Deborah Blum knows so much about poison that even her husband sometimes shies away from her. In her new book, The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, the Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer profiles the two men, New York City chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler, who pioneered forensic medicine in the U.S. between 1915 and 1936. Blum talks to TIME about how the U.S. government took to poisoning its own citizens during Prohibition and why poisoners are the most frightening murderers.
Why choose these two men to profile?
I knew that forensic science in the U.S. had been born in the 1920s I just wanted to figure out who was doing it. I looked at a few scientists before and in the footnotes would see Alexander Gettler talked about as the "father of American toxicology." I had one those journalist moments: 'Well, if he's the father of American toxicology, where is he?'
In a lot of the entries I found on forensic science, these two weren't even mentioned.
Isn't that incredible? And yet when you go back into the period they're front-page news. They really rewrote forensic history. I think of myself these days as a really good friend to dead scientists. These guys were incredibly rewarding to me because they made such a difference and they were so forgotten it's kind of a cautionary tale, actually. In our own narcissistic moments we can imagine that we're unforgettable, but there's not that many people that are.
For every advancement they made in forensic medicine, some other poison would pop up it seemed like a never-ending battle.
You keep pushing the rock up the hill, right? They were pretty meticulous at hunting down new poisons. And is it a never-ending game? Absolutely. We're always inventing new, creative industrial chemicals. You see the thing same today that you saw then, which is when we get 'gee whizzy' about things and put them out there in our every day lives without having enough proper respect or understanding of them.
Are there any moments that stick in your head as really key advancements Norris and Gettler made to propel the field of forensic medicine?
Gettler did the first work that allowed scientists to tell that a person had been intoxicated at time of death. He designed not only the test but had to build the equipment himself. The guy was amazing. The first work proving that lead in gasoline was dangerous to the rest of us they did that. The first work proving that if you intake radium your bones are radioactive for many years after you're dead they did that. They created the science that we all take for granted. Our whole love affair with CSI and Bones and all of those shows is built on this period when there wasn't even a forensic laboratory.
How did the field evolve to where it is today?
Increasingly you start to see this hand in hand match of the criminal justice system and the forensic scientist. These professional forensics programs, once they got started, gave a support system for people who really believed this mattered. So they weren't just fringe scientists. Before they were kind of the creepy guys who liked dead bodies, but it grew into a respectable profession. Now, we're fascinated by the science.
What made the Jazz Age such an interesting time to chronicle?
The 1920s are wonderful. They're completely wild. It's a peculiarly anarchist decade because of Prohibition. You have this brand new constitutional amendment. You have the social upheaval that followed World War I. You have this undercurrent of lawlessness that starts running through the decade as people reject the government trying to legislate moral behavior. This really defiant drinking that fosters the rise of massive organized crime. I feel really lucky that the scientists I like invented their field in Jazz Age New York. It's like someone saying, 'Here, take the best theatrical backdrop in the world for your story.'
What do you think might surprise readers?
Probably the role of government as mass poisoners during prohibition. I kept going, "Whoa." I didn't realize that had happened. How come that isn't public knowledge?
And what happened there?
When the amendment went into effect in 1920 it became rapidly obvious that the American people were not going to abide by this law. In fact, alcohol consumption rates went up hugely. The folks who were behind prohibition saw this as kind of a moral cause in which the ends definitely justified the means they were going to make people quit drinking. They realized the major supply came from these bootleggers who were stealing industrial alcohol (which is regular grade alcohol that you add chemicals to in order to make it undrinkable) and distilling out the bad chemicals. The government passed new regulations that forced manufacturers of industrial alcohol to, in some cases, put 10 times as much poison in that alcohol. People started dying in droves. Scientists and toxicologists were absolutely furious saying, 'You've got to stop this.' The answer of the people who were in government and behind the dry crusade was 'Too bad for them, they're breaking the law.' In the end, they held to this so hard and fast that literally tens of thousands were killed by this government program to poison alcohol.
You mention in your author's note that your interest in poison has been seen as a little scary. Something about your husband moving his cup of coffee away from you?
He did. I'm at breakfast talking about a poison and he's edging his cup away from me. When I was working on the book proposal I had all these books about poison stacked around me, and he goes, "You know, if I die of poison, everyone is going to know you did it." Well, thanks a lot, right? (Laughs.) Even now when I go to the office people will say, "Be nice to her."
I read a lot of this book on the subway and sometimes felt like I had to conceal the cover because I didn't want people to think I was plotting something.
(Laughs.) I had the idea for a handbook of poisons in my head from the beginning. Poisoners are fascinating they are the scariest killers because they are so cold at heart. What they do is premeditated: they plan, they plot and they wait. To me, they are the most amoral of all killers.