Review: Don’t miss ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook’

Click on the logo to visit the PBS website for this film.

Click on the logo to visit the PBS website for this film.

WHERE TO SEE ‘THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK’—Visit PBS’s webpage for this documentary to learn more about its background and viewing options. PBS provides links to local listings. Since this is a well-researched documentary, the PBS website also offers educational resources. There’s even a step-by-step curriculum for science teachers to reproduce some of the then-groundbreaking lab techniques used by New York City’s first scientifically trained medical examiner and his staff.

You also could opt to purchase the DVD from Amazon, titled American Experience: Poisoner’s Handbook. Eventually the film will reach Netflix. Your local library may choose to stock a copy.

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE THIS FILM

REVIEW by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

Why should people of faith care about a bone-chilling documentary on the early history of forensic sciences in criminal investigations? Why should you help us to highly recommend this PBS American Experience debut to your friends, small group, congregation and community?

First, we all should promote this film because it’s flat-out fascinating. The two-hour documentary takes us back to the dawn of real-life CSI—the birth of modern homicide investigation and the spawn of thousands of hours of prime-time TV dramas. So, the first reason to see this PBS offering is: You’ll enjoy it!

At right is the first scientifically trained medical examiner for New York City Charles Norris and his chief toxicologist Alexander Gettler. Library of Congress archived photo in public domain.

At right is the first scientifically trained medical examiner for New York City Charles Norris and, at left, is his chief toxicologist Dr. Alexander Gettler. Library of Congress archived photo in public domain.

Second, by the end of this two hours, the real pioneering triumph of the film’s two main characters will become crystal clear: They proved to New York City and then to the entire nation that government must play a crucial role in scientifically investigating the vast array of potentially poisonous substances coming into our world—and protecting all of us, including the most vulnerable, from dangerous vultures. Most religious groups around the world hold human rights—caring for and protecting the vulnerable—as a sacred mission. The Poisoner’s Handbook is the true story of two men who fought against almost impossible odds to establish the government’s role in the science-based protection of public health.

Given the wall-to-wall prime-time status of CSI-style shows, you’ll be startled to discover that—before the arrival Dr. Charles Norris and his right-hand researcher Dr. Alexander Gettler—poisoners regularly got away with murder. There was no way to catch them. In 1922, 237 men and women died of fatal gunshots in New York City, but researchers believe nearly 1,000 died of poisoning!

The producers of this documentary have organized the two hours like a series of mini-CSI tales—all true stories. They begin with this new scientific team’s most puzzling early case, the 1922 death of an elderly couple in what appeared to be “a locked-door mystery.” I won’t spoil the suspense by revealing what they found.

Just as in the TV dramas, there’s even a recurring character, a woman accused multiple times over the years of what amounted to serial murders. And, yes, just like the TV series today, these early scientists head into the laboratory over and over again. Sometimes, they must devise new tests. Occasionally, they must exhume a body and look more deeply into the human remains.

In the second half of the film, Norris and Gettler tackle huge public-health issues. Viewing this in 2014, you’re likely to be startled by the official government position on what amounts to massive crimes against vulnerable people. Officials in New York City and Washington D.C. felt that these threats weren’t a part of their responsibilities, until Norris and Gettler joined the campaign to change their minds.

You’ll have a whole lot to talk about after watching The Poisoner’s Handbook. Bravo to PBS and The American Experience for kicking off 2014 with such a landmark film.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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  1. Jane Wells says:

    I read the book a few years ago. It was amazing – although my husband looked at me askance when he saw the title! I can’t wait to watch the documentary.