Despite its title, The Poisoner’s Handbook, by Deborah Blum, is not a how-to-do-it manual for getting rid of an enemy, spouse or wealthy relative.
Instead, it documents New York City’s common poisonings of the 1920s and 1930s and the committed efforts of forensic-medicine’s pioneers to bring perpetrators to justice. Poisoners were caught, convicted and quick-cooked in Sing Sing’s electric chair.
The account moves through poisonings by chloroform (an anesthetic, used in the Civil War), cyanides, arsenic, mercury, carbon monoxide, methyl alcohol (methanol), radium, ethyl alcohol (ethanol) and even thallium.
A surprise to me was the content relating to America’s great social experiment – Prohibition. The Prohibitionists’ campaign against drunkenness had been decades-long and strident.
Legislation for the 18th Amendment to the Constitution passed both houses of Congress in December 1917. The amendment was finally established by the 36th state’s (Wyoming) ratification in January 1919. Effective in 1920, the production, sale, possession and shipment of beer, wine and booze were illegal and punishable. Juries were mostly reluctant to convict violators, while simple consumption remained legal.
Well-intended as prohibition may have been, the unintended consequences included huge increases in criminality: bootlegging, speakeasies, fraud, payoffs to police and politicians and crime in general. Life-insurance companies found deaths from ethanol five to six times higher in 1930 than 1920.
Ethanol, a two-carbon alcohol molecule, is found in all alcoholic beverages from which the federal government obtained huge revenues through taxation. Ethanol sold for nonbeverage or industrial uses is untaxed and is “denatured” by a number of additives, most commonly methanol, a one-carbon alcohol – rendering booze “undrinkable.”
It also was assumed that people would simply obey the law, and drunkenness would disappear. However, it is less well-known that death rates increased among the general public – the direct result of government’s interventions.
It has been argued alcohol consumption actually rose during Prohibition. Much, much worse, people, knowingly and unknowingly, drank denatured alcohol, becoming ghastly sick, blind and dying at near 10 times the rate from “normal” booze. Increased death rates were a consequence that New York’s toxicologists had predicted before Prohibition.
Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats ran on an anti-Prohibition platform in 1932. After 13 years, the public was fed up, and relatively quickly, by a 3 to 1 margin, Prohibition was history.
It can be said legalization of marijuana, in all its forms, has had some unforeseen consequences. These sequelae – poisoned pets, children sickened from edibles, adolescents with psychological and cognitive changes and persistent vomiting syndrome in heavy users – so far, pale in comparison to bodies piling up on autopsy tables during Prohibition.
www.alanfraserhouston.com. Dr. Fraser Houston is a retired emergency room physician who worked at area hospitals after moving to Southwest Colorado from New Hampshire in 1990.