PBS ‘American Experience’ presents a fascinating ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook’

Do you love a good murder mystery? Addicted to “CSI,” “Law & Order,” or “Bones”? Get ready for the documentary realization of the popular non-fiction book “The Poisoner’s Handbook” Tuesday night, 7 January 2014 on PBS (Check local listings).

Based on a book, this documentary takes us back to a time when poison killed more New Yorkers than car accidents. Think of that!

Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum wrote the best-selling book which is about how the son of a wealthy family, Charles Norris, became a doctor and after traveling in Europe, returned to the United States determined to bring science to police investigations. In 1918, he became the first scientifically trained medical examiner for New York. He hired Alexander Gettler as his chief toxicologist.

If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes or just a murder buff, then you’ll have watched “How Sherlock Holmes Saved the World.” Holmes was the first CSI and it was only after he appeared in print (first story in 1887) that science became a part of police investigations although the first criminal investigation lab was begun in 1910 by the French Dr. Edmond Locard for the Police Department of Lyon. Locard’s exchange principle became a basic concept of forensic science: “Every contact leaves a trace.”

Locard set the example for Europe, influenced by Sherlock Holmes. And while we don’t hear mention of Holmes in “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” we do see his influence. The full name of the book is ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in the Jazz Age New York.”

Before Norris it seems that anyone could become a coroner. No medical training was necessary but a little bit of favoritism was involved. Bribes were willing accepted, particularly if you wanted the coroner to find the death was or wasn’t a suicide. That changed with Norris, but forensic science wasn’t initially accepted by police, judges or juries and Norris faced some opposition.

While the re-enactment or staged Sherlock Holmes segments in “How Sherlock Holmes Saved the World” were distracting, here under director/producer Rob Rapley (who also wrote the telescript to Michelle Ferrari’s story), the re-enactments featuring Chris Bowers as Gettler and Don Sparks as Charles Norris definitely help create an intriguing atmosphere.

With the black and white photos of crime scenes, reality and fiction seem to merge. Since we know the documentary uses archival materials, some of what we see is from the past as we examine the progress of forensic science through specific legal cases including a workers compensation case and the infamous Fanny Creighton case. The documentary also features interviews with medical examiners Marcella Fierro and Michael Baden as well as historians and science writers.

The PBS “American Experience” website also includes a fun interactive “Tales from the Poisoner’s Handbook” which is quite fun for the adult who loves games or a budding forensic scientist.

“The Poisoner’s Handbook” Tuesday night, 7 January 2014 on PBS (Check local listings) and will be available VoD after the initial broadcast.

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