the man walked slightly bent as he carried a heavy-looking bundle. The patrolman shouted for the man to halt but instead he hastily dropped his burden and kicked it into the river.

The officer called again as the man fled. Together with a hurriedly approaching fellow patrolman, he tackled the fugitive to the ground. But the stranger refused to answer any of their questions. They took him to the station house where, in the sudden brilliance of a lit room, the officers suddenly realized that their captive’s trouser cuffs and socks were sodden with blood. Once they’d pried out his name, they hurried to his apartment.  The kitchen was a scene from a horror movie, complete with bloody cleaver and jagged saw on the table and a woman’s body on the floor.

Half a body, actually. Everything below the waist was missing – and the police now deduced, long lost in the East River.

I’ve had a love-hate reaction to this story ever since I discovered it in the forgotten archives of New York City history. It’s terrible and it’s tragic.  It’s soaked in blood, literally. But it has a really terrific twist at the end. And even more important, it’s a classic story of chemical detective work from a time when forensic science was so new that scientists were a peculiarity in the courtroom.

I’ve been working as a science writer for most of my career, first at newspapers (won a Pulitzer in 1992 for writing about primate research) and as a book author. In the past decade, I’ve published books on the biology of sex differences, on the science of love and affection, and on whether it’s possible to prove life after death. I sound, I know, like someone with a short attention span. Mostly I just like exploring the different ways that science changes our lives, alters our history, explains who we are today.

Of course, when I first started thinking about writing a book about poison and murder it was also because I just found the subject fascinating. I grew up with my mother’s collection of early 20th  century crime fiction: Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Georgette Heyer, Leslie Ford, all of whom found poison to be the most seductive of murder weapons. I liked the idea of trying to catch some of that seductiveness in a book that would also explain the science of how poisons actually work. 

But it wasn’t until I started looking at the early history of forensics that I found a way to tell the story.  My book, "The Poisoner's Handbook," would become the tale of two forgotten scientists – medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler -- from early 20th century New York City who helped launch the science of forensics in the United States and also solved some of the most famous murder cases of their time.

The 1920s was a treasure trove of innovative, dangerous chemistry.  There were compounds created by military innovations of the Great War, by industrial applications, research into new medicines, and the speakeasy culture born with Prohibition, with its smoky jazz clubs and dubious cocktails. Morphine went into teething medicines for infants; opium into routinely prescribed sedatives; arsenic was an ingredient in everything from pesticides to cosmetics.

Against that background, early forensic scientists literally had to invent rules of chemical detection as they went.  Alexander Gettler, for instance, wrote the fundamental paper on cyanide (still cited by the EPA), created the first tests that could prove intoxication at time of death, discovered how to detect chloroform levels in the brain of a dead person, and did some of the fundamental work on the still-dangerous gas carbon monoxide and how it kills us.  He’s still mentioned by experts as “the father of forensic toxicology in the United States.”

The twist on that dismembered body story I mentioned earlier comes from work done by both Gettler and his boss, Charles Norris. As it turns out, it’s not so much a story of death by hacksaw as death by poison. The toxic material in question turns out to be the very lethal gas, carbon monoxide.

Norris was the pathologist on duty the night Brooklyn police discovered the partial body of Anna Frederickson in the apartment of Francisco Travia. By the time Norris arrived at the scene, the police had already charged Travia, a longshoreman, with hacking the woman to death. But Norris, after looking at the body, insisted that they were wrong.

The woman’s face and what was left of her body was flushed an odd cherry red. People who bled to death, he pointed out, tended to be waxy pale. He took the half-body back to the morgue at Bellevue for autopsy and sent tissue and blood samples to Gettler.

If you know carbon monoxide, you know it’s characteristic for people poisoned by the gas to be flushed pink, even after death. Carbon monoxide crowds oxygen out of the blood stream. Its chemistry gives it a more effective grip on blood-borne proteins that normally distribute oxygen.  As the blood is saturated with the by-products of carbon monoxide, a unique chemical reaction causes to become a brighter, pinker color.

Not only does the skin of a carbon monoxide victim become strangely rosy but also internal organs are stained a deep cherry-red. This effect is so persistent that carbon monoxide saturated blood will often remain that startling crimson weeks or even months after death.

Before the Travia case, Gettler had run experiments proving that the body cannot absorb carbon monoxide after death. So when tests showed that Travia’s victim had lethal levels of carbon monoxide in her blood, it was obvious that she had to have absorbed those killing levels while still alive. In other words, she was dead of carbon monoxide poisoning before Travia cut her up.

Faced with the evidence, Travia confessed that he and the victim had been drinking (illegally, since this was during Prohibition) that night. Both had passed out and when he awoke, she was dead. Not realizing that his gas stove was leaky, he was afraid that he’d be suspected of murder. So he decided to make the body disappear, cutting it apart and putting the pieces in the river.

The police refused to accept his explanation or the new strange science of forensics. But when Travia went to trial, the jury believed his story. He was found guilty of illegally dismembering a body and sentenced to a year in prison. If convicted of murder, he would have been destined for the electric chair at Sing Sing prison. The chemical detective work of Norris and Gettler saved his life – and would go on to make forensic toxicology an essential part of solving crimes today. 


Kathryn Casey said...

Great post, Deborah. Welcome to Women in Crime Ink!

Jody said...

I've been following you on Twitter and enjoyed your writing and this post immensely. Thanks for bringing science into the "real world."

Lydia said...

I refer to the 'Handbook' so often some suspect I wrote it! (if only!) The best I've read in years. The alcohol section gave me chills. We think we are so advanced 'these days' but many additives in prescription and over-the-counter products can harm or kill. Drug prohibition is just as bad, could you imagine taking a drug produced by someone who barely passed grade nine science?

Francisco Travia said...

Saludos desde Argentina