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Welcome to criminalia a production of shondaland audio in partnership with I heart radio. Hello and welcome to Criminalia. We've been exploring the lives and motivations of some of the most notorious lady poisoners in history. I'm Maria Trimarchi. And I'm Holly Frye. And as part of our wrap up to this season of Poison, we invited award winning journalist and poison expert Deborah Blum to chat with us, which she very kindly did.


As we mentioned in our last episode, Deborah is the author of The New York Times notable book, The Poisoned Spot, as well as New York Times bestseller The Poisoner's Handbook.


So there was no other guest that we could think of having. She had to be. Yeah, the the absolute perfect one. And this is part two of our chat with Deborah. So if you missed part one, be sure to give that a listen. And now let's jump right back into our fun discussion with Deborah Blum, all about poison.


OK, so I'm going to take us back to arsenic for a minute, and you've said before that arsenic is your favorite poison. As it turns out, it may be my favorite poison as well after our first criminalia. But I was wondering if you would share why you prefer it to something like strychnine, perhaps. I mean, arsenic is still my favorite for some reason. When I say that people think I sound crazy, I don't understand it because it's really, really a cool poison.


I don't find it creepy when you say it at all.


You're at the right audience and having such a good hour. It's a naturally occurring element and it's about the thirty third most common element in the Earth's crust. So and we started making use of it really early as a poison. I mean, one of the things that's really it's got so many interesting layers and the things I like about it are both its wonderful versatility as a homicidal poison, but also the fact that it's really dangerous. And at the part per billion level, there's almost no other poison that kind of sandbags you on two different levels the way arsenic is, because there's an old famous saying in medicine that the dose makes the poison.


But with arsenic, in fact, that's not entirely true. So it's really fascinating. Elemental arsenic. It loves to bond with other atoms. And and and when it bonds with carbon and becomes like something like an arsenic sugar, it's not particularly dangerous to us. And in fact, we eat a lot of arsenic sugars like Arseneau Benteen, which comes up, which is in fish because there's a lot of arsenic in ocean water and we just stabilize that away.


They actually just follow up on that for a minute. A really interesting study in which they were looking at whether pregnant women were eating enough fish as part of a healthy diet because people were avoiding fish because of mercury, speaking of poisons. And they were able to tell that these women had cut out fish because there was no other essential benteen in their urine. It just wasn't there. And so we know that were exposed to these organic arsenic compounds all the time.


And they were big nothing but inorganic arsenic, which in chemistry means without carbon is all is really dangerous. And the worst form of it for us is arsenic trioxide, which if you think about what that means, it just means one atom of arsenic with three I mean, yeah, one atom of arsenic, three of oxygen, arsenic, three oxygens trioxide and oxide is in fact the poison that was called the inheritance powder in the 19th century. And if you go and you look at the labels of pharmaceutical bottles for that from that time, that's what you see, arsenic oxide.


And we just cannot handle that at all. It gets into your cells. It disrupts the the part of the cell that is actually metabolizing provides energy, the metabolic process and cells. And so it's a broad spectrum, really lethal poison and not that much I mean, not as poisonous, acutely poisonous strychnine or cyanide. So you're joking in the teaspoon ition up kind of it'll kill you because it attacks every cell. It's really hard to diagnose. So people got in the 19th century, got away with arsenic murders all the time, and plus that it's odorless and tasteless.


There's all these wonderful studies from the 19th century with scientists mixing it into vanilla pudding and other things that you can put it in anything and people can't tell as opposed to something like strychnine or cyanide. That's really bitter. And until James Marsh, the chemist about mid 19th century, came up with the first super simple test to try to detect arsenic in a body, you couldn't detect it. So, I mean, it's just such a storied, amazing poison from the Borgias into the early 20th century.


And one of the poison, speaking of women, poisoners in my book is an arsenic murderous Fanny Creighton. Right. And and she does exactly the kind of things I'm describing. You know, she just gets it as a domestic supply and kills people that are annoying her in the way of money. So even in the 20 early 20th century when they did have some tools, you could still get away with an arsenic murder because it looked so much like a natural illness.


And I just love the whole deviousness and the way I do it.


So I know, like, we had one woman, this Susan, who mixed it into eggnog. And I was like, yeah, that's. Don't you love that? Yes, yes, it's a poison that allows poison or devils to be so entirely creative in how they're going to deliver it. Right. And at what? So you're going to slowly make the person sick. Are you going to try to kill them over? I had a arsenic, mass murder and poisoner's handbook and which and what they believe was an angry, vengeful baker who had been fired, just mixed arsenic into the dough for the next decade.


And it was really I mean, people just died. Right. So although you can do this gradually, it can just wipe you right out. And then finally, because it is naturally occurring, it turns up in drinking water and in rice. Ray Rice is the what really pulls arsenic. And at the part per billion level, it does real harm. So the EPA standard for arsenic in drinking water, inorganic, right again is 10 parts per billion, which sounds like a big nothing.


But the actual recommendation was three. And so the 10 parts per billion was a compromise in which utility systems were saying, we think we can live without breaking the bank at this down to 10. But three would be really impossible. But if you go over to countries where it took them a while to figure this out, like Taiwan back in the day, I want to say about 30 years ago we had an outbreak of something called Blackfoot Disease. They had arsenic in the drinking water, Addabbo up to one part per million.


And it was so destructive to people's circulatory system that they developed gangrene in their feet and which was called Blackfoot Disease. And so we know from actual these unfortunate human guinea pig examples of arsenic exposure that arsenic at this very small amount above 50 parts per billion can cause real harm. Right. So it is in many ways one of the most versatile and common poisons on the planet. And it serves as a reminder to all of us that we live on a poisonous, poisonous planet, that we make use of those poisons and all kinds of interesting what is right and that we need to like.


Going back to my point about finding the tools, where should I worry? Where should I shouldn't there's nothing better than arsenic. It's the world's greatest poison. I absolutely came out of our first season thinking the exact same thing.


Yeah, it definitely is kind of the star of the season for sure. There's no sidestepping it. It shows up everywhere.


No, it is the number one character.


And I was glad that you brought up the marsh test because of course, that as well as your work talking about kind of the the beginnings of forensic science makes me wonder how quickly the rise of forensic science stemmed the tide of homicidal poisonings.


Oh, that's such a good question. So not as quickly as you might hope, right? I mean, the marsh just was a really primitive test. Right. Which worked most of the time, but not all of the time. And then they later came up with refinements on that. But even after the marsh test came into more popular use about mid 19th century, people did not know how to detect organic compounds, organic poisons like cyanide or strychnine in a corpse.


And in Poisoner's Handbook, I quote, this prosecutor from France said, Well, why doesn't everyone just kill with plant poisons then, since nobody knows how to find them in a corpse? Right.


I mean, so far, poisoners who are, like I said, really placers are the coldest of killers. I mean, they have to plot and plan everything up. Poisoning is premeditated as opposed to almost any other weapon. Right. And so you see this really interesting shift in the crime statistics in which poisoners shift the plant poisons because they're not detectable. Right. And it's not till 30 to 40 years after the March test that we figure out how to detect first nicotine in a corpse and we take that on.


And so we're slowly building this knowledge base that then is overwhelmed by the tide of industrial chemistry. Right. Which arises in the late 19th century. And this is really the setup for the story. I tell it Poisoner's Handbook, because I was surprised to realize what a very young science forensic science is. Right. You know, I'd always imagined I mean, partly because, you know, you get the sense from some of the early crime fiction in particular that we were right on top of this and everyone was running tests.


But in fact, the first in the United States, the first forensic medicine program. What started in the nineteen thirties by Gettler and Norris, and it was the first in the country followed by up in Boston shortly later there was no training in the people, didn't even use the term. They called it legal medicine. Right. So even the use of the word forensic science really began in the nineteen thirties, which is less than one hundred years ago, in spite of the fact that we're building this knowledge.


Right. I mean, actually, forensic chemistry was one of the earliest branches of forensic science. Right. People were not. I mean, the ability to understand gunshots and gunshot spatter and bullet rifling is fairly new. Blood tests are new, of course, DNA analysis much newer. Right. So really the slow beginning of figuring out the chemistry of poisons, the slow getting was one of the first parts of forensic science. But the field itself didn't really start assembling itself until the nineteen thirties.


And when you look at the Norris Getler program, you see other people at the New York City medical examiner's office who are blood specialists or plant specialists or. Right. All of these different parts that they're putting together to build a professional field.


So it's slow and there's no wonder that, you know, you can find even arsenic poisoners into the nineteen thirties because the field is really playing catch up with the killers themselves.


Welcome back to Criminal yet. Do you happen to have a favorite story from the development of forensic science as it relates to poison, or do you really kind of like a lot of a lot of them?


I mean, so one of my other favorite poisons, because it's so official, just carbon monoxide.


And I actually have two carbon monoxide chapters in Poisoner's Handbook two because it plays into so many different aspects. But one of the carbon monoxide chapters involves this extremely failed murder, I guess because it makes me laugh. I like the story is extremely, extremely frustrating and somewhat incompetent murders and the reforms in the Bronx in the early 1930s, sort of toward the end of prohibition in which they this group of I mean, I wouldn't call them ne'er do wells, but definitely shady characters who are marginally getting along come up with a scheme to.


Ensure the life of an alcoholic, Darryl. It kind of floats through the speakers, the one of the loans, and then take out insurance policies on him and then have him die, you know, with various different schemes that they come up with and cash in and the money. And so they pick this. Irish alcoholic drifter, Mike Malloy and Mike Malloy came to be known in the New York press as Mike's the Durable, which will tell you why I think this is so funny, because they try all of these different ways to kill him, you know, poison alcohol and running over him with a cab and pouring cold water on him.


And I should laugh. But it is so ridiculous. He's writing about soaked in water in a park in February, hoping he'll get pneumonia. And none of it works. It just bounces back from every single attempt until they finally kill him. I won't give away the whole why and where it was. Carbon monoxide and carbon monoxide is such an efficient killer, right? It works so amazingly well and has this fabulous chemical reaction with your blood at which it just shoves oxygen out of your blood in a kind of muscle kind of way, speaking my tendency to animate poisons and ads.


And Gettler had really looked at all of these different issues with carbon monoxide, in part because there had been a charge, a murder charge against someone who actually hadn't killed someone with carbon monoxide. And he was able to figure that out. And there were people who tried to fake murders pretending that there had been like monoxide leak, which and he was able to sort that out. So carbon monoxide is so interesting because it's so good at what it does.


And because when you look at how they figured it out, it's got all these amazing stories like Mike Malloy and, you know, a guy who tried to kill his wife and was caught through chemistry. And so I'm especially fond of that as well. Just the whole fabulous way that you see science peel apart this long time poison and provide us with tools to protect ourselves against it. So carbon dioxide is odorless, which makes it like arsenic really dangerous.


It's leaking into your room, but you don't smell anything right. You just get sleepy. So we add a compound clearer picture on to it now so that if, for instance, you know, the gas went off on your burner on your stove and you had a sip of gas, you would you smell that weird, slightly acrid smell. But that's the color picker and that's not the carbon monoxide. Right. And so we learn from these. It's also an example of what we've learned and done better in a public health.


So, yeah, that's another. I like them all, actually.


She loves all the poison. Really? That's so fascinating. And, you know, I'll say to people, I mean, here I am like a walking ball of chemicals, inhaling them and drinking them every day.


And most of them don't do any harm. So the ones that do chemically are really clever. They unlock different locks in your body. They take advantage of natural, simple natural systems in an interesting way, radium deposits to your bones because the body processes it like calcium. Thallium is distributed by potassium channels because the body potassium distributes it like potassium. And and the way that poisons can take advantage of the system is that mostly you protect our health. They're just really interesting, devious chemical compounds.


And in a way that probably does make me sound creepy.


There's a part of me that steps back and admires deviousness related to every one being made of chemicals. I was recently researching an incident in sixteen sixties Paris, which of course there was that big debate going on in the French Academy over whether or not it should be allowed for doctors to treat people using chemical means. And the whole time I'm reading it, I'm like, they're already doing it. They just call it a chemical. So I was glad you mentioned it.


As we have worked our way through our list of poisonings this season, of course, we've been kind of picking apart the ways that some of these stories have been told over the years and then comparing that to the historical record to see whether there's really support for it. And sometimes there's not. There is clearly a case where someone has gotten this reputation when they maybe did not deserve it. Have you been surprised by any of the instances of poisonings that you've studied over the years, either because it turned out poison?


Was not the case or just the way it was, it was handled or discussed or characterized was a little bit surprising. You know, one of the things I tackled in Poisoner's Handbook was people being falsely accused of poisoning, right. So there's a mercury poisoning nurse who did not poison his wife but was accused of it publicly. There was, as I said, a man who was accused of poisoning his one of his neighbors. And he in that turned out to be an accidental death.


And so one of the points you raise here that I from my perspective is really important is the investigations that find innocence are just as important as investigations to find guilt and to we should not just assume that the criminal justice system is there to send people to prisoners or send them to execution. It's also there, in a justice sense to take these cases apart and show when people work guilty or the story doesn't hold up and in some cases it genuinely doesn't.


I have also thought about the sort of mythology we built around certain poisons and how misleading that can be. And and one of those is, of course, ricin, which was a big hero of Breaking Bad, is, you know, everyone's favorite lethal poison and gave people the impression and I wrote about this, too, over at Wired, but gave people the impression that, man, they just had to, you know, mess around with castor beans or whatever and gin up a little ricin and they could take out anyone they didn't know without at all understanding how ricin works and the fact that it's actually lethal in a very narrowly targeted sense.


Right. And just really insane uses of it. And, of course, ricin powder. Since when if you are an espionage agent, which is where the really famous ricin killings come from and you carefully inject it, of course it's going to kill you. But the other methods like ricin, pizza, really nearly as dangerous as people might want. Some people, partly through, you know, popular shows like Breaking Bad, get these ideas about poisons and how they work and then use them.


And that also happened in an interesting way, although it is unexpectedly dangerous. There was one of these shows in which someone uses ricin to make someone sick at a wedding party. The wedding and Voisin is really dangerous if you swallow it right. And so there was then this rash of Visine poisonings. Right. So I think the other part of this story is that women were telling poison stories. And putting that information out, you know, we're trying not to instruct people on how to poison other people.




But you need to be aware that there are always going to be people who are going to read this and poisoner's handbook, actually. And this was really appalling to me, I should tell you, ended up in a criminal trial of a guy and he was in the Navy, I think, down in San Diego, and he tried to kill his wife with thallium. And people wrote me about this when they did the criminal trial. The one book he had on his phone was Poisoner's Handbook.


So when you look at that chapter, it talks a lot about the fact that it's certainly in the nineteen thirties, sources are hard to detect poison. Right? I mean, that's a 90 and that's that's in the nineteen thirties. This guy clearly took it into the twenty first century thinking he could get away with it and he got the dose completely wrong. Right. And so he, his wife survived and he went to prison. But it literally any time I was at a party and people say, what are you working on.


I'm working on a book about something related to poisoning. People would always say to me, almost every part of it said, well, how would you poison someone?


And I said to my editor of people, that really isn't starting to really make me nervous. And she said, I absolutely forbid you to ever tell anyone out of poison anyone. And so I was really careful in the book. But people but it is a reminder that when you write about these things or like in the case of Breaking Bad, when you kind of glorify a particular poison, you can drive this kind of activity and sort of be careful.


That is a fascinating aspect I have not I mean, we think about it and we joke about how Maria and I, should anyone ever look at our search history, are going to be like, hmm?


I mean, why are you asking how much arsenic it takes to kill a two hundred pound? Exactly.


I Googled it more than once. I always thought to myself there was a point where I thought if the FBI ever looked at my searches, I feel the same exact way.


I wasn't entirely homicidal. Right.


So you are, as we mentioned at the top, the director of the Knight Science Journalism Program. I'm wondering what advice you give to up and coming journalists about writing on the subject of historical science. And it may be don't tell people how to poison people, but I bet there are other lessons. Also, I have a great question. And when I do when I'm talking to our fellows or when I'm talking to other journalism groups, particularly, talk about the importance of writing about science, history.


And so going back to when I got my graduate Grant Wisconsin, my adviser had a joint appointment in journalism and wildlife biology. And when I went there, he said to me, you have to study history of science. And I had never occurred to me. I worked for newspapers for five years. I was interested in modern environmental toxicology. And I'm like, huh? And he said the most important thing about understanding the history of what you cover is that people will not be able to shine you on.


You know that you're going to interview a scientist who will say, I'm the first person who ever thought of this. And you'll know that's not true because you actually know something about the history of the field. So one of the things I do when I am talking to journalists is I talk not only about my philosophical idea that we're always smarter if we know how we got here, but about the importance of understanding the history of the field. Because when you do understand that, you really can put what's going on in context.


Right. And there's so many examples of that beyond poison. The obvious example today is if you actually take a look at some of the things that arose in the 1918 influenza pandemic there, predictive of some of the things we're going through here. They obviously we're a long way from a flu shot at that point. But mask wearing, social distancing, the hospital response to that. The the second wave of that. Right. There's just so much that you can look and say to yourself, what have we learned and what mistakes are we repeating and how could we be smarter about this?


And so, you know, I remind people all the time that there's all these amazing facts from history that we've forgotten. If you go into an archive, one of the books I did was on the history of the idea that love matters, which in science. Right, going through this arc from the early 20th century and look in which scientists argue that love didn't exist and that relationships between, say, mother and child should just be called proximity to the period where we say it was crazy to go to the other side of that paradigm shift in which we say love, we need a solid foundation of love and affection in healthy human development.


And when I was doing that, I went to the archives of the History of American Psychology, which are in Akron, Ohio. In that archive, as I was researching this changing idea, I found so many scientists who had been famous in their time, who are forgotten, who have made discoveries about how we think and how we relate to each other, that if we just remembered them. If we just have that history of time, we wouldn't be making some of these mistakes again.


I mean, in the 1930s, they were actually looking at the connection between affection and intelligence and the importance of it having that solid family background in the development of how you think and how you thrive in intellectual settings. I mean, when I read it, I just thought, oh, I wish. Right, that we had not just put that into some archive. Right. But continued to keep that at the forefront of the conversation. So history makes us so much smarter about poisons.


Right. But about the world we live in ourselves. And the last thing I'll say about that is it's really interesting. You know, I don't know if it's a failure of the way we teach history in the K-12 system, but once you get into, like a year into history, you go you just find yourself going. This is such an amazing story of who we are.


And I would like everyone to think that way on our show.


Normally, at the end of every episode, we do a segment called What's Your Poison? Where we make a cocktail that is themed to the the subject at hand. So I do not know if you are a drinker or not, but if you are or if you're not, what's your poison? What's your favorite beverage?


Oh, I'm like a journalist.


I've been drinking in newsrooms for decades, so I really love some of the 1920s cocktails and and in fact, while I was working on poisoners have but I like was trying to drink my way through the famous cocktails of the 1920s. And so I thought to myself, I'm really becoming an alcoholic here. And because they were really interested in cocktails, because a lot of some of them were designed to cover up the taste of ethyl methyl alcohol and bootleg bathtub gin and some of the really horrible tasting home brewers of the 1920s.


So all different kinds of flavoring. So my two favorite cocktails from that period are a sidecar and the bee's knees, which is a fairly simple cocktail of fresh lemon juice and gin and honey or a simple service syrup. And you can add some different herbs to that. And I highly recommend them. They're wonderful. Lovely. I love it.


Deborah, we can never thank you enough for spending all this time with us.


Oh, that's so nice of you guys. I mean, this was really fun for me. And you are such smart, Deborah. Take a minute and thank questions. I really enjoyed it.


It was really fun for us, too. Yes. You guys take care out there. You too. Thank you so much, Deborah. It's almost impossible to say how much we want to thank Deborah Blum for joining us and spending a ton of time just chatting about poison and poison and more poison and not even just the arsenic poisoning.


It was a little bit of like an arsenic fan, but we also cannot recommend her books highly enough if you have not read them, as is completely obvious from listening to her talk. She is so knowledgeable and so good at talking about science in a way that is accessible for nonscientists and really, really compelling, highly recommend.


So we do have one. What's your poison following this interview that I'm going to throw over to Holly?


Yeah, so as you as you know, we asked Deborah what her favorite cocktails were. If you listened last week, we you know, we did a sidecar and this time I'm doing a bee's knees. Similar to the sidecar, you'll see recipes for businesses that are all pretty similar, but with slightly different variations in amounts of of each particular component. So you'll see anywhere from one and a half to the most I saw was two and a half ounces of gin.


That seems like an awful lot to me.


I would hit right around to half an ounce to an ounce of lemon juice. Three quarters is where I tend to land and then most call for about a half ounce of honey syrup. I like a whole ounce of honey syrup because it takes the edge off the gin a little bit for me. I'm not a gin person. I'm not either.


I was wondering when this came up, I was trying to think if I had had these knees before, but because it's gin, it is highly unlikely.


Yeah, yeah. I have had them before and I it's one of those things. I'm always like, I'm going to have that. It sounds fun. And then I'm like, why did I order this. It's not really my drink there. I mean which is no shade at all to any bartender that's ever made one. It's just gin is not. I have one of those pilots to whom gin tastes very much like I'm chewing on pine bark, a good gin will help that, but even so, I still get pine flavor.


So that's last time I talked about how you can kind of switch things up. This is such a simple recipe that for me, it's just becomes a matter of like throttling the amount of honey syrup. That's it.


If you don't have you know, if you did not know honey syrup is one of the easiest things on Earth to make. It is just like a simple syrup. It's one part honey to one part water. You throw it in a saucepan and let it just reach a boil. So it's completely easy to for the sugar in the honey to dissolve. And then you let it cool off in your golden.


I do very small amounts when I make batches of honey syrup like literally a third of a cup to a third of a cup because I just don't use it in that much stuff.


I mean, it doesn't it really doesn't come up a lot, does it? No, but then it's one of those things that once you have it on hand, you'll just start throwing it in cocktail and then discovering because one of the things it really does is it like warms it up. It just gives it this nice extra body. And it it it does take the edge off of things. And if there are harsh flavors in your your spirits, it will help kind of soothe those.


And so for me it's just a matter of adding that bit of honey to make this a yummy ah drink. So that is the bee's knees. And again, we cannot say thanks enough to Debrosse, so we will raise a bee's knees in her honor.


I'll drink the gin just for it.


Right. Absolutely. And we also want to make sure that we thank you our listeners, for listening this season. Our next and last episode on Lady Poisoners is going to be our review of the whole season. But do not fret, we're going right into a season two, so it won't be about lady poisoners.


It'll be about stalkers instead. But we're going to we're going to keep right on going. And so in that next episode, we are going to cover some of our favorite episodes from the season, as well as our favorite cocktails that we've had this time around. Thank you again for listening. We can't wait to meet you back here next week. Criminality is a production of QandA Land Audio in partnership with I Heart Radio for more podcasts from Shadowland Audio.


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