The Poisoner's Handbook

Speakeasy Science

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The moonshine murderer

A few days ago, I wrote about the lessons I’d learned while a young journalist in North Georgia on how to safely drink illegal alcohol (Moonshine Days). Probably because I had moonshine on my mind, I ended sharing stories about it with family and friends during a recent visit to the state. Just to let…

A couple days ago, I wrote a post (Tyger, Tyger, Copper, Copper) about the theory that the late, great British poet William Blake (1757-1827) and been killed by copper poisoning due to years of acid-etching copper plates as a print maker. One chemist promptly wrote to raise the possibility that it might instead have been…

Moonshine Days

My first job out of college, I was a police reporter for a small newspaper in North Georgia, situated in rolling foothills of the southern Appalachian mountains. Moonshine country, in fact. I was hardly a month on the job when agents at the local office of the federal government’s Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) offered…

Tyger, Tyger, Copper, Copper

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry? William Blake, the brilliant British poet, published “The Tyger” in 1794 and it’s always been one of my favorite poems. I studied him during a brief period when I thought I might want to be…

Lilies Not So Peaceful

I find it ironic – okay, I find it slightly hilarious – that the house plant which results in the most calls to poison control centers is called the Peace Lily. Next on the list is Pokeweed – which people have a bad habit of mistaking for other edible wild plants – followed by two…

National Poison Prevention Week

Let me begin with a confession: until I researched and wrote a book about poisons, The Poisoner’s Handbook, I never paid too much attention to National Poison Prevention Week. Like most of us, I was just too comfortable with our chemical culture, the toxic compounds that we use daily to clean our sinks and counters,…

When I was eight years old, my sister and I discovered that a small tree in our Louisiana backyard was dropping some thickly shelled nuts into the grass. We loved¬† eating fallen nuts; an enormous pecan tree carpeted the front yard with them every summer. But these were different – rounder and fatter. Curious, we…

Mercurochrome memories

After I wrote my last blog post on mercury, readers wrote to ask about the old-time antiseptic Mercurochrome which – as you might imagine – was named for the poisonous traces of mercury mixed into it. One man wondered about childhood toxic exposure. Another noted that her mother still liked to tell the story of…

Mixing up mercury

Elemental mercury is a slippery substance. In the earth’s crust, it anchors itself by bonding with other elements, creating materials like the rough coppery rock cinnabar, a crystalline combination of mercury and sulfur. Once cinnabar, or other metallic ores, are mined and crushed, mercury can be easily extracted.¬† Then the warmer above-ground temperatures, the decrease…

Poison and Prohibition

A little over a week ago, I wrote a story for Slate called The Chemists’ War. It was based on information I’d uncovered for my book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, and it detailed a forgotten program of the U.S. government to poison alcohol supplies during the 1920s. The poisoning program was an outgrowth of federal frustration…