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the poisoner's handbook

28 june 2010

Life in New York during Prohibition was rough. Your home was lit by cheerful carbon monoxide gas. The critters sharing it with you were periodically kept down by applications of cyanide and arsenic. Your cosmetics featured arsenic, too, or mercury, or the delightfully depilatory element thallium, which is tasteless, odorless, and completely fatal. The corner lunchroom might be serving up a special of huckleberry pie with white arsenic pastry. Your wristwatch was painted with radium by factory workers in New Jersey who died at an even faster rate than their colleagues in the leaded-gasoline industry. And when you got depressed by your noxious environment and went down to the speakeasy for relief, you could expect a nice tumbler of wood alcohol on the rocks.

Deborah Blum's Poisoner's Handbook features "murder" prominently in its subtitle, and provides quite a quota of Agatha-Christie-variety killers. We see jealous husbands, testamentary ancestors, and other inconvenient types despatched with all manner of bwa-ha-ha concoctions. We see, as promised, the birth of a law-enforcement profession to combat their sinister designs: forensic medical examiners, led by New York's Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, who wrote the literature on how human (and, hideously, laboratory canine) bodies absorb poison.

But there are larger issues at stake in The Poisoner's Handbook than maiden aunts and elderberry wine. It's a book as much about environmental toxicity as melodrama villains. And lest we think that all this poisonous ambiance is a thing of some kind of quaintly fiendish past, the themes that surface in Blum's book remind one of nothing so much as the present day. Life is a bit safer now than 80 years ago, true, but the attitudes that promoted large-scale environmental poisoning are alive and well. And in our rush to deregulate the global economy and get it purring along at ever-faster speeds, we've assuredly taken several steps backward in the past 30 years.

Most appalling in The Poisoner's Handbook are not the James-M-Cain murderers for double-indemnity payoffs: they seem rather human in their feverish lust and greed. No, the attitudes that are really bothersome are those of corporate capitalists. Safely behind the bland imperative of serving their limitedly-liable stockholders, transferring tainted goods from anonymous laborers to generic consumers, these guys really did stick at nothing. A 1920s capitalist would sell you radioactive energy drinks and then argue that his steadily-dying workforce had no standing to sue him because they didn't actually die till after they'd been laid off for, well, dying. A capitalist would argue that workers perishing from exposure to lead were to blame for their deaths because they were stupid, literally wash his hands in leaded gasoline to absolve his product of blame, and then fight to keep leaded gasoline legal so that the atmosphere could get a good saturation dose of poison over the next five decades.

Worst of all, a socially-conservative capitalist would deliberately add more and more sinister poisons to industrial alcohol precisely because he knew that bootleggers would "renature" that alcohol into recreational liquor. If the ignorant tipplers started keeling over (as they did in great numbers during Prohibition), it was their own fault. Sinners deserve death, and the best way to ensure their virtue is to make sin lead to early mortality.

Regulation is unnecessary, said (and still says) the free-market capitalist and his right-libertarian allies. The market will quickly correct itself if it starts killing too many of its customers. And for sure, bakeries that sold arsenical pastries to their clientele tended to fail at a greater rate than unpoisonous patisseries. But the principle of the free market, in such cases, is just mind-bogglingly evil. To save a tiny amount in tax-supported regulatory prevention, laissez-faire advocates will advocate the most drastically Darwininan cures.

Norris and Gettler are the heroes of Blum's book, scrounging from reluctant public institutions the funds they needed to combat the forces of market capitalism and officially murderous puritanism. But the villains are harder to see. Some of the most famous American private murderers appear here, their stories vividly retold: Roland Molineux, Mary Creighton, Ruth Snyder. However, they come to seem pikers in Blum's vivid analysis of banally indifferent environmental murder.

Blum, Deborah. The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the birth of forensic medicine in Jazz Age New York. New York: Penguin, 2010.