Sunday, January 05, 2014

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Toxicology and Tammany

There was a time crime was rampant in New York, but City Hall was fine with the carnage.  This seems to be a recurring cycle in the City, but in this case, the time in question is 1918.  Coroner positions were an important part of Tammany Hall’s patronage mill.  No medical training was required, as long as the mortuary kick-backs were shared with the machine.  As a result, untold poisoners escaped judgment, either through negligence or graft. The efforts of a reformist medical examiner and his pioneering toxicologist to make science and integrity part of New York law enforcement are chronicled in Rob Rapley’s The Poisoner’s Handbook (promo here), which airs this Tuesday as part of the current season of American Experience.

Charles Norris was independently wealthy, relatively politically astute, and a genuine medical doctor.  Against the vociferous objections of Tammany Mayor John F. “Red Mike” Hylan, the state of New York forced through his appointment as the City’s medical examiner.  His chief lieutenant was Alexander Gettler, a Jewish Hungarian immigrant who worked his way through a PhD in chemistry.  No longer in the business of selling specially tailored death certificates, Norris’ office actually started applying the scientific method to criminal investigation. During their early years, Gettler wrote academic papers on scores of toxins that remain relevant to this day.

Based on the nonfiction book by Deborah Blum (who appears as a talking head), Poisoner is more authoritative in its treatment of criminological history than the thematically related How Sherlock Changed the World.  Rapley never addresses Gettler’s reading habits, but evidently he was quite the Yankees fan.  Shrewdly structured, Poisoner zeroes in on Gettler’s relationship with his nemesis, sort of the Irene Adler of arsenic, for maximum dramatic value.  It also morbidly but logically organizes each section according to the relevant toxin under discussion. 

However, it clearly favors the toxicologist over his M.E., even though political junkies would probably prefer to hear more about Norris’ wrangling with Tammany Hall.  In contrast, a bit too much time is devoted to Prohibition.  While it certainly kept Norris and Gettler (both Wets) busy, there was little mystery involved in each toxic “denatured” alcohol death.

There is plenty of good New York history and vintage true crime in American Experience’s The Poisoner’s Handbook.  Highly watchable (at least until the last minute cheerleading for the FDA), it should entertain (and inform) fans of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist and BBC America’s Copper.  It premieres on most PBS outlets this coming Tuesday (1/7).