The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

By Deborah Blum | Penguin Press | $25.95 | 379 pages | 2010

This is an instructive book. It is based on the work of two New York City scientists, medical examiner Charles Norris and his toxicologist Andrew Gettler. We learn about the fatal consequences of chloroform, cyanide, mercury and other substances. Alcohol can be a bad potion, especially the wood alcohol that was gulped during Prohibition.

I was disappointed that strychnine got little coverage. Extracted from seeds of the Asian vomit button tree, it causes an especially excruciating passage into the hereafter. The victim is tortured by convulsions similar to those in tetanus, all the while entirely conscious. Strychnine was the poison of choice of Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, who murdered at least four patients and four prostitutes in Canada, Chicago and London. He was hanged in 1892.*

Author Blum confesses to being incompetent in her college chemistry lab, which convinced her to switch to science journalism. We readers are the beneficiaries. If you prefer listening to reading, the audio version is excellent.

* For more about Cream, consult A Prescription for Murder, by Angus McLaren (Chicago Press 1993), and The Trial of Thomas Neill Cream, edited by W. Teignmouth Shore (Notable British Trials Series 1923).