The Poisoner’s Handbook

February 21, 2010, 3:19 pm

In an absolutely must-read article, Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter Deborah Blum writes in Slate about a program pursued by the U.S. government in the 1920s and 30s intended to poison supplies of bootleg alcohol.  During prohibition, illegal liquor syndicates would steal massive amounts of industrial alcohol, which had been “denatured” — made non-potable — by the addition of poisons such as methanol.  Interestingly — in a twist certain to inspire paranoia worthy of a Glenn Beck — the denaturing mandate was instituted in 1906 as effort to enforce collection of taxes on potable alcohol.  However, with the onset of prohibition, bootleggers hired chemists who could easily “renature” the alcohol, distilling out impurities.  Federal officials countered by making alcohol much more poisonous:

“By mid-1927, the new denaturing formulas included some notable poisons — kerosene and brucine (a plant alkaloid closely related to strychnine), gasoline, benzene, cadmium, iodine, zinc, mercury salts, nicotine, ether, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, carbolic acid, quinine, and acetone.  The Treasury Department also demanded more methyl alcohol be added — up to 10 percent of total product.  It was the last that proved most deadly.”

The effects were catastrophic.  In one day (Christmas, 1926) the emergency room at Bellevue Hospital in New York saw more than 60 patients severely poisoned by bootleg alcohol; eight died.  Blum cites estimates that by the end of Prohibition in 1933, more than 10,000 people were killed by denatured alcohol.  Some were unconcerned: “Must Uncle Sam guarantee safety first for souses?” editorialized the Omaha Bee. However, some important figures vehemently opposed to program.  New York City medical examiner Charles Norris declared:

“The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol.  [Y]et it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison.  Knowing this to be true, the United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible.”

Blum came across this episode while researching her new book The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. The book looks at the career of Charles Norris — New York City’s first medical examiner — and his toxicologist Alexander Gettler.  It also describes the difficult process by which toxicology testing and results were introduced into the courtroom and became accepted by the legal system.  A review in this morning’s Washington Post states that The Poisoner’s Handbook is “as thrilling as an ‘CSI’ episode, but it also offers something even better: an education in how forensics really works”. I have ordered the book, and can’t wait to read it.  I’ll post a full review anon.


  1. A Dabz Says:

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