The Inheritor’s Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science by Sandra Hempel

(Happy birthday today to my handsome Husband!)

inheritorsWhat a juicy title and cover; right up my alley. True crime, history, some light (accessible) science, and a little murder mystery. Yes, please.

Sandra Hempel’s book about the arsenic poisoning epidemic of the early 1800’s, and the advances in forensic medicine and pursued it, is very much in the tradition of The Invention of Murder and The Remedy, obviously. To a lesser extent it also relates to The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable and The Devil in the White City. I don’t mean to say that Hempel’s work is unoriginal, you understand, but these are the books I’ve read that feed my interest in the subject, and can continue to satisfy yours.

Much of this story was familiar to me, mostly from The Invention of Murder. Britain in the 1800’s saw an increase in crime, particularly murder – or at least an increase in its recognition and efforts to curb it – and the birth of the police force and investigations. The early 1800’s also saw a wild increase in the use of arsenic both as a household solution to just about any ailment, and as a quick and easy way to dispatch one’s fellow human. It was called “the inheritor’s powder” because so many people apparently used it to gain an inheritance ahead of the natural schedule. The growing prevalence of cheap life insurance or “burial clubs” played a role here as well.

This background is conveyed easily and accessibly and, again, is also covered in The Invention of Murder; where The Inheritor’s Powder breaks new ground is in delving into arsenic more deeply, and specifically into one sensational case that illustrates the larger issues. In November of 1833 a well-to-do farm family fell ill after their morning coffee; the elderly patriarch would suffer several painful days before dying, while the others would recover. The local doctor suspected arsenic poisoning almost from the first, and conducted some investigations of his own, including saving samples of the coffee grounds in question and the old man’s vomit. (It was later noted that there was so much vomit around that there may be some question of whose vomit it really was…) “Investigations” and “evidence” were new concepts, and our modern understandings would be incredulous at the attempts, but for his time, this local doc was proactive and scientific in his methods. There was a police inquiry, an inquest, and eventually a trial in which a lazy grandson was acquitted (on questionable grounds); but various members of the family came under suspicion and we still don’t know exactly who or what killed George Bodle.

Hempel details the court case and the public interest that followed it. Charles Dickens gets some play here (again, as in The Invention of Murder), which adds to the macro-view of this issue in society and in history: the literary minds of the day were at least as interested in the arsenic epidemic as anybody else. Hempel also looks into the science of testing for poisoning, or specifically for arsenic. Medical science was at such a stage that it was very difficult to distinguish one malady (say, poisoning by arsenic) from another (say, food poisoning by rotten fish) – and of course this question is separate from the question of whether poisoning by arsenic was intentional and therefore criminal, or accidental. Again, I must stress as Hempel does, arsenic was pretty ubiquitous at the time; people mixed it up and applied or swallowed it in various forms for a wide range of complaints. Chemists (or as we see here, chymists) were hard at work on the issue of testing for the presence of arsenic and various substances; cases like the Bodle murder were influential in moving the science forward.

I found this topic rather fascinating, and it was a good way to get a look at what 1830’s English life looked like. For example, I was interested to read about the conflict over who would pay for the investigations and trial – the local parish? Bodle’s estate? his survivors, or the executors of his will? Nobody wanted to pay; but society couldn’t just let this murder go unpunished, either. This was an issue that wouldn’t have occurred to me.

Hempel’s writing and research are fine, but lack the quirky style, entertaining writing, or personality that make a work of popular history really stand out. For readers interested in the topic, by all means go forth. But this is not enough of a page-turner to convert the dubious.


Rating: 6 grains.

The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable by Carol Baxter

An exhilarating real-life thriller about the murder that revealed the power of the telegraph.

peculiar electric

Australian historian Carol Baxter melds true crime and science in the gripping The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable. The electric telegraph (or the “electric constable,” as it was known) was a newfangled, doubtful-looking invention in 1845, when a well-liked young woman was found gasping her final breaths in the small English town of Slough. Fortuitously, Slough was connected by an experimental telegraph line to Paddington Station; when a distinctively dressed gentleman was seen leaving the apparent murder scene and boarding a train, quick-thinking locals sent word along the line. The pursuit by telegraph of a criminal suspect marked a turning point, Baxter argues, and sparked the communications revolution that continues today. That the suspect, John Tawell, was a Quaker made this case still more sensational, and his personal history as a transported convict helped to transfix the public.

This peculiar case involved not only the “electric constable” but also the new fields of toxicology and forensic science. The murder trial riveted the medical and legal professions, setting new precedents; the public, already inspired by poisoning cases, was riveted by the cyanide evidence that “the Quaker murderer” provided. Baxter’s accounts of the telegraph’s technology, the prevailing cultural climate regarding murder and poisonings, contemporary forensic methods and Tawell’s personal history are all worthy of an engrossing thriller. (Her research was meticulous, though, she explains in an author’s note, and all the dialogue attributed and factual.) Expertly told, The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable is a captivating accomplishment in nonfiction.


This review originally ran in the October 29, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 dark suits.

The Investigator by Terry Lenzner

An investigator’s caseload over the decades offers a captivating glimpse of the intersection of politics, celebrity and money in the U.S.

investigator

Terry Lenzner’s career began in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in the 1960s, and has ranged from the Senate Watergate Committee through private legal practice to his own company, Investigative Group International. A lawyer by training, he found his passion in research and sleuthing. The Investigator reads like a Forrest-Gump-style catalogue of cases that have caught the public eye–from the murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, to the Harrisburg 7’s federal case for antiwar activism, to Watergate, the Unabomber, Monica Lewinsky and the death of Princess Diana.

Lenzner’s clients include governments, politicians, businessmen and celebrities; the resulting wide-ranging subject matter in this memoir accounts in part for its appeal. Even the tedious financial fact-checking of an investigation into the Trans-Alaska Pipeline is brought to life by Lenzner’s passion. He gives character sketches of public figures he’s known, debunks public perceptions of certain events and offers investigative tips along the way. He is concerned with the truth, not satisfying the client at any price, and shares anecdotes in which the two goals were irreconcilable.

Impressively, this seasoned investigator is also a fine writer. His story opens compellingly, giving background while simultaneously jumping right into the action. Although “this isn’t meant to be a history book,” Lenzner writes, The Investigator is an absorbing and intelligent sampling of American history, told in puzzles and–sometimes–solutions.


This review originally ran in the October 22, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 witnesses.

The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders

An exhaustive, engaging examination of how murder and the murder mystery novel infiltrated our modern world by way of 19th-century Britain.

murder

Judith Flanders (A Circle of Sisters) tackles an unwieldy subject in The Invention of Murder, telling the tale admirably well, even entertainingly.

The Victorian British, Flanders tells us, were the first to identify murder as an object of fascination–inspiring in turn a passionate interest in trials, executions, motives and, eventually, the developing profession of solving crimes. The action opens in 1811 with the murdered Marr family, and quickly moves to 1820s Edinburgh, where Burke and Hare infamously killed so they could to sell the corpses to doctors as medical specimens. Flanders introduces a lengthy list of famous (and obscure) murderers and serial killers, culminating, of course, with Jack the Ripper. Alongside the killers and their victims, she presents Thomas Hardy, George Eliot and many contributions by Charles Dickens to illustrate her thesis that murder in life inspired murder in art. Fictional murderers and detectives play a role equal to their real-life counterparts, as Sweeney Todd and Sherlock Holmes take the stage.

Flanders also tracks the evolution of the police force from a force of deterrence to an investigative organization, along with the parallel development of murder and detection in literature and on the stage. The penny-blood (or penny-dreadful), a cheap booklet telling a sordid and often illustrated tale of horror, morphs into the detective novel (and play), as the public shifts its interest from bloody murder to the newly invented and increasingly sympathetic crimesolvers we know and love today.


This review originally ran in the August 2, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 dismembered parts.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard (audio)

destinyJames A. Garfield was the 20th president of the United States, and served one of our shortest terms: after being shot by assassin Charles J. Guiteau, he lived over two months before dying in September of 1881. Destiny of the Republic is the story of Garfield’s short presidency. As expressed in the subtitle, it is also the story of Guiteau’s madness and the medical era in which Garfield was unsuccessfully treated. What is left out of the title is the story of Alexander Graham Bell, who worked on a metal detector that was related to his recent invention, the telephone, with the intention of locating the bullet lodged in Garfield’s torso. So, to recap: this is the story of Garfield the President, Giteau the assassin, Bell the inventor, and a Dr. Bliss, who headed up the President’s medical team.

I knew next to nothing about Garfield, although I had a vague sense of his dying journey to the sea, passing by train through crowds of Americans gathered to honor him. I assume I’m not alone in my ignorance; he’s a long-dead president who (necessarily, by virtue of his short service) made no historical contributions sufficient to bring him to a modern layperson’s consciousness. So, I’ll fill in a little more. Garfield is painted in the opening chapters as a very sympathetic man: he did not aspire to the White House, but rather was nominated against his will by a post-Civil-War Republic Party that could not agree on any of the more favored candidates for nomination (Ulysses S. Grant, James G. Blaine and John Sherman). He was humble. In this book, he is a likeable character (more on that to follow).

Interspersed with descriptions of Garfield, his very humble past as a poverty-stricken and fatherless child, and his marriage to Lucretia (“Crete” ), are descriptions of Guiteau. Guiteau is, briefly, delusional. I don’t know what his diagnosis would be in today’s mental health establishment, but he would be diagnosed. He believes he deserves great things and the world owes him; he is a chronic petty criminal, and because he once wrote a speech (never delivered) stumping for Garfield, he believes upon Garfield’s election that he deserves a lucrative posting, preferably to Paris. (One of the hot political issues of this age was the spoils system.) In his diseased mind, Garfield’s failure to honor him becomes a crime punishable by death; and/or it’s God’s will that Garfield be killed; and/or Vice President Chester Arthur needs to be President for the sake of the country, etc. Thus the assassination.

Also interspersed are some of the thinkers of the era. Alexander Graham Bell has just invented the telephone, which although not ubiquitous, is beginning to change communications for some of the population, and will have great future impact; in the meantime Bell works feverishly on that and other inventions. Also contemporary is the British Joseph Lister, pioneer of the concept of antisepsis, or sterilization of medical (especially surgical) equipment. Medical minds of the day did not generally believe in germs, because they could not see them, and practiced surgery on the second patient with the blood of the first still wet on their hands (not to mention pus and general dirt). Lister tried to convince American doctors of the lifesaving power of sterilization, but in the case of Garfield’s Dr. Bliss, failed.

So the action of the story follows Garfield’s nomination, election, and early days in office; Guiteau’s descent into madness, and his shooting of the President; Bell’s laboratory work, including work on a machine to locate the bullet lost inside the President; and the medical community’s thoughts on antisepsis. Dr. Bliss is an unsympathetic character. He successfully bluffs a small crowd of other doctors, several better qualified, and at least one more open to the idea of sterile surgery, out of the White House, taking over Garfield’s care himself. He is imperious, intolerant, and unpleasant; it also turns out that he had the wrong medical ideas, with the knowledge we have now. Garfield suffers in the White House for some two months after being shot, with a bullet lodged near his liver. During this time he is endlessly poked and prodded with filthy fingers and probing implements, deep into his wound. We know now – indeed, they mostly understood upon his autopsy – that it was not the gunshot that killed him, but the massive infection caused by unsterilized instruments. And then, we hear of the First Lady’s mourning, and the trial and hanging of Guiteau. In the epilogue, we also follow Bell, Bliss and Lister through to their eventual ends.

I found this story fascinating, as perhaps is clear from my lengthy synopsis. I liked that Millard sketched the political background of the United States in the decades after the Civil War, the lingering divisiveness of North vs. South, the corruption of the spoils system and the conflict between VP Arthur and Garfield’s presidency. I found the characters interesting, compelling, and real. This history is told relatively briefly and at a quick pace: I think reluctant readers of nonfiction will be pleased, and yet I don’t have reason to think it was dumbed down or oversimplified. Destiny of the Republic is good, readable history for the mainstream reader, and I recommend it.

I do have one concern. Garfield is portrayed in a wholly sympathetic light. I don’t know enough to criticize him; but I’m always suspicious of such a glowing picture of a historical figure. Surely he wasn’t all good? I worry about so much praise, as I said in my review of Team of Rivals.

I really enjoyed getting a glimpse of the medical thinking of this era, which I thought was well handled, although in brief. The conceptual leap to believing in invisible germs and the risk of infection has to be one of the more important in the history of medicine, and I can understand how people like Bliss who thought they knew what they were doing would be skeptical, although it’s hard to sympathize with him in this story of the huge consequences of his skepticism (coupled with his egotism and nasty personality, of course). There was another angle I wish had been explored as well, regarding Bliss’s very imposing nature, the bossiness with which he took over Garfield’s care, and his unwillingness to let either the President or the First Lady choose a doctor or make medical decisions. This is another area of medical practice in which change has occurred much more recently: the authority of doctor versus patient. We’re still working this one out, but today, no doctor would be so likely to barge in and tell the wife of an unconscious man which doctor would be treating him; and if she called in the doctors of her choosing and fired the first, her decision would stand. Now, Mrs. Garfield never tried to “fire” Bliss – it wasn’t done. But that’s my point: the concept of who holds the power in that relationship, doctor vs. patient (& family/caregiver) has changed drastically. As someone who works in a hospital setting with patients and family members, not to mention some of the decisions I’ve seen made in my own family, my mind jumped at this part of Garfield’s story. He had no advocate to protect him against the failures of the medical establishment; no second opinions were allowed; the patient and his family were allowed no part in the decision-making process. Not only would antisepsis have made the difference to Garfield, but, I submit, patient advocacy and empowerment would likely have made a major change as well: if he had still died, at least he might have been much more comfortable, and I think quality of life even at the end of life should not be discounted. If I had written this story (with my perspective as a medical librarian), I would have added this facet to Garfield’s story as well.

Minor quibbles aside, I really enjoyed Destiny of the Republic and found it an easy, engaging, quick read that I would recommend to anyone. The audio production, read by Paul Micheal, was entertaining and gave the varying voices to the story that I think it needed. Well done.


Rating: 8 propaganda-ridden medical bulletins.

The Honored Society by Petra Reski

An intriguing and sensational, but not sensationalist, study of the Italian Mafia through character sketches.

Petra Reski had covered the Mafia as an investigative journalist in Germany for years, to the minimal interest of her editors and readers, who considered it an Italian problem. Then, in 2007, six Calabrians were executed in the town of Duisburg, and suddenly the German public was interested in the Mafia.

In The Honored Society, Reski composes character studies of various players both within the Mafia and fighting against it, based on her reminiscences of meetings and interviews. In addition to mafiosi and police investigators, her subjects include public prosecutors, defense lawyers, priests, fellow journalists and Mafia wives and daughters. Accompanied by her cabbie, Salvo, and her photographer, Shobha (as well as Shobha’s mother, a famous anti-Mafia photographer in her own right), Reski travels the streets of Italy and recalls the personalities she’s known. Her sketches of these “bad guys” and their adversaries are intimate and contemplative, rooted in years of experience. Even while excoriating the actions and influence of the Mafia, she seems to feel respect, even affection, toward certain individuals, revealing a conflicted relationship much like the one she describes between the Italian public and its famous criminal organization.

Generally, Shaun Whiteside’s translation of Reski’s work (from the German original of 2008) reads as straightforward, simple prose; but a quiet poetry lurks in certain turns of phrase and carefully crafted images. The Honored Society is an unusually structured view into the strange and powerful world of the Italian Mafia.


This review originally ran in the January 15, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 expensive handbags.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Honored Society by Petra Reski

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just open your current read to a random page and share a few sentences. Be careful not to include spoilers!

honoredsociety

This is an interesting book. Its subject is the Italian Mafia and its global role; and most of the prose is straightforward. But it occasionally meanders into fancy, even poetry, as here:

In the middle of Piazza Marina there’s a huge magnolia fig tree that has grown into a vast and magical forest. The trunk is reddish brown, like the Sicilian soil, and has transformed itself into some fabulous creature that consists of knotted, frozen snakes, dragons half hidden in the ground, and elongated elephants. Every time I turn my back on this tree I half expect it to stretch out its arms and grab me.

I am charmed. And the Mafia bits are fine, too. :)

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

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