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American Experience: Poisoner's Handbook

Thu, 01/02/2014 - 10:31am -- WCVE

In the early 20th century, the average American medicine cabinet was a would-be poisoner’s treasure chest: radioactive radium in health tonics, thallium in depilatory creams, morphine in teething medicine and potassium cyanide in cleaning supplies. While the tools of the murderer’s trade multiplied as the pace of industrial innovation increased, the scientific knowledge (and political will) to detect and prevent the crimes lagged behind. Unnatural deaths were handled by the coroner, a position handed out to the corrupt and unqualified as political payback. New York’s coroners were particularly notorious for taking kickbacks from funeral homes and changing death certificates for a price.

This changed in 1918, when New York City hired its first scientifically trained medical examiner, Charles Norris. Over a decade and a half, Norris and his chief toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, turned forensic chemistry into a formidable science, sending many a murderer to the electric chair and setting the standards that the rest of the country would ultimately adopt.

Watch American Experience: Poisoner’s Handbook, January 7 at 8:00 p.m. on WCVE PBS/WHTJ PBS. Check listings for additional air-times.

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Against the opposition of corrupt politicians and powerful industrialists, Norris and Gettler reinvented criminal investigation and led the first campaigns against the dangers of a new chemical age. Determined to fight corruption and use science to explain the causes of violent or suspicious deaths, Norris and Gettler pioneered a justice system based on forensic science instead of cronyism. They also forced corporations and governments to regulate the chemicals used in workplaces and consumer products.

Featuring interviews with renowned medical examiners Marcella Fierro and Michael Baden, historians, and science writers, The Poisoner’s Handbook looks back at Norris and Gettler’s most notorious cases, including the mysterious poisoning of the Jacksons who died in their New York apartment; the cold-hearted serial killer Fanny Creighton; the death and dismemberment of Anna Fredericksen; the fatal radium poisoning of the dial painter girls at a New Jersey watch factory; and the battle with Standard Oil over leaded gasoline. Together, one autopsy and one case at a time, Norris and Gettler elevated forensic science into a highly respected discipline that has revolutionized the justice system in America.