Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Poison Mystery (Part 1)

On July 31, 1922, 17-year old Lillian Goetz ate lunch at the Shelbourne Restaurant and Bakery on the corner of Broadway and 25th Street in New York City. Deborah Blum writes in The Poisoner's Handbook, "According to police reports...Lillian ordered a tongue sandwich, coffee, and a slice of huckleberry pie. It was the pie that killed her."

That hot summer day, almost exactly 89 years ago, 60 people became sick and six died, including Lillian, who worked as a stenographer for a dress goods firm located near the Shelbourne. Investigators determined that arsenic had been added to the dough bowl. They suspected the dastardly deed had been done by the  baker or his assistant, but it was never proven. Instead, lunch customers at other restaurants that summer began refusing to order huckleberry and blackberry pie for dessert.

Before my first five week round of the arsenic treatment, my Uncle Bobby told me about the book, "The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York." He informed me it contained a chapter dedicated to arsenic. My response: "You are crazy. Do NOT give me that book." I had zero interest in learning the details of the gruesome history of an element I was about to have injected into my body 50 times.

Apparently, Uncle Bobby is crazy. Either that, or he really cares about me (he has been very supportive throughout this ordeal). During my visit back home two weeks ago, he gave me two new books, one of which looks to be a fast-paced thriller. The other, not surprisingly, was The Poisoner's Handbook. I debated whether or not I should read the chapter on arsenic. After much deliberation, I concluded that a willingness to become knowledgeable about the chemical element would be proof to myself that I am mentally tough. Besides, Dr. Goldberg had said my drug is "different" than the arsenic used to poison...

In the book, Blum writes, “Pure Arsenic is a dark, grayish element, classed among the heavy metal poisons… It easily combines with other naturally occurring chemicals; heated with oxygen, for instance, it becomes a white, crumbly powder, the linking of two arsenic atoms with three of oxygen. In this form it is called arsenic trioxide (As2O3) or white arsenic. White arsenic, the poison used at the Shelbourne, was a favorite of some of history’s most feared poisoners…”
Lucretia and Cesare Borgia gained notoriety in fifteenth century Italy for using white arsenic mixed with other poisons for political gains. In France, arsenic was used in almost 40% of all poison murders between 1835 and 1880. In 1860, a man murdered his wife by rubbing white arsenic into an apple. In 1873, Mary Ann Cotton was tried and hanged in Britain for arsenic poisoning. According to Wikipedia, she was believed to have murdered up to 21 people, including her twelve children, mother, and three of her five husbands.
The white powder was an effective poison, earning the nickname, "the inheritance powder." When the proper dose is mixed in food--such as huckleberry pie--or drink, its metallic taste cannot be distinguished. Arsenic poisoning symptoms can be similar to that of influenza, cholera, and heart disease. Before the proper forensic techniques were developed to detect the metallic element in body tissue, many cases of arsenic poisoning were misclassified as natural deaths. Additionally, the availability of white arsenic made it difficult to narrow down a suspect list in a murder case. It was found in common household products from Fowler's Solution, used as a skin cream, to Rough on Rats, a rat poison.
As forensic toxicology departments, particularly the one in New York City in the 1920s and 30s, became better equipped at finding convincing evidence, the incidence of arsenic poisoning declined.
The arsenic poisoning murder mysteries described in Blum's book will never be solved. Hopefully, given the advances in forensics, villians never again will attempt such acts. (It would be a shame if Manhattanites once again felt fearful of ordering the huckleberry pie at eateries.)
There is one mystery I intend to solve. According to Dr. Goldberg, the arsenic I'm receiving each day is "different" than the poison. I'd accepted that simple explanation before my first five weeks of the treatment. Yet now, thanks to Uncle Bobby and author Deborah Blum, I am questioning Dr. Goldberg's statement, just as a relative of a rich Great Aunt Matilda might question her mysterious death and last-minute revisions to her will. 
The arsenic I'm receiving carries the trade name, "Trisenox." The chemical compound's technical name is arsenic trioxide. Any supersleuths reading this entry will recall that in most of the arsenic poisonings throughout history, white arsenic was used. White arsenic is the common name for arsenic trioxide. How is my arsenic trioxide so different from the arsenic trioxide that kills? The oncologist who administers my daily dose couldn't answer this question today.

Looks like I've got a mystery to solve. If my internet skills can't get me to the answer, I might have to call up Dr. Goldberg. If he can't help, I can always try the Pink Panther. Or my Uncle Bobby, since he's the one who thought it would be a great idea for me to learn about the great poison muders in Jazz Age New York.
To be continued in Part 2, which hopefully will confirm there is in fact a difference between my drug and the murder weapon...