Hannah O’Grady

Book: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz age New York

Exhibit: Infographic

Featured Work

Written Work

Hannah O’Grady

Hi, My name is Hannah, I am currently in my first year studying Chemical Sciences and Medicinal Chemistry in Technological University Dublin.

The theme of this project came from a book I read, ‘The Poisoners Handbook, Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz age New York’, by Deborah Blum, the book centres around many different poisons and how they affect the body, it is based during the early 20th century. The poison I found very interesting to read about was carbon monoxide, something that was used as a murder weapon back then, and today still is the cause of many deaths each year.

Carbon monoxide can be formed when fossil fuels do not fully burn away, this is called incomplete combustion. For combustion to occur oxygen must be present, if there isn’t enough oxygen available, incomplete combustion will occur. This means there is less oxygen available for bonding, so instead of every carbon bonding with two oxygen atoms to form carbon dioxide, the carbon only bonds with one oxygen atom forming carbon monoxide.

Carbon monoxide works by replacing the oxygen from the blood and in turn suffocating a person. Oxygen is carried around the body by the protein haemoglobin. Haemoglobin is made perfectly for oxygen to bind to it, but unfortunately carbon monoxide binds even better to the haemoglobin, which is what makes it so dangerous. Once it attaches to haemoglobin it does not want to be removed, unlike the oxygen which can be very easily removed and this will the result in chemical suffocation.

Carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide are very similar. Carbon dioxide would not be considered a poison, even though in high concentrations it can also cause suffocation, while carbon monoxide would be considered a deadly poison. Both of the compounds’ structures are linear with bonds angles of 180 ̊ . 

The symptoms of carbon monoxide poison are drowsiness, headaches, confusion, dizziness and sometimes nausea. Some severe symptoms include dementia, memory loss, irritability, loss of coordination and slurred speech. During the early 20th century many doctors mistakenly thought people showing symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning were just drunk and dismissed them.


The book I read for this project, which gave me inspiration was called ‘The Poisoners Handbook, Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz age New York’, by Deborah Blum. From reading the title alone, I was drawn to this book straight away.

The book is the story of medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler, where they both set out to use science along with detective work to further investigate the high levels of homicide in New York City, during a time where the coroners offices were corrupt and the coroners themselves had no formal training and were in no way qualified for the job they had. It is all about the different poisons people used to commit the murders during the early 20th century back when toxicology was only getting on its feet, when these criminals thought that if they used poisons, they would never be caught.

What I found interesting about the book was not only the information about the different poisons, but also how the story is told. Every chapter is about a different poison and how it was used to murder different people and the affect it had on the body in doing so. The story is written in a way so that you do not feel like you are reading a scientific book, the information is told in a way that is interesting and understandable.

Along with learning about the effects of carbon monoxide, I also learned about chloroform, methyl alcohol (methanol) and mercury along with others. The two chapters about carbon monoxide I found especially interesting and therefore decided that carbon monoxide would be the theme of my project.

MolView was used to create images of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Try it yourselves.


MolView is a web application which helps students and teachers to visualize molecular structures and view their properties. It is free to use.


hannah ogrady Infographic fullsize