Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Deborah Blum’s five books have immersed her in the worlds of animal rights, the psychology of affection, the neurology of sex, the search for paranormal phenomena, and the chemistry of poisons. Her New York Times bestselling book The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, published in 2010, traces the origins of modern forensic medicine through the lives of two men, New York City Medical Examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler, as they navigate crime and chemistry in early 20th century New York. This month, PBS’ American Experience aired a much-acclaimed documentary film version of The Poisoner’s Handbook. The film, like the book, captures in gripping detail some of the most astonishing murders—purposeful or not—by poison of the early 20th century. Here, Blum tells TON co-founder Siri Carpenter what it was like to have one of her books turned into a documentary film. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
When did you learn the book would be made into an American Experience film?
American Experience optioned it a couple of years ago. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that anything will happen. I’ve written one book (Love at Goon Park) that has been under option for a decade! But in this case, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation decided to fund it and things started moving forward about a year and a half ago. It wasn’t until last summer that I was really sure it was going to happen so from that point on I was pretty excited about it. Still, as I kept telling my husband—he’s very patient—I wasn’t going to spread the word until it was definitely in the television guide.
What was your level of involvement in shaping the film?
They hired me as a consultant so I gave a lot of early advice on research and sources. And I actually sent the studio all the files from the book. For the dramatic re-enactments, they rented an abandoned psychiatric hospital in Prague and then bought 1920s laboratory equipment and old chemical supplies to create the lab setting. I had a number of conversations about the equipment that might make sense—I know they bought an old hand-cranked centrifuge on eBay.
And then I was one of the main interviews and narrators of the story. For that, they rented a 19th century mansion in Oyster Bay, New York, and I sat on a stool in a darkened library. Gorgeous room with an enormous fireplaces with a mantelpiece made of carved stone lions, although you can’t really tell in the interview. The director, Rob Rapley, asked me questions and I had to answer as if I wasn’t answering but just expressing my thoughts. And they filmed for about eight hours over two days, so I when I came back the next day, they spent an hour making sure my hair and makeup looked exactly the same.
Are there parts of the book you would have liked to see rendered in the film but which weren’t included?
There were a couple of good murders—the Ruth Snyder-Judd Gray case, for instance—that I was sorry to see disappear. These were lovers who conspired to kill her husband and then completely overdid it—poison, picture wire, lead weights. No wonder they got caught. The newspaper columnist Damon Runyon, who later wrote the story “Guys and Dolls,” called it “The Dumbbell Murder.” I was sorry to see that one disappear and then I’d found some really interesting stories concerning mercury poisoning and … but I know there’s no way to get it all in the film. And I really did like the way the film followed the structure of my book, which was told poison by poison as it moved forward chronologically.
What aspect of the storytelling presented the greatest challenges in going from book to film, and how did you/the filmmakers decide how to tackle those challenges?
I think the biggest challenge was telling the story in a visual way. Finding photographs, old film footage, all the images they used. And then, of course, the dramatic reenactments. And they went to a lot of trouble to find actors who looked like the scientific heroes of my book, Charles Norris, the first chief New York City medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, who was the city’s first toxicologist. So it was really fascinating to me to watch these people who I’d spent so many hours with, kind of in my head, be characters on the screen. I thought they did it beautifully. There’s a great scene during the section on poisoned alcohol during Prohibition, where Norris is watching his hands, after doing one autopsy after another, and the narrator is just chiming out the names of the dead. It’s great.
Of course, as an author, it was great to see book sales rocket up. Not just because of royalties, although, yeah, that’s great. But because it really is such a great moment in science history—it really is this story of two very determined, long forgotten scientists, who did rewrite forensic history. Plus the chemistry is cool. I really like spreading that word.
Did you get to view the film before it aired on January 7? Or did you watch it unfold with the rest of us?
They sent me a link so I could watch early. But I actually put that off until the night before the broadcast. Nervous, I guess. When I watched it for real on premiere night, I liked it even more.
How did you come up with the idea for The Poisoner’s Handbook?
I was just looking for a way to write about chemistry! I love chemistry, it’s a beautiful science. We are a walking collection of chemicals. We drink and eat and swallow chemicals every day and most of them don’t harm or kill us; some are even useful. And also, I really like poisons. What was it about this small group of chemicals that were so uniquely destructive? But I was also thinking about how it would be fun to do this in a subversive way. What if I could tell a story about poisons like an early 20th century murder mystery?
How much of your research and structure was outlined in your proposal, before you started writing the book?
For my previous books I’d always written a firm proposal, in the 20 to 30 page range, defining the idea and structure of the book. With The Poisoner’s Handbook, I had just finished doing a narrative history—Ghost Hunters—and my agent suggested that I write a short proposal describing this poison idea I kept talking about. So I wrote a three-page proposal saying vaguely, “Poisons are really cool. … can I write about them?” and it got accepted.
As always, I signed the contract and spent the advance. And then it really struck me: What in the world is this book about? For other more brilliant people than me this method might work really well, but I was panic-stricken. It would have been much better for me to have figured out the proposal before I was on the clock. But I have thought that I would never have found my two main characters, Alexander Gettler and Charles Norris, if I hadn’t been so desperate during my research later.
I was reading everything I could find about poisons—journal articles, textbooks of the time, newspapers and magazines for murder cases. I was searching the archives of the newsletters of the American Society of Forensic Scientists when I first saw a reference to Alexander Gettler as “the father of American forensic toxicology.” And I was hoping to find a biography and couldn’t. He and Charles Norris were lost in footnotes, and no superficial or obvious search would’ve brought them up, because they just weren’t there.
Then, I also discovered the New York City municipal archives, where I found all the letters of the New York medical examiner’s office from the year Norris started until his death. Then I pulled archives from the New York City DA’s office from that same time period as well. I checked records at Bellevue, where their offices were initially; the New York City Historical Society; and the public library, to find newspapers that weren’t online—like, say, the Brooklyn Eagle of 1933. I used ProQuest historical newspapers a lot, which are fantastic because they archive online The New York Times back to the first edition, the Chicago Tribune, the LA Times … and they’ve added more papers as well.
I also got a friend at a newspaper to help me find Gettler’s family. They got me a list of every single Paul Gettler in the New York area and I started calling them all, until I found the right Paul Gettler—it was very helpful in that case to have been a newspaper reporter. … You’ve built a career annoying people so it doesn’t really bother you. The Gettler family was wonderful with providing personal reminiscences.
How did you focus your timeline?
I knew I was going to be zeroing in on Norris and Gettler for the main narrative arc of the story. I did a previous chapter on chloroform to set the scene of what it was like before they came into office. For the ending—Norris died in 1935 but Gettler died decades later and he’s the toxicologist—did I want to follow him for the rest of his career to the end?
That would’ve made an encyclopedia of poisons rather than a handbook, so I thought I’d end sometime around the time of Charles Norris’ death. I chose to end with the Fanny Creighton case—she’s an arsenic murderess who killed her brother in 1923, and then 12 years later she killed a boarder in her house. The first time she got away with it; the second time she didn’t and was executed. The first time Gettler was a witness for the defense; the second time he was a witness for the prosecution. So she raised all kinds of interesting issues, and she was executed the year after Norris’ death. That really focused all the points I wanted to make about everything that had happened during that time period—why they were able to build this excellent case against her later, which they couldn’t earlier. So I pushed the book just past Norris’ death to Fanny Creighton’s execution.
How central was the history itself in your research?
Once I’d established that time frame, I knew I wanted to give it that early-20th-century Agatha Christie-like feel. Even a “chemical” history is still a history set in a particular time period. Floating through my story were World War I, Prohibition, women getting the right to vote, and the whole anarchistic culture of the 20s, where everyone was violating the constitution simply by drinking, and the culture itself was just: “How much can I get away with?”
I did a lot of scene setting to provide a sense of these times, like the carbon monoxide chapter started with this description of this busy street in New York. But more than just setting scenes as backdrops, I think of the period itself as a character in my book, important for people to understand. For example, why do you have to mess around with 6,000 brains to figure out whether someone’s drunk at the time of death? And where are you getting these brains in a time that alcohol is illegal?
Why did you focus each chapter around a particular chemical, and how did you choose them?
I knew Norris and Gettler were a good story, but is “The History of the New York Medical Examiner’s office between 1918 and 1935” a story worth writing? It had to be more than just a single obvious historical narrative arc. I chose to combine these two lines of the story into a braided narrative of the chemistry and the lives of Norris and Gettler, to come up with the final structure. Part of the story is the history of the ME’s office, but it is also the story of poisons in those times, and how these two scientists tackled each one. I framed each period around one poison, and then re-organized my structure to say, “What’s the poison of 1922?” So that the book would be a story of poisons and the role they played in life then, but it also progresses through the lives of Norris and Gettler and what they accomplished.
How did you outline this narrative structure?
With this kind of braided structure, it is important to remember where the multiple strands of the story come together. For example, in the proposal for the book that I just did (which I’m being very cagey about because I just sent it to my agent) I worked out a very definitive structure involving three scientists in three different parts of the country. Though there are three narrative lines, they can’t be parallel. They have to intersect, physically and intellectually. When creating multiple plots, it’s all about where the strands intersect—where I bring them together or pull them apart, and where will I bring them back together? How long can I continue with one strand before people will lose track of the others?
For Poisoner’s Handbook, I didn’t have such a structured proposal to work with, but during my research I created what I think of as a “living outline.” I created the basic timeline and major arc of the story, so I knew where I was going to start and where I wanted to end, but with the clause, “This will work if I find a good story.” My research had to follow that arc, but if something interesting popped during the research, I’d change the outline based on that.
So I started with a rough outline, and I moved poisons around as I found certain cases that took the story forward. As I continued with the research, I plugged them into my outline. For example, I found a great mercury case where this man is falsely accused of murdering his wife. So then the mercury chapter was structured around that. The other example that really stands out for me is of the government poisoning alcohol during Prohibition. I’d been reading all these histories of prohibition and never saw anything about it, but in searching the newspaper archives, I found several stories about it. It really changed the way I had planned to write about that period.
How did you keep track of this living outline?
During my research, I catalogued obsessively. I set up different files and organizational structures, and I used RefWorks for the standard citations, so I was keeping constant track of my sources. In addition to organizing by year, I organized by poison. Say, here’s every reference about arsenic and the major point it makes. At the same time, I did physical, old-fashioned filing—two cabinets’ worth. I printed out everything about arsenic in The New York Times from 1920 to 1935, and filed them chronologically as well. So I had parallel catalogs, by year and by poison—say, an “arsenic” folder organized chronologically, and an “all poisons in 1920” folder. This way, when I knew I was going to make 1920 my arsenic chapter, I could pull every newspaper story about it in 1920 from that one folder. I also did a kind of cross-referencing of my bibliography according to what chapter I thought the references would be in. Sometimes, in addition to these, I use tools like OmniOutliner to keep track of things.
Going back to your early career for a moment, what were some of the challenges with switching between reporting a news story and writing narrative non-fiction?
With newspaper writing I always thought about the start of the story: What’s my lede? And I knew I would wind up with some summary quote. When writing narrative, I tend to think about the end as much as the beginning, if not more. If I don’t have an ending, is it a story still? To me, a story is something in motion, a journey. I’m taking the reader on this journey with me—to where?
Thinking about the ending changed the way I did newspaper pieces also. For example, I wrote this story for the Sacramento Bee called “The Dark Side of Light,” about sisters who have no protection against UV light because of a mutation, so they can never go out during the day. So I kept the boundaries of my narrative to a single day: The sun goes up and they have to draw the curtains, the little girls can’t go outside, and in the end when the sun goes down, they can go out in the dark and play in their little wading pool in the backyard. That’s a classic narrative arc, where you know you’re going to start in the morning and end at night, and as this family moves through this one day, you’ll drop back in places and give the history and tell the story and talk to the experts about the disease and so on. But you are always thinking about how the scenes fit together, and how to eventually get back to that moment in the dark.
What was most challenging in moving from newspaper writing to narrative books?
The bigger challenge for me was learning to insert my voice and attitude in my writing. Subtly or not subtly, a book author’s thoughts and feelings about the subject infuse the work in a way that we don’t do as reporters. In newspaper journalism, you learn to stick to the facts, that you’re not part of the story. But there’s NO good book in which the author isn’t part of the story in some way or the other.
To give you an example of that, the first narrative book I did was Love at Goon Park where my main character, Harry Harlow, changed the way we think about love and affection with his work. His message was that holding and comforting a child, a solid foundation of love matters in normal human development. So you’d want him to be this big cuddly teddy bear of a guy, and he wasn’t. He hardly hugged any of his kids, he cheated on his wife, was an alcoholic, philandering, chain-smoking, really difficult, complicated guy—a fascinating and great character. But the book is infused with warmth; it’s about love. And it’s my deep abiding affection for the notion that love matters that is the personality that infuses the book—not his.
Where is your voice in The Poisoner’s Handbook?
It is my perspective that makes this a true crime story about forgotten scientists. It’s not like there are no true crime stories, or stories about Norris and Gettler, but this poisoner’s journey through this period is my perspective on the facts. On the surface, it’s just two civil servants plodding in this ME’s office through the decades of their lives. But this particular narrative is shaped by my fascination with crime and chemistry.
I try to incorporate this perspective even on short pieces now, like blog posts. You can do narrative writing of many lengths—I do want to say that it doesn’t have to be this enormous process of me spending two years on multiple outlines. There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be beautiful short writing.
A glimpse behind the scenes: