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AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: Poisoner’s Handbook

Airs Tuesday, January 7, 2014 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: New York City Medical Examiner Dr. Charles Norris

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, "The Poisoner’s Handbook" premieres on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE on Tuesday, January 7, 2014.

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Chief Toxicologist Alexander Gettler holds a test tube, while Dr. Charles Norris looks on.

Courtesy of Argonne National Lab

Newspaper illustration entitled “Hope” as featured in the Los Angeles Examiner, 1914.

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Moonshine still recently confiscated by the Internal Revenue Bureau photographed at the Department of Treasury, circa 1921-1932.

Photo Gallery: Poison in Common Products

In the early 20th century dangerous and often poisonous chemicals were included in many common household products. Browse these pictures of medicines, liniments, moonshine and a cyanide furnace.

Do you know of any products with surprising chemicals in them?

Radium used to be an ingredient in face creams. Thallium was in depilatory lotions. Arsenic was in rat poison -- until relatively recently! What chemical ingredients are in your household products? Share your story with AMERICAN EXPERIENCE!

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 Marcella Fierro and Michael Baden, 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 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 and are introduced to the basics of biochemistry, including the impact of poisons on the human body.

"The Poisoner’s Handbook" will be available on DVD on January 8, 2014, or for online viewing on pbs.org. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is on Facebook, and you can follow @AmExperiencePBS on Twitter.

Video

American Experience: Poisoner's Handbook Preview

Above: 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, "The Poisoner’s Handbook" premieres on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE on Tuesday, January 7, 2014.

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