PBS special details birth of forensic science

'The Poisoner’s Handbook' offers fresh perspective

New York City medical examiner Dr. Charles Norris, who was the pioneer of forensic toxicology in America.
New York City medical examiner Dr. Charles Norris, who was the pioneer of forensic toxicology in America.

It always begins with a dead body.

For aficionados of forensics, CSI or Sherlock, or murder mysteries, The Poisoner’s Handbook, on PBS’ American Experience on Jan. 7, will provide a fascinating look at the very beginnings of forensics in the United States.

Through re-enactments, use of historical video footage, and photographs, The Poisoner’s Handbook brings into light a little-known period of scientific investigation. It integrates the birth of forensic science with the rise of big business, national, state, and local politics, and the development of government safety regulations

However it is riddled with grisly details. Don’t watch unless sliced human stomach fed into a meat grinder is acceptable viewing.

The early 1900s were a time of massive change in the country with a flood of new chemistry entering the food supply (fertilizers,) and medicine cabinets. Poison was easy to find masquerading as cosmetics, cleaning supplies, or “health tonics.”

New York City’s coroners had a bad reputation. They were political appointees, as a “political plum,” and were “paid by the body, coroners like to process as many as possible as quickly as possible,” says Deborah Blum, whose book is the basis of the episode.

An example? Families who didn’t want a suicide on their hands might pay for a ruling of natural death.

That changed when Charles Norris, a Philadelphia aristocrat with a medical degree, was hired — against the wishes of New York’s politicians — as a trained medical examiner. He hired Alexander Gettler, an immigrant’s son, who became chief toxicologist, whose work is still cited today in cyanide cases.

Norris and Gettler disliked Prohibition from its beginning in 1920. They felt people were going to keep drinking. Part of the problem was that after several years without liquor, Americans were drinking just about anything, including reconstituted industrial denatured alcohol, to which the government added poison so that it wouldn’t be drunk.

“Nearly 10,000 in this city will die this year from strong drink,” Norris wrote one year. “These are the first fruits of Prohibition. This is the price of our national experiment in extermination.”

The most tragic story is that of the radium girls. In 1917, young women hand-painted luminous watch faces by sharpening the brush tips between their lips, dipping the bristles in the liquid radium, painting, then licking the brush again, ingesting the radium. The radium destroyed their bones, killing them slowly and painfully. Finally the living (and soon to be dying) sued.

Gettler proved that even five years later, the first victim’s bones still had radiation poisoning. The company was forced to settle compensation and pensions to five slowly dying women.

These stories and many more make up a grim episode in American history that should never be forgotten. The Poisoner’s Handbook shines light on a time when forensic science had to prove its worth — and did.