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The Story of Poison, Crime and Punishment
January 7, 2014  | By Eric Gould
 

With police lab forensics as one of the pillars of nightly scripted TV, it’s hard to imagine a time when medical examiners didn’t rule the day of crime and punishment.  It’s a little startling, then, to learn that the art of nailing crooks in a courtroom with lab results is a relatively recent phenomenon, not even 100 years old.

What we now accept as routine, from smart TV forensics docs like Quincy, M.E. and Dr. Hunt in Body of Proof, wasn’t always so. In Tuesday’s PBS American Experience documentary, The Poisoner’s Handbook (8 p.m. ET; check local listings), we learn that two trailblazing early 20th century medical examiners in New York City, Dr. Charles Norris and his chief toxicologist Alexander Gettler, developed systematic autopsy techniques and lab tests that unmasked all kinds of foul play and corporate negligence.

Based on Deborah Blum’s 2010 bestselling book, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, the documentary follows Norris and Gettler from 1918 forward, as they became among the first to develop forensic chemistry into a reliable courtroom standard. Before that, it’s surprising to learn that death investigations and death certificates in New York were often handled by less-than-scrupulous and unqualified politically appointed coroners. Legal and financial outcomes of deaths could be bought and sold by those who could afford it.

What’s more, before the FDA and other government agencies were around to regulate such things, the typical American home was stocked with new industrial products rife with radium, cyanide and morphine. The documentary runs down the everyday health tonics, creams and cleaning supplies that were accidental culprits and handy means for scheming heirs and vengeful lovers who could escape investigation.

Gettler and Norris (seen, respectively, at right) changed all that by developing rigorous lab techniques that could test for lethal trails of carbon monoxide, arsenic and other chemicals that sent some crooks to the electric chair at Sing Sing. They also helped force corporations to eliminate toxic materials from regular use and pay settlements to workers. Murder by poisoning almost all but disappeared.

Maybe the most surprising find in The Poisoner’s Handbook is the segment on the US government’s policy of increasing the toxic chemicals used in industrial denatured alcohol during prohibition, despite their grim results. Norris wrote official protests as the body count of alcoholics looking for a cheap drink rose almost immediately in New York.

Directed by Rob Rapley (Trail of Tears, Wyatt Earp), The Poisoner’s Handbook wanders regularly into recreations, but those do not really diminish the compelling back-story of CSI-like methods to which we’ve become accustomed, and now accept as facts to tell us whodunnit. There are plenty of rich historical photos of crime scenes, courtrooms and obsolete equipment that give the real flavor of the times.

 
 
 
 
 
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