Pick Your Poison

bellevue 2 Pick Your Poison“You can imagine how this thing loomed,” science journalist Deborah Blum told me on a recent soggy winter day as we lingered outside the shuttered sanitarium at Bellevue Hospital on First Avenue. The Pulitzer Prize–winning 55-year-old journalist was dressed all in black. We stared through rusted iron gates. The old building is eerily decrepit; its red brick has nearly turned gray, and the walls are covered in dead ivy.

“Couldn’t you imagine being locked up there?” Ms. Blum said. She smiled giddily and then shook her head. Even though it has stood mostly empty since 1984, the former asylum still looms over the East Side of Manhattan (a few blocks from the new in-use facility), eclipsing the nearby streets in tangled shadows, the chill air rife with the ghosts of nearly two centuries of violent deaths. In her latest book, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, Ms. Blum, who teaches science writing at the University of Wisconsin, excavates the hospital’s Stygian history and, in the process, rediscovers a New York that’s been nearly forgotten: a time of Prohibition and the corrupt political bosses of Tammany Hall; a time when death certificates simply read “act of God” and murder by poison was easier to get away with than taking a sip from a good bottle of store-bought whiskey.

Acting in these dark times was the city’s first chief medical examiner, Charles Norris. Mr. Norris inherited all the trouble that came with New York City’s medical system in 1918. But with a team of talented chemists, led by the obsessive experimenter Alexander Gettler, he created the field of American toxicology out of test tubes and patience.

“I’m a really good friend to dead scientists,” Ms. Blum said as we walked through Bellevue’s main lobby. The hospital’s past threatens to overcome all of its progress—physically, even. Among the metal and glass of the modern front entrance are the remnants of the original hospital, with its separate brick entryway for “EMPLOYEES.” Ms. Blum smiled again. “These guys were so heroic in what they built and they’ve been forgotten.”

Almost. Separating her book into 11 chapters—each dedicated to a different poison—Ms. Blum meticulously traces the story of Norris and Gettler as they attempt to straighten out a wretchedly dysfunctional medical and judicial system. Norris’ story starts with Frederic Mors, a quiet orderly at the German Odd Fellows’ Home in Yonkers. The surname is Latin for “death.” He used chloroform to kill his sick patients.

“I did it to end their suffering,” he confessed to the police. But the perpetually “skunk-drunk” Manhattan coroner couldn’t find enough evidence to convict Mors. The nervous, chain-smoking murderer disappeared and was never heard of again. It was typical in a time before forensic science; the only evidence of the murder was the deceased’s ambiguously damaged stomach.

But as Norris’ ability to pinpoint the symptoms of murder by poison became more instinctual, the cases that passed across his desk only got stranger. There was Ruth Snyder, who killed her husband with the help of her boyfriend, first using mercury bichloride, then a dose of chloroform, then several tumblers of alcohol, then a lead weight to the head, finishing off with a picture wire pulled around Snyder’s neck.

Or Mary Frances Creighton, a gorgeous young mother with curly black hair, accused and acquitted of murdering her brother with arsenic for a $1,000 life insurance claim in 1923. She lived quietly until 1935, when a Long Island housewife began vomiting violently and suffering severe abdominal pains. She died a week later, killed with a hefty dose of arsenic. Fanny Creighton was her neighbor. She was too terrified to walk to the electric chair at Sing-Sing, so she was carried. She clutched a rosary as she sat in the chair, but threw the beads on the floor.

“I had to close the computer and leave the room!” Ms. Blum said of writing about such disturbing subject matter, but she isn’t quite as coy in the book. All the nitty-gritty about death by arsenic, by thallium, by wood alcohol, is here in precise, gruesome detail. It makes for a stomach-churning read—and made me wary, for a few days at least, of going to restaurants where I couldn’t see my food prepared. (Who knows what kind of access disgruntled kitchen workers have to arsenic?) But Ms. Blum’s combination of chemistry and crime fiction creates a vicious, page-turning story that reads more like Raymond Chandler than Madame Curie.

“Everything is chemistry,” Ms. Blum told me back in front of the rusted gates at Bellevue. “It’s really beautiful when it’s broken down into its material components.” She hesitated. “And it’s really sinister.”

“Oh, I wore my poison ring for you,” Ms. Blum said, unprompted, and lifted her hand to my face. The ring boasts a stone of Persian turquoise from the 1880s, beautiful, and bright sea green. With an easy click, Ms. Blum removed the stone from its placement, revealing a small compartment behind it where a tiny capsule of poison would have been hidden. With another giddy smile, Ms. Blum put the stone back in place. “I’m such a nice little person to be attracted to things that are so twisted,” she said.