It always begins with a dead body.
For aficionados of forensics – and fans of “CSI,” “Sherlock,” or other murder mysteries – “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” on PBS’ “American Experience” on Tuesday, will provide a fascinating look at the very beginnings of forensic science in the United States.
Through re-enactments, use of historical video footage, and photographs, “The Poisoner’s Handbook” brings into light a little-known period of scientific investigation. It integrates the birth of forensic science with the rise of big business, national, state and local politics, and the development of government safety regulations.
However, it is riddled with grisly details. Don’t watch unless a sliced human stomach fed into a meat grinder is acceptable viewing.
The early 1900s were a time of massive change in the country with a flood of new chemistry entering the food supply and medicine cabinets. Poison was easy to find masquerading as cosmetics, cleaning supplies or “health tonics.”
At the same time, New York City’s coroners had a bad reputation. They were political appointees, as a “political plum,” and were “paid by the body, (so) coroners like to process as many as possible as quickly as possible,” says Deborah Blum, whose book is the basis of the episode.
An example? Families who didn’t want a suicide on their hands might pay for a ruling of natural death.
That changed when Charles Norris, a Philadelphia aristocrat with a medical degree, was hired – against the wishes of New York’s politicians – as a trained medical examiner. He hired Alexander Gettler, an immigrant’s son who became chief toxicologist, and whose work is still cited in cyanide cases.
During this time, Prohibition was responsible for thousands of poisoning deaths in New York City alone. Norris and Gettler disliked Prohibition from its beginning in 1920, arguing that people were going to keep drinking no matter what. They were right. After several years without liquor, Americans were drinking just about anything – including reconstituted industrial denatured alcohol, to which the government had added poison to keep people from ingesting it.
“Nearly 10,000 in this city will die this year from strong drink,” Norris wrote one year. “These are the first fruits of Prohibition. This is the price of our national experiment in extermination.”
The most tragic story in “The Poisoner’s Handbook” is that of the radium girls. In 1917, young women hand-painted luminous watch faces by sharpening the brush tips between their lips, dipping the bristles in the liquid radium, painting, then licking the brush again, ingesting the radium. The radium destroyed their bones, killing them slowly and painfully. Finally, the living (and soon to be dying) sued.
Gettler proved that even five years later, the first victim’s bones still had radiation poisoning. The company was forced to settle compensation and pensions to five slowly dying women.
These stories and many more make up a grim episode in American history that should never be forgotten. “The Poisoner’s Handbook” shines light on a time when forensic science had to prove its worth – and did.