By Deborah Blum, Penguin Press, New York, N.Y. 319 pages, 25.95
From 1897 to 1915, Tammany Hall thoughtfully provided New York City with a coroner. Among them were a saloonkeeper, plumber, milkman, a physician who was a full-time drunk, and other bumblers gifted in issuing false death certificates for a fee, if a murder or suicide were pressingly at hand.
Compelled by an outraged press, the Legislature in 1918 replaced the coroner’s office with a medical examiner system. Dr. Charles Norris, a Columbia University pathologist, was appointed chief medical examiner. He appointed as his assistant the young Alexander Gettler, an obsessively brilliant, cigar-smoking, devoted gambler and forensic chemist who arose out of Lower East Side poverty. Gettler’s numerous contributions would mark the beginning of modern toxicology in this country, all as recorded in the strikingly beautiful prose of Deborah Blum, a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin and a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1992 for her writings on ethical issues in primate research.
Chloroform, wood alcohol, cyanides, the ever popular arsenic, mercury, carbon monoxide, methyl alcohol, radium, ethyl alcohol, and thallium provide the chapter headings of “The Poisoner’s Handbook.” Each element is chemically described, though it is unlikely a reader lacking knowledge of chemistry will understand it. The poisoners themselves lack personalities; they have paper-thin characters.
The poisonings from the period 1915-1936 are unmarked by ingenuity, and the poisons do not stir up one’s curiosity. In short, the pleasure drawn by readers of true-crime stories will not be had. The reader, however, will enjoy not only the permeating presence of Norris’ gifted assistant, who will become the famed Gettler, but as well Blum’s artful descriptions of the settings of the crimes. Though Norris’ medical skills, aggressiveness in protecting his office, and exhausting commitment are sketched by Blum, it is Gettler who fixes the reader’s attention.
Gettler enters on stage with the first design of a forensic laboratory. At the beginning of Prohibition, he evaluated methods of detecting wood alcohol in human organs and informed the public that alcohol contained lethal methyl alcohol.
Gettler proved the government’s incredible use of ethyl alcohol and other additives to dissuade people from drinking. It killed them. His research into the effects of alcohol extended more than five years and used about 6,000 brains. Working with brain tissues, he was able to use a scale of drunkenness to establish intoxication at the time of death. It is Gettler who found arsenic in the poisonings of two who ate their last lunches at the Postal Lunch eatery on Liberty Street as did the six who followed at the nearby Shelburne Restaurant. He examined the organs of the latter piece by piece.
In the mysterious deaths of an aged couple at the Hotel Margaret, he made exhaustive tests and found cyanide in the husband’s lungs caused by fumigators in the hotel. He proved the innocence of a husband, suspected by ill-wishers of the mercurial poisoning of his wealthy wife, by proving that the mercury was in calomel prescribed by her trusted physician. When Standard Oil dismissed plant workers’ deaths with the cynical statement that they had “worked too hard,” Gettler proved the cause was the company’s use of tetraethyl lead.
In one riveting case, longshoreman Francesca Travia cut a woman’s body in half, kicked half into the East River, leaving half in his kitchen where the police found it. Gettler found that carboxyhemoglobin was in her blood, leading him to conclude that she was dead before Travia picked up his knife. They had been drunk, he fell asleep, and when he awoke she was dead, causing him to fear that he had killed her and driving him to kick half of her into the river as a police officer approached him. He was acquitted of murder and convicted of dismembering a dead body, proving to an awe-struck public the usefulness of this new science called forensic toxicology.
In the sensational Ruth Snyder-Judd Gray murder case of the 1920s, Gettler’s chemical analysis stripped defendant Gray of his claim of self-defense by proving that a suffocating combination of alcohol and chloroform dispatched Gray’s victim.
Gettler proved that radium caused the horrific deaths of young women who painted dials on watches. When a man’s wife and four children died in about a period of five weeks, Gettler showed that thallium, unconnected with the husband but connected with his wife, had caused the deaths when she was deranged by the Depression.
One could spend hours reviewing his work papers and identifying his influence on the generations of toxicologists he had trained.
Gettler died in 1968, having been New York City’s chief toxicologist and professor of chemistry at New York University. When he retired as chief toxicologist in 1959, he estimated that he had analyzed more than 100,000 bodies.
Of him it was said that he was the “father of toxicology and forensic chemistry.” All of his early tests had been done during what toxicologists call the period of “wet chemistry,” the world of test tubes and Bunsen burners, beakers and body parts. Today, if electricity failed in a toxicological laboratory, toxicologists could not work.
Gettler’s obsessiveness tagged along to the end when, in his last interview, he said, “I keep asking myself, have I done everything right?”—a question that would have arched the eyebrows of a number of jurors, to say nothing of at least three executioners.
Harold J. Reynolds practices law in Scarsdale, N.Y., and was the clerk of the Appellate Division, First Department, from 1985 to 1989.