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The Poisoner’s Handbook: Forensic science innovation

The Poisoner's Handbook on PBS was an excellent special that based on Deborah Blum's book, tells the history of the beginning of forensic science.
The Poisoner's Handbook on PBS was an excellent special that based on Deborah Blum's book, tells the history of the beginning of forensic science.

Television network station PBS once again brought a compelling and fascinating two-hour special in their American Experience series called "The Poisoner’s Handbook: American Experience." The PBS website describes the special that started on Jan. 7 and ran last week as this –

In the early 20th century, the average American medicine cabinet was a would-be poisoner's treasure chest, with radioactive radium, thallium, and morphine in everyday products. The pace of industrial innovation increased, but the scientific knowledge to detect and prevent crimes committed with these materials lagged behind until 1918. New York City's first scientifically trained medical examiner, Charles Norris, and his chief toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, turned forensic chemistry into a formidable science and set the standards for the rest of the country.

The program started with a maid walking through an apartment setting going down steps with her cleaning products. She comes to a particular apartment, walks in and finds a married couple on the floor dead. The narrator of the program then speaks –

In 1922, 101 New Yorkers hanged themselves, 444 died in car accidents, 20 were crushed in elevators. There were 237 fatal shootings, and 34 stabbings. And that year, 997 New Yorkers died of poisoning. On April 25 1922, Fremont Jackson and his wife Annie took their place among those grim statistics.

As the special moves along, comments are made from experts throughout the program that include forensic psychologist Marcella Fierro, crime writer Colin Evans and author Deborah Blum, among others. The PBS program is based on Blum’s book “The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.”

It was obvious from what was shown that forensic science was a great discovery. Poisons which were covered that specifically centered on cases talked about were cyanide, arsenic, methanol. lead, carbon dioxide, denatured alcohol, radium and thallium. The practical scenes were well put together with actors playing the roles of the characters who were examined.

The arsenic case was captured by a shrewd woman named Fanny Creighton; who in 1923 poisoned her brother Charles, went to trial twice, and proved to the jury in a made-up story her brother poisoned himself due to a love affair gone bad. But twelve years later in 1935 she went to trial again, charged with killing her mother-in-law. By this time forensic chemistry had expanded and Creighton was found guilty. She was executed in the electric chair in Sing-Sing in 1936.

Another example was the carbon monoxide case of Mike Malloy, who was knocked off by his so-called friends to get insurance money. The four who were involved tried to do everything they could to kill Malloy, much to no avail. They even had a cab driver hit him but he survived. Finally when he was drunk and passed out, the rogues put a rubber hose with gas in his mouth. He died, the scoundrels got their cash; but rumors flew about Malloy’s death. The proof of murder came out of Malloy’s body due to the undertaker not embalming the body to rid all traces of the carbon monoxide. The four men went to trial, were found guilty, and went to the electric chair.

The Los Angeles Times gave a review of the program which can be read below.

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