Medical examiners were around long before CSI and DNA testing; they were also around for a long time before there was any kind of formal, established practice or training. Should an early 20th century ME have desired to learn forensic pathology, there was scant research, few textbooks, and little systematized knowledge.
Most weren’t trying to learn because in most places, medical examiner was a patronage position, a cog in a greater political machine, and not expected to have any kind of expertise. Virtually everyone was corrupt, and with medical examiners routinely a combination of complicit, lazy, and inept, murders were rarely treated as murders and even more rarely solved. Roused from their assorted intoxicated stupors, medical examiners were easily bribed to overlook even blatant evidence of wrongdoing. Four gunshots wound to the head? That’s a suicide. Bruises and broken bones? Natural causes. Such was the state of forensics.
In 1918, Charles Norris—the “sardonic, goat-bearded, public-spirited” Charles Norris whose family had founded Norristown, PA—was appointed medical examiner for New York. In the following two decades, he spent a significant part of his family fortune to overhaul and professionalize the practice of forensic medicine and forensic toxicology. He ended up in an arms race with the poisoners: a novel and exotic toxin was unearthed and employed for murderous ends, and Norris worked to develop a test to identify it. And then a new poison would enter the mix, because, well, there’s no shortage of compounds with which to kill people.
Some notes from The Poisoner’s Handbook:
• Arsenic has been used as poison for centuries. It was a favorite assassination tool of the Borgias in 15th century Italy, and was so commonly employed in 18th and 19th century France it earned the nickname inheritance powder. It’s an effective poison, but not a subtle one. It breaks down so slowly that it can be found decades after death in hair or fingernails; it also slows the decay process, essentially mummifying bodies.
• In the early 1900s, one of Barnum & Bailey’s attractions was the Blue Man, who skin was bright blue and named was well-earned. He was eventually diagnosed with agyria, a silver accumulation in the body. This can be also be caused by ingesting silver nitrate, and Blue Man denied for years that he had blued himself. Following his death, Norris’s right-hand man, Alexander Gettler, conducted the autopsy and extracted nearly four ounces of silver from Blue Man’s body.
• Before the advent of leaded gasoline, inefficient engines and low quality gas caused engine knocking, which made most cars sound on the verge of explosive failure at all times. Then came the discovery that adding tetraethyl lead to gasoline, even in minute amounts, increases octane ratings, slows combustion time, and reduces engine knock. Great! Except, unfortunate downside: huge, massive, long-lasting environmental consequences.
Even in the 1920s, developers knew lead was bad. So did the marketers: filling stations deliberately advertised “ethyl” gas additives to downplay the lead. Of course workers in the manufacturing plant—known as the “looney gas plant”—suffered the most, as they rapidly developed symptoms of lead poisoning and many almost as quickly died: within a year of the plant’s opening, ⅔ of the employees were hospitalized or dead. Faced with the potential for a lawsuit of astronomical proportions, the company first claimed the men had gone insane from working too hard. Then they insisted the chemical was simply not dangerous, a move so common to corporate-chemical PR it should be named like a chess maneuver: “ah, the Rockefeller Gambit, and now I shall employ the Luxembourg Defense…”. Finally they suggested that because they had supplied masks the workers had chosen not to wear, the company was not responsible for negative health effects such as death. It’s all about choice, you see. The freedom to choose is uniquely American! Five decades later the US banned leaded gas.*
*There was a large reduction in violent crime in the 1990s, and one theory holds that it’s because that was the first generation of children in decades who were not suffering from low-grade lead poisoning since birth.
**Double-secret-bonus side note: this isn’t in the book, but father of leaded gas Thomas Midgely also developed CFCs. Then he developed polio. Largely bedridden by the disease, he devised an elaborate system of ropes and pulleys to help him out of bed, and died after becoming entangled in the ropes.
• One of the reasons radium is so deadly horrific is that it is structurally similar to calcium. Like calcium, radium is deposited into bones and bone marrow, where it stays for years; unlike calcium radium deposits are spewing out alpha particles, eventually leading to necrosis or cancer.
• Something I enjoy deeply about this era is the wild-west nature of crime and law enforcement. Everyone, apparently, is digging up cadavers, engaging in some manner of insurance fraud, and/or poisoning loved ones. For example, consider the murder of Mike Malloy, an amiable drunkard also known as Mike the Durable, Iron Mike, The Mike that Wouldn’t Die, Mike Mike Bo Bike, Rasputin, and Ol’ Blue Eyes. A speakeasy owner and a few friends decided to take out multiple life insurance policies on Malloy, then gave him an open tab at the bar, figuring the old souse would drink himself to death. Unfortunately for their plan, they did not recognize two important things: Malloy’s superhuman alcohol tolerance and his truly heroic liver.
Booze alone couldn’t kill Mike. So they tried adding antifreeze to his drinks; then turpentine, horse liniment, and rat poisons, possibly all at once. Iron Mike drank them all. Food came next: oysters soaked in wood alcohol, which Mike consumed without ill effect. Then a sandwich of spoiled sardines, rat poison, and carpet tacks, which still didn’t kill. I imagine it was just spoiled sardines and rat poison at first, and then one guy looked at the other and said “That should be good, right?” and the other guy said “Eh, we better throw some carpet tacks on there just in case.”
Food and drinks could not destroy him, so they tried the elements. After letting Malloy drink himself unconscious, the group removed his clothes, dumped cold water over him, and threw him in a snowbank, on a night with sub-zero temperatures. He showed up at the bar the next night. They tried to run him over with a speeding taxi, but when that didn’t work they dragged his unconscious body to a hotel room and ran a gas hose into his mouth. The carbon monoxide succeeded.
They might have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids their own big mouths. They blabbed about their scheme, and carbon monoxide leaves telltale signs in the body, notably turning the lungs and blood cherry red. Norris sussed them out and the murderous band of scallywags was sent to Sing Sing and the electric chair. The last words of Iron Mike were reportedly “Death is but a door, time is but a window; I’ll be back.”