American Experience (1988– )
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The Poisoner's Handbook 

From PBS and AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: In the early 20th century, the average American medicine cabinet was a would-be poisoner's treasure chest, with radioactive radium, thallium, and morphine ... See full summary »



(story by), (telescript by) | 1 more credit »


Episode credited cast:
Iva Baumanova ...
Anna Fredericksen
Alexander Gettler
Daniel Brown ...
Defense Lawyer - Creighton Case
Jiri Cap ...
Fremont Jackson
Detective McCallister
Filip Dyda ...
Morgue Assistant
Alena Guigarova ...
Annie Jackson
Dominika Hasková ...
Amelia Maggia
Ryan James ...
Prosecutor - Creighton Case
Pavel Koutecký ...
Francesco Travia
Lucie Kozinová ...
Alice Merritt
Iveta Elisabeth Lit ...
Katherine Schaub
Howard Lotker ...
Abraham Freireich
Curtis Matthew ...
Prosecutor - Creighton Case
Judge - Creighton Case


From PBS and AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: In the early 20th century, the average American medicine cabinet was a would-be poisoner's treasure chest, with radioactive radium, thallium, and morphine in everyday products. The pace of industrial innovation increased, but the scientific knowledge to detect and prevent crimes committed with these materials lagged behind until 1918. New York City's first scientifically trained medical examiner, Charles Norris, and his chief toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, turned forensic chemistry into a formidable science and set the standards for the rest of the country. Written by Anonymous

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poison | See All (1) »


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Release Date:

7 January 2014 (USA)  »

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16:9 HD
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User Reviews

16 January 2016 | by See all my reviews

What makes programs like this so admirable is that they're not only informative but they're entertainingly presented. This isn't about the readily available psychotropics of the first half of the 20th century -- opium, cocaine, morphine, and the rest. That's common knowledge. Rather it's the story of two men, Norris and Gettler, who fought the skepticism of the public and the hostility of the New York police to establish forensic science as a respectable pursuit. Better living through chemistry.

In the 1920s, New York's coroners were political appointees who needed no medical experience. A dog catcher could be appointed because the political system was so corrupt. Two chemists, Norris and Gettler, proved to be a transformative pair. Instead of an untutored coroner, they became the city's Medical Examiners. Both men became legends. Norris died in the mid-thirties, Gettler in the 50s.

It begins with a case of accidental cyanide poisoning. What puzzles me about the case is how the deceased couple could breathe in enough cyanide gas to kill them. As a school kid I worked in a tool and die shop that used cyanide eggs for cleaning metals. Alone one night, I shave off a bit and using high school chemistry produced some hydrogen cyanide. It smelled distinctly of peaches. Well, that's neither here nor there except that the gas really DOES smell so you know when you're inhaling it.

Next up: arsenic, which kills bugs and vermin but which is bad news with humans. Not that it doesn't have beneficial effects. A mild dose given to rats enables them to solve mazes more quickly. One of the toxicologists in the cyanide case, Chris Bowers as Alexander Gettler, does a precise enough analysis of the victim's tissues to get the defendant off.

It might be mentioned at this point that there's very little in the way of period photographs or newsreel footage, so the execution of the script depends heavily on reenactments. The influence of the Actor's Studio isn't apparent. Chris Bowers, in the heroic role of Dr. Gettler, handles the dialog well but is about as expressive as a store-window mannequin. I like the guy though. He's very clean cut.

Next: Methanol, or wood alcohol, which was produced during Prohibition in the 20s by shoddy home distillation and poisoned mostly the poor, who couldn't' afford real liquor. People would send samples of bootleg booze to the drug store for analysis, and the joke was that one message returned from the pharmacist, "We are sorry to inform you that your horse has diabees." (That's not in the film.)

Methanol ingested becomes formaldehyde which becomes formic acid, what you get when an ant stings you. The effects are terrible, and blindness is only one of them. Norris was becoming exhausted handling PR but Gettler attacked the problem of methanol poisoning head on, inventing tests that could be used in the field. But the only real answer lay in legalizing booze. It's much like the problems we've had with abortion. When it's deemed illegal, it's driven underground.

Lead, another real winner, is dealt with next in the case of a Standard Oil factory in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Workers began to go mad. They walked out of upper-story windows. They died. Management attributed it to "working too hard." The afflicted workers were in an experimental laboratory ("the loony lab") in which lead was being introduced into gasoline to make it burn more efficiently, meaning more profit for the ethyl industry.

Lead had been recognized as a poison for thousands of years, so Standard Oil and General Motors called their product "Ethyl Gasoline." The film presents several colorful advertising posters of the period showing Ethyl, personified as a lion tamer or simulacrum of Superman taming vicious beasts -- the engine not using leaded gasoline. Dr. Norris indicted lead as the culprit. But he was opposing Standard Oil and General Motors, whose representive made a show of washing their hands in tetraethyl to show it was harmless, much as one of our congressmen took a deep breath on the floor, blew it out, and said, "There, that's CO2. See, it's not poison."

Norris and Gettler went to great lengths to demonstrate that tetraethyl lead was causing the damage, and they succeeded. But the industry went to President Calvin Cooledge. There was a laying on of hands and the question of a federal ban on ethyl disappeared. A Standard Oil spokesman likened it to "a gift from God."

The program then zips through the list of poisons not recognized as lethal. Some are doozies. In Brooklyn, the police find a loner throwing chopped off limbs into the East River, and in his home is the rest of the body with blood all over the place and a knife nearby. The police jump to the obvious conclusion. Madman butchers woman. Norris is called to the scene, bends over the remains for a few seconds, and tells the cops the accused didn't do it. In 1926, many homes couldn't afford electricity and used illuminating gas. This produced carbon monoxide and it killed the woman before the suspect chopped her up.

It's an engaging episode. If you enjoy this kind of combination of medicine and detective work, you should be referred to the work of Berton Rouché, which you'll find gripping.

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