How Pioneering Medical Examiner Transformed Crime-Solving With Science

Airdate: 
Tuesday, January 7, 2014 - 7:00pm

In 1918, on the brink of becoming the largest metropolis in the world, New York City hired Charles Norris as its first scientifically trained medical examiner. Over the course of a decade and a half, Norris and his extraordinarily driven and talented chief toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, turned forensic chemistry into a formidable science, sending impatient heirs, jilted lovers, and desperate debtors to the electric chair. Written and directed by Rob Rapley and based on Deborah Blum’s bestselling book of the same title,  American Experience: The Poisoner's Handbook premieres on KUED, Tuesday, January 7 at 7:00 p.m. 

In the early 1900s, the average American medicine cabinet was a would-be poisoner’s treasure chest. Deadly chemicals such as radioactive radium, thallium, potassium cyanide, and morphine lurked in health tonics, depilatory creams, teething medicine and cleaning supplies. While the tools of the murderer’s trade multiplied as the pace of industrial innovation increased, the scientific knowledge and political will to detect and prevent crime lagged behind. Unnatural deaths were handled by the coroner, a position handed out to the corrupt and unqualified as political payback. New York’s coroners were particularly notorious for taking kickbacks from funeral homes and changing death certificates for a price.

All this changed when Norris, the scion of one of Philadelphia’s wealthiest families, and Gettler, the son of poor immigrants, were hired. Against the opposition of corrupt politicians and powerful industrialists, Norris and Gettler reinvented criminal investigation and led the first campaigns against the dangers of a new chemical age. Determined to fight corruption and use science to explain the causes of violent or suspicious deaths, Norris and Gettler pioneered a justice system based on forensic science instead of cronyism.

They also forced corporations and governments to regulate the chemicals used in workplaces and consumer products. 

Featuring interviews with renowned medical examiners, historians, and science writers, The Poisoner's Handbook looks back at Norris' and Gettler’s most notorious cases, including the mysterious poisoning of the Jacksons who died in their New York apartment; the cold-hearted serial killer Fanny Creighton; the death and dismemberment of Anna Fredericksen; the fatal radium poisoning of the dial painter girls at a New Jersey watch factory; and the battle with Standard Oil over leaded gasoline. While Norris passed away in 1935, Alexander Gettler remained New York’s chief toxicologist until his retirement in 1959. Together, one autopsy and one case at a time, Norris and Gettler elevated forensic science into a highly respected discipline that has revolutionized the justice system in America.

In conjunction with the broadcast, the American Experience website (pbs.org/americanexperience) will launch “Tales from the Poisoner’s Handbook,” an interactive online graphic novel for viewers, students and teachers. Using four actual case studies of lethal poisons, players find the visual evidence, chemical trails, and supporting evidence to uncover the truth as they are introduced to the basics of biochemistry, including the impact of poisons on the human body.