"THE CHEMISTS' WAR"

"THE CHEMISTS' WAR"

Posted on September 21 by Adira Rotstein
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In 1919 Dr. Charles Norris becomes the first coroner/medical examiner in New York City who was actually a trained scientist!  Before he got the job coroners only had to be friends with the mayor, with no scientific expertise.  Instead of just stamping death certificates, Norris set about turning the office into a tool of scientific justice. 


At the time poisoners all over America and Europe were busy getting away with murder, because there were no reliable tests to detect poison chemicals in a dead body.   People weren't even aware that many seemingly miraculous new elements and chemical compounds like radium and carbon monoxide were harmful.   In fact people were using deadly radioactive materials in everything from bottled water to watch dials. 


As soon as Norris was appointed to his new position, he hired  Alexander Gettler, a scrappy young Jewish immigrant as his main toxicologist and together, they set about inventing twentieth century Forensic Science and assembling a team of like minded apprentices.  They  devise new tests and procedures to stop poisoners in their tracks and hold irresponsible companies accountable for the deaths of their consumers and workers.    Calling on experts as diverse as scientist Marie Curie and  war hero Harrison Martland, Norris and Gettler solve inexplicable murders and weird disease outbreaks, throughout the 1920s and 30s. 


With the death penalty for murder administered by electric chair as a public spectacle, there was little margin for error.  Any slip-up the chemists made could result in a murderer going free to kill again, or an innocent person sentenced to die.  


When Prohibition was passed in New York State, drinkers and bootleggers turned to denatured alcohol, (methyl alcohol left over from industrial processes) to get their liqour fix.  Angry at how citizens continued to flaunt prohibition, the government introduced disgusting tasting and deadly poisons like plasticizers, benzene and petroleum into industrial alcohol to discourage people from drinking it. 
Chemists from the bootlegging syndicates raced chemists from the prohibition board to get ahead with new forms of purifying industrial alcohol.    With every new poison formula the government chemists invented, the bootleggers' chemists found some way to circumvent it to make the alcohol semi-drinkable.  Unfortunately, despite the removal of the bad taste, the new brands of denatured alcohol were sometimes still poisonous and began blinding, paralyzing and killing alcohol drinkers throughout the city.


As illegal drinkers died in droves from the dirty alleyways of Hell's Kitchen to the high class speakeasys of Manhattan, Norris and Gettler fought pressure from city hall and a chronic lack of funds to raise to raise a public outcry against the prohibition board's attempt to poison industrial alcohol.

Adira Rotstein

Posted by Kendra on December 6, 2014

Adira Rotstein

Adira Rotstein has studied literature, writing, and film at the University of Toronto and the University of Southern California. Her creative output includes novels, screenplays, films, paintings, comic books, and illustrations. She lives in Toronto.