The greatest startup of the 20th century

The Poisoner’s Handbook is packed with scandalous murders. There’s Tammany Hall corruption, “drys” and “wets” fighting over Prohibition, and creepy science. These are all lots of fun, and very educational. But the centerpiece of the book is the story of how two men, Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, created modern forensic science in America against overwhelming odds. While little-known today, the two are an archetypal example of the founding duo, in the mold of Gates/Allen, Jobs/Wozniak, even Lennon/McCartney. Not only do they predate those more famous partnerships, they arguably contributed more to the world. You should read this book if only because these men deserve far more notice for their efforts.

Before Charles Norris, criminal deaths were handled by city coroners, who in New York City were notoriously corrupt. Part of the Tammany Hall Democratic machine, they sat in elegant offices and extracted graft from every crevice of their domain– from extra fees for death certificates and autopsies to bribes for favorable rulings on cause of death. Most damningly, these coroners had little to no medical expertise: this pathetic state of affairs meant that criminal investigations were nothing but guesswork, leaving astute killers free reign over the city.

And such killers had unlimited access to the perfect tool: poison. Postwar America was awash in deadly poisons, which proliferated in various tonics, elixirs, and revitalizers at a time when the FDA was young and toothless. Even if the coroners were interested in helping the police and the DA fight criminals, they would have had no chance of detecting poison murders, what with their nonexistent forensic skill.

Charles Norris changed all of this. He was a doctor with actual medical skills, but more importantly, he was a hard-driving man who refused to take no for an answer, a man dedicated to the cause of establishing forensic science in the U.S., with the political will to match. During the 20+ years of his tenure as New York City’s first chief medical examiner, he worked in the dingy labs he loaned from Bellevue Hospital, paying for equipment and parts of his staff’s salaries out of his own pocket. He was constantly battling New York’s alternately corrupt and reformist (read: cost-cutting) mayors to get additional funding for his cash-starved department, even as this same department was churning out scientific breakthroughs in detecting poisonous substances. Over time these advances built up an incredible reverence for his office’s findings across New York’s police stations and courtrooms. Norris insisted on developing and documenting strict procedures for everything his office did, and on following them to the letter. He performed thousands of autopsies, spent countless long nights in Bellevue’s labs, and ultimately worked himself to death. According to Blum, he took two vacations during his entire career in office.

No less influential was Norris’s chief toxicologist, Alexander Gettler. Norris was the political and marketing guru behind the medical examiner’s office, but Gettler played the Wozniak to his Jobs. At the end of his life, in a rare interview, Gettler estimated he’d looked at a hundred thousand bodies. He was singly determined to learn as much about poisons, toxins, and anything that could cause death as he possibly could. Gettler developed or enhanced toxicologists’ ability to detect alcohol, arsenic, radium, thallium, cyanide, carbon monoxide, and hundreds of other substances. His experiments were exhaustive, and his results incontrovertible: where defense attorneys once openly mocked his witness-stand pronouncements (and juries followed suit), they later complained that juries listened unquestioningly to whatever Gettler said. His deputies, known as the Gettler boys, went on to head their own toxicology labs around the country, and they created the next set of advances in forensics and dry chemistry. He did the jobs of at least two men, despite working for chronically low pay; oh, and he also taught classes and published reams of papers (some of which are used to this day). Gettler caught murderers and exonerated innocents: people who would never have seen justice without his work.

If Norris and Gettler were the Jobs and Wozniak of their time, then the New York City medical examiner’s office was one of the greatest startups of all-time. It helped pioneer a whole field on this side of the Atlantic, forensic toxicology, despite hardly anyone believing in it or understanding it, and it did so on a shoestring budget. Its incredible success created the political and cultural atmosphere that led to the eradication of poisons from daily-use products, the banishment of lethal intoxicants like lead and radium from American factories, and the granting of real power to the FDA.

Anyone who wants to create an organization and make lasting change in the world had better study the work of Norris and Gettler.

And if you read about them here, you also get lots of murder! You can’t lose!

Here is a trailer for the PBS series that’s based on the book:

Photo Credit: PBS