Told through the eyes of chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler, this is great addition to knowledge base of history of forensic investigation in general and toxicology specifically. You get to learn all about what poisons do to the body and how they were detected, puréeing organs and boiling bones to perform the strangest of alchemy-like experiments. Also a brilliantly vivid look at turn-of-the-century New York, government corruption and overwhelming filth in era prior to EPA. Think greasy toxic smog so thick it burns eyes and lungs on simple walk to work. Everyone who thinks it was soooooo great back then should read this book.
Chapters divided by poison:
Cyanide deaths are impressively gruesome. Violent "body-rattling" convulsions, desperate gasping for air, a "rising bloody froth of vomit." The book distinguishes between hydrogen, potassium and sodium cyanide. The salts seem especially brutal:
If swallowed, they burn their way down. An autopsy of a cyanide victim found the mucous membranes of the lips, mouth and esophagus darkened to a bloody, ragged red -- especially if the poison had been taken without food to buffer the impact. The stomach became swollen, discolored, clotted with swampy, streaky mucus...
Beautifully written, extremely interesting cases, vivid description, lots of neat facts. One of my favorite underlined passages was about autopsy.
The Bellevue autopsy room was quiet and cool, with high ceilings and white plastered walls. Lights hung brightly over each long marble dissecting table; at every table's foot was a deep rectangular copper basin with hot running water, to keep hands and instruments clean. As the standard manual reminded pathologists, blood and fluids that dried on the fingers could be "unpleasant" and dull the sensitivity needed for the operation.
The instruments lay in bristling rows. There was the section knife, with its short thick blade and heavy handle, used for making long incisions, and slim scalpels ready to make the finer cuts. At Bellevue they always laid out three instruments for probing the brain: a deep cutter, with a six-inch handle and six-inch blade "so strong it does not bend or feather too easily" to slice through the dura, the tough membrane protecting the brain; a thin, two-sided blade with a rounded tip used for incisions; and a pick, used to free the brain from the spinal cord so that it could be removed from the body.
There were delicate tissue-cutting scissors and powerful bone scissors used to crunch through cartilage and thinner bones; dissecting forceps; at least one good butcher's saw for the bigger bones; smaller saws for tasks like removing the spinal cord; brass and wooden foot-rules (twelve-inch rulers); tape measures, measuring glasses and calipers; large scales to weigh the whole body and small scales to weigh the pieces; glass-stopped jars to hold the organs for poison analysis; and the usual assortment of sponges, pails, vessels, plates, and bottles that collected in all postmortem rooms.
Listen to feature on All Things Considered and read excerpt from Prologue HERE