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Welcome to criminalize a production of scandal and audio in partnership with a heart radio. Hello and welcome to the latest episode of Criminal for this season, we're exploring the lives and motivations of some of the most notorious lady prisoners throughout history. I'm Maria Tomoaki. And I'm Holly Fry. And today we have a special guest with us, Deborah Blum.


Deborah is amazing. And you've probably heard of her. If you follow poison at all, she's a Pulitzer Prize winning science journalist. She's the author of six books.


She is also now the director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT.


And we worship her resumé there just to check the box at the heart.


But we have her here with us today because she is the author of the twenty eighteen New York Times notable book, Poison Squad and the New York Times bestseller The Poisoner's Handbook.


Debra, welcome.


Do you want to add anything to let us know who you are, our poison expert extraordinaire here, like just overwhelmed by how nice you guys are.


So really a pleasure to be here.


And you know your cover. So many of my favorite subjects. It's actually fun for me not to be talking about how to run a remote fellowship program in the time of day, I imagine so.


I told you about how to kill people and other things that are more interesting.


Lots of talk about arsenic symptoms and lots of love letters. We're going to talk to you about some arsenic.


We plan to.


You are, of course, very well known as a journalist and your love of science has driven so much of your work. Will you talk about how you ended up writing about science, science, history and specifically poison Sture?


That's great territory for me to cover and just stop me. I grew up in the South and Louisiana and Georgia, so I'm perfectly capable of going on about this stuff, you know, for that until the end of time if I do this. So I'm a failed chemistry major. My dad was a entomologist and chemical ecologist at the University of Georgia. And I and I, when I started college, I wanted to be a chemist and I discovered the some of the things that make me a good journalist.


You know, having a short attention span did not work at all in the laboratory. And I was actually a danger to myself and others. I set my hair on fire in one memorable afternoon and also at one point generated, speaking of poison, a toxic cloud that caused them to have to evacuate the freshman chemistry lab first dabbling in voice very early age.


But, you know, so I went into journalism because for the same reason that I like chemistry, I like to know how things work. And then eventually realized after several years of working for newspapers that I really wanted to combine both of those loves my interest, knowing how things work scientifically, my interest in knowing how things work in society. Got a grad degree in science. Journalism was a specialty in environmental toxicology and went off to be a science writer in California, which was where I won the Pulitzer, although that was writing about primate research, but that launched me into writing books and I continued to write books.


I kept saying to my agent, I've had the same agent ever since I started writing books and she's wonderful. I kept saying, you know, I'd really like to write a book in which poisons or characters because partly because I was grounded in chemistry and partly because I like murder. I grew up with Agatha Christie and a lot of the early murder mystery writers, Agatha Christie in particular, who really did a lot of work with poisons because she had worked in a hospital dispensary in World War One.


And and she kept saying, Onodera, I have a better idea and whatever you could do this. And finally or book said she's like, I can't take it anymore. It's like the slow drip of torture. Let's let you write that book that you want it right. And so and she said just right. And this I have had the same editor for the last three books. She said, don't write a proposal, just write a delicious little two page letter to your editor and be so interesting to sell a book writing two pages.


So I wrote a proposal on the idea that I was not going to kill my husband, but I could.


And I thought that I knew about poisons at the time. And my editor at Penguin Press bought the book. And then this is my advice to everyone who listens to I guess don't be me and don't do this. Because then I sold the book. I immediately spent the advance and and I'm like, well, what's this book really about? I can't write a book about how to poison my husband. That wouldn't be good. And so I then went into this frantic research that led me to find the two scientists who were at the heart of Poisoner's Handbook, which does indeed do what I had originally thought about.


Which was both tell their story, but also look at Poison's as the fascinating characters and the personalities that I think they have, which is a very science journalist way of saying, I love writing about science and I love writing about chemistry. And I actually like writing about really dangerous substances because I think that we need the tools to navigate a chemical world. We live in a chemical world. I am a collection of chemicals myself, inhaling them as we speak, as are all of us.


Most of them are not dangerous, but most people don't have the kind of toolkit to say what should I be afraid of and how do I protect myself and what should I not? And so a lot of what I think science journalists like myself do, or I hope we do, is to provide people who are not yet at the science inner circle or don't follow it regularly. Some of the tools that just let them navigate in an intelligent way because they are smart, they just need the tools.


And that's really underlies my love of science journalism and is probably one of the reasons I'm here at a bit. So that's my long southern answer.


I love wasn't as long as I thought it would be.


So one of the hurdles that we often have when we're preparing our episodes is sometimes the sparseness of historical records. Just there's nothing out there. Or if it is out there, there might be two or three sources and they all conflict with each other. I imagine that you have come across the same challenge. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit over the years of writing about science, history, how you worked around that kind of challenge.


Oh, I'm going to love answering those that well reveals the inner nerd that I am, I guess. And that reminds me, I've done four books now that are narrative histories of science, too, about toxicology. But I love writing about history of science, history in general. But because I don't think you really understand where you are unless you know how you got there. And that would be and that's another part of how did I get here? It's certainly true.


One of the lessons for me, especially in the Poison Squad book, which is about the invention of food safety in the United States, and that history both explains how we came up with the idea that we should regulate for food safety, but also why we do it so badly on a number of levels even today. So having said that, you know, it's a real challenge, depending on what you were writing about. When I did poison squads of my more recent book, Harvey Washington, Wiley, who was the chemist at the heart of that story, had been married to a suffragette librarian.


I just love that. And she had left all of his papers to the Library of Congress. So in that case, because I like to work from original documents, it was a matter of did I have enough time to go through fourteen hundred linear feet of Harvey Washington white papers and documents and newspaper clippings and memos and letters and trying to figure out how to be smart that I mean, you don't always in fact, you almost never get that right.


But in that particular case, if I was awash in a sea of documents, which was super helpful and also daunting, poisoner's handbook, I think better get said that some of the challenges that you mentioned. So as I said, I mean, I finally, after some fairly hysterical months of research discovered in the in the letters of the Society of Forensic Toxicology, that the the toxicologist at the heart of that work, Alexander Gettler, is considered the father of American forensic toxicology.


And I thought, oh, this is great. I'll just go find a biography of him. And there was none. And then I went and looked for a biography of his boss, Charles Norris, who was the wonderful and pioneering first medical examiner in New York City. And there was none. Right. And so I'm like traveling around trying to find information about these guys, which was the other challenge. And so after much going through and some of it, you can be smart about it.


You can go on to it and look at what were the contemporary toxicology books, the books about legal medicine published in the early 20th century. And I bought a lot of those from as booksellers, and I have some of them to this day. But and then you can look at contemporary journals. I did that, too, so I can go into the Journal of the American Medical Association or Science or the Journal of Toxicology and look for. Papers published by Alexander Gettler, that was really essential for me in trying to both understand or look for papers about arsenic.


What did we know about arsenic in 1920? Right. So all of that kind of helps provide a foundation. But then you start kind of said, well, are there other archives that have some material? So in this case, and this is one of my favorite stories about the challenges of working with archives and very different from the Library of Congress, I discovered that the New York City Municipal Archives had actually archived the letters of the medical examiner's office from 1918 to nineteen thirty five, just the period with Norris.


I thought, oh, this is fantastic. And I talked on the phone to an archive is an extremely hostile and unfriendly archivist at the municipal level. But and I and it was so I'm like, oh, I'm so excited about this. I can't wait. I'm going to come to New York. Let me take you out to dinner when I get there to thank you for your help. And he's like, we do not have to meet in person, OK?


And so I go but I go to this archive, which is in an old it's like one of the old city halls of New York and and it's, you know, underfunded and unfriendly, as anyone will tell you. And so I go up all shiny. And what I really look at these papers and literally the guy at the counter says to me, we don't have those. And I go, yes, you do this just like being in kindergarten because.


No, we don't go. Yes, you do. He goes, no, we don't come all the way to New York, right. I said, yes, you do. And in fact, here's the name of the archivist who won't speak to me. And here's his phone number and you're welcome to contact him. And so the guy goes off and he talks. I never did see the archives to the archives. And then he comes back and says, yes, we do actually have these.


And so here's the forms you have to fill out to get them. And I fill out the forms and these boxes come up. They've got like a dumbwaiter behind the counter and it comes creeping up in a very atmospheric way with these boxes of files that are covered with dust and apparently some mold, because both my I had my one of my grad students helping me when this was when I was at Wisconsin and both of us were sick of the recipe because we could have got them in other ways.


And those files were amazing and really an unknown resource. So even when they were working on the documentary film Poisoner's Handbook, they went bad. They said they had to arm wrestle them out to write. So it wasn't like I had suddenly opened the floodgates. So once I had those, I then looked at other other archives and I went over to the New York City Public Library. I was doing a lot of contemporary what what was being covered about Geller and Norris and Poison's at the time.


And so I went to the New York City Public Library because you can get through progressive historical newspapers, The New York Times and a lot of the big major dailies. But I wanted like the Brooklyn Eagle and small papers and they had those on microfiche. So a lot of that was going in and finding the stories on microfiche, which I don't recommend, but words and printing them out.


I did that. And then the one other thing and then we did interviews with some called people. There were still a few people left who had been students of Getler, the Getler boys. And one of the things I did when I was doing research on this will tell you just how anal a researcher I am is that I had discovered or been able to track down Alexander Gelhaus kids and their kids. And I knew that his son Joseph had a number of grand kids or his grand kids and still lived in the New York City area.


And I didn't have their exact link. And I, I had their birth records, but not their exact location. So I went to a friend of mine who worked for a newspaper who had some of those super search tools. And I said, if I give you this person's name and their date of birth and where they were born, can you find out for me where they're living now? And she did. And she said, don't tell anyone I did this.


So I'm not giving you his Social Security number. Please don't give me his Social Security number. But basically, I had the name. It was Paul Getler, who was one of Alexander Gallas grandkids. So I used my pages and I called every single Paul Getler in that county. And I just said, hi, my name is Deborah Blum. I'm looking for the grandson of Alexander Gettler for a book I'm working on. I eventually got him and he was fantastic, and he put me in touch with some of his siblings, one of whom had had her daughter's great granddaughter, had done a high school history report on him.


And they came to my hotel in New York with her entire presentation and set up the giant poster boards in the lobby of the hotel to, I think, slightly the horror people at the front desk of the hotel.


But they had like letters and journals and all kinds of stuff that they lent me. And when I went on book tour and I went back to New York to talk about the book at a Barnes and Noble in New York City, the whole Getler family was there filling up the first two rows of that, you know, and so that was wonderful. And that was another way that I was able to get resources that weren't obvious. I think people who read these histories, you know, to me there were a giant mosaic.


And because I'm a narrative writer, I'm also looking for the pieces that I can put people in the time, you know, what did the city look like? What did the city sound like? All of those things. But you're building this kind of tapestry or mosaic and all of these different pieces matter, and it is a ton of work. And. We have, as you know, talked a lot about women poisoners this season, and I know you have some thoughts on women and poison and why poison is considered a women's weapon and why that's not really an accurate characterization.


Will you just share your thoughts on that matter with us? Sure.


And in fact, while I was a blogger at Wired, after I did Poisoner's Handbook, I spent a decade I still do, to some extent, researching and writing about poisonous things. I had a blog at Wired called Elemental in a blog at The New York Times called Poison Pen. And at Wired, I actually did a whole blog on the myth of the female poisoner. Right. Which I really enjoyed. So, you know, if you go back even to like, you know, early crime fiction, when you actually looked at the modern FBI statistics, you see that that's not true.


I mean, it's kind of women use poison more preferentially over other weapons like guns and knives. Right. But if you look at the whole panorama of poisoners, there's more male poisoners and female poisoners. But part of that, again, is that there's more homicidal males than homicidal females. Right. There's just more men who kill people is like just the entire time. And so there's a lot. So when you actually look at the numbers, just great numbers.


There is more male poisoners in the United States than female poisoners. If you analyze the use of weapons, you do see it tilts a little more female. And it's actually interesting because I did another book looking at biology of behavior. And one of the things that people talk about was that consistent imbalance on violence. Right. And that there had been this idea, for instance, that as guns became more available to women, there would be more shooting deaths caused by women than men or it would equalize out.


But in fact, it never did. White women in general, when you look at crime statistics, just don't commit those kinds of crimes. And you could certainly make this case. I'm going to point for a minute. If you look at the history of mass shootings in the United States. Right. Women have access to exactly the same women, but you don't see that pattern of mass shootings where there there's just some thing socially, culturally, biologically, something in the mix that.


So that's why you tend to see this sort of higher number of male poisoners, because you see a higher number of male assaults and attempted deaths. But the myth of the female poisoner probably dates back to the 19th century in which poisons were highly accessible in a domestic way. Right. And women actually had more access to them often than men, if you look at it in that sense, because they were the caretakers of the home and the distribution of jobs in the 19th century.


And so they had access to pharmaceutical products. Right. Arsenic was quite common and different tonics and treatments to improve your complexion in Victorian times. Right. Fowler's solution is a famous example of that. You find these wonderful advertisements targeting women in which they talk about, you know, how arsenic is going to make you more beautiful and also how arsenic is entirely safe, which everyone knew wasn't true. But, you know, for some reason, they don't always tell the truth in advertising.


What I know I know women have this incredible access to cosmetics. Right, containing one of the world's most famous. And and at that time, Handey homicidal poison. I mean, arsenic was a fabulous poison or poison in the 19th century because it's tasteless, it's odorless, it mimics the symptoms of a natural illness. And because they were just figuring out how to detect it in a corpse. Right. So so women have access to this in a way.


I'm not that a man couldn't walk into a drugstore and buy file Fowler's solution, but it's widely available to women and a lot of the home products, there were cyanide and some of the compounds that they used to like Polish metal in the house. You know, there was strychnine and picked me up tonics. I mean, people had this incredible access to these in a way that triggered no alarm if you casually went and got something that contained arsenic or straight-line.


So it was super easy if you were annoyed with your husband or your boyfriend or was were trying arsenic used to be known as the inheritance powder, you know, to work your way to your inheritance, to just put it in coffee or something. And people did.


There were some quite notable women mass poisoners in the 19th century, like Marian Wright, who did exactly what I said use handly of. Available arsenic to work to to eliminate relatives that stood in the way of money to eliminate partners so that she can inherit I mean, I think she was in the neighborhood of close to 20 by the time they caught her, which I'll tell you.


And so that those kinds of, you know, really stand out mass poisonings tended to shape the idea that women did this in a way that is both, you know, has a little bit of a fire in the smoke, but is partly and largely we still have so much more from our great challenge problem.


And that is going to be next week's episode, which I'm thrilled about, because this is easily one of my favorite conversations I have had all year. Oh yeah, that's not even qualified as a podcast, etc.. Just in life. One of my favorite conversations all year and I am so glad that she is very graciously helping us close out our season of Koyczan.


And with that we're going to do a little what's your poison? Right.


It actually references something that comes up in episode two, but it also deals with stuff that Deborah talked about, which is Prohibition era. And so we're doing Prohibition era cocktails for this one. And what I thought might be fun for these these ones, as we're nearing the end of the season, is to talk about kind of a classic cocktail and then how you can approach them to maybe customize them to be a little bit more attuned to your palate if they are not for you as written.


So the first one is a sidecar, a side car. You'll see the the amounts very slightly. But your basic side car is usually one and a half to two ounces of cognac, anywhere from one half ounce to one ounce of orange liqueur. So you're thinking like a triple sec or a quanto you could get crazy and use blue Curacao if you wanted, I suppose, and then any anywhere from a half ounce to like three quarters of an ounce of lemon juice, like freshly squeezed lemon juice.


And some people like to garnish with a sugar rim or they'll put an orange twist or both of those. So I made one. I don't love sidecars. They're just not my jam. I like cognac more in a warm drink, you know, pour it in a latte or a tea or something. Perfection. Exactly. So what I decided to do as a test to see if I could make this a little bit more to my liking, is actually going to hearken back a little bit to one of our earlier cocktails, only because it's one of those one of those spirits you may have on hand if you were following along.


And it's one that I bought for this and I was like, I should use that in more things. So in lieu of orange liqueur of any kind, but I wanted to keep the lemon juice. Otherwise, you're getting too far away from from what a sidecar is. I just use ginger liqueur. They're really. How was that? Way more palatable for you, less bidi and I enjoyed it a lot more, I still would probably not select that over other cocktails that we have done this year or just my usual very boring go to a vodka Diet Coke like clockwork every time.


But but it is fun. And that's kind of one of the ways that I like to to play with cocktail recipes.


So for anyone that's listening, if if you have not really done that before and you look at it just it just becomes a matter of like puzzles, problem solving of like, well, this is the one ingredient that is least palatable to me. I wonder what I could do to shift that out and sub in something else that will also go with the other ingredients.


These are the experiments that will lead you to magical discoveries.


You should feel like I'm in your kitchen and you're explaining to me how this works, right? Absolutely. I have a little lounge area in my kitchen. So you just sit there and I'll just mix in different things to see which one works for you.


That sounds great.


And we can train.


You can make it doesn't seem fair. Oh, I don't mind. I'll, I'll prep all night. I love it. So anyway, that is that is this week's poison in a sidecar or the sidecar variation of your choice. I was thinking too that it might be interesting to try other fruit liqueurs in there. I mean, I think if you did like an apple liqueur in there, it could be really interesting if you did.


I'm trying to think because it is a little bit you know, you're limited what goes well with Kojak and lemon juice, that won't create cacophony in terms of taste.


But, you know, the worst thing that happens, the worst thing that happens exactly if you make a terrible mistake is that you spit it out and dump it down the drain. And it's a small enough drink that you're not wasting a lot of alcohol. In that case, this is my wisdom.


Don't sweat it. If you throw out an ounce and a half of Coke, that's fine. OK, thank you so much for joining us this week.


Do not forget to join us next week for the second part of Deborah's interview. We will see you then. Criminality is a production of QandA Land Audio in partnership with I Heart Radio for more podcasts from Shandley and Audio.


Please visit the I Heart radio app, Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.