Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer-Prize winning science writer and the author of five books, most recently The New York Times best seller, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. She also writes for publications ranging from The Wall Street Journal to Lapham’s Quarterly and blogs about chemistry, culture (and the occasional murder) for the Public Library of Science at Speakeasy Science, blogs.plos.org/speakeasyscience. She is the Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
So let me tell you the story of a suspected murder, a real one, the irresistibly tragic tale of a beautiful young actress of early 20th century Hollywood, the adventure-loving heroine of one successful film after another: Madcap Madge, The Flapper, and – what would turn out to be her last picture – Everybody’s Sweetheart.
The actress, Olive Thomas, had the look of a charming child, with a shining bob of dark, curly hair, big violet-blue eyes, and a pale, heart-shaped face. It was a look that launched her career, starting in 1914 when she’d won a “Most Beautiful Girl in New York City contest.” And it launched her marriage to a member of Hollywood’s inner circle, Jack Pickford – younger brother of screen star Mary Pickford.
The couple rapidly developed a reputation for wild behavior, intense partying, intense quarreling, usually over his numerous side affairs – he’d developed syphilis as a result of one of them. They separated, reunited, separated, tried again, delighting the gossip magazines. In early September 1920, the couple flew to Paris, reportedly on a reconciliation holiday. They checked into the Hotel Ritz and whirled off to enjoy time in a Prohibition-free city. At the end one particularly drunken spree, Pickford and Thomas staggered into their hotel room at nearly three in the morning. As Pickford told the police, he was floating in a whiskeyed haze, when Olive began screaming, over and over, “Oh my God, my God.”
He stumbled into the dimly lit bathroom, where she was leaning against the counter. Mistaking it for her sleeping medicine, she had picked up a bottle of the bichloride of mercury potion that he rubbed on the painful sores caused by syphilis, poured a dose, and chugged it down. As the corrosive sublimate burned down her throat, she had a moment to realize her mistake. He caught her up and carried her back to the bed, grabbing the phone and calling for an ambulance. “Oh my God,” she repeated, “I’m poisoned.”
And it’s at this point, that I hope I’ve gotten you caught up in the story so that you’ll continue read on as I pause to tell you something about the poisonous element mercury – its history, its chemistry, its use in everything from thermometers to medications, it’s rather insidious poisonous effects. The fact that it’s most dangerous when part of a chemical compound, such as the bichloride of mercury (HgCl2) which makes it far more easily absorbed than in its pure, slippery and self-contained, state.
I might even tell you that by the time of the Olive Thomas test, toxicologists had developed tests sensitive enough to detect the poison in human tissues from exposures as small as .005 of a grain of mercury bichloride. And I’d even tell you about how those tests worked, the way chemists would use a deft mixture of heat, acid, and vapor to coax mercury from a tissue sample to form a thin gleaming deposit on a copper probe. And all of that would lead you back to the question of how Olive Thomas died and whether it was, as her husband insisted, an accident.
Or at least that’s what I did in my book, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, although at far greater length. The idea is to weave science through the story well enough that it’s just part of the story. A little devious, you’re thinking. I do tell stories of science more directly, for instance in a story on chemical communication in Scientific American last fall, or in my blog on chemistry and culture, Speakeasy Science. But in my last book, I wasn’t thinking so much about the already science literate audience. I was wondering about the outer circle, about whether if I could spin a good enough story that people who don’t love chemistry at all would read the book anyway.
In fact, as my non-fiction story is set in the time period that the mystery novelist Agatha Christie started her career (debuting in 1920 with a strychnine-focused tale, The Mysterious Affair at Styles); it was Christie who I hoped to channel when writing about two crusading scientists in the early days of forensic toxicology. I won’t tell you I pulled it off perfectly but I can tell you that The Poisoner’s Handbook was a finalist for a non-fiction Agatha award, given to favorite books of murder mystery readers. And that I talked about chemistry and poison at the annual conference of mystery writers, Malice Domestic, last spring. And that I was the only science writer in attendance.
I sometimes think of this more subtle weaving of science into a story as a kind of subversive education. And I think it matters. Because the audience, the one beyond the inner circle of the science literate, matters. If we believe what we say – that science communication is important because it helps us build a community with greater understanding of research – then we need to be creative in the ways we reach far and wide into that community. We need to care about the science disenfranchised as well as the science savvy. I don’t suggest this is the only goal of science communication or that my approach is right for every story or every book. But I will tell you that I hear from some surprising readers, mostly recently a 5th grade boy. I like connecting with that diverse audience. And that I think experimenting with telling science stories has made me better at what I do.
Or so I hope. But, as they say, enough about me.
The stricken actress lingered in the hospital for three more days after she swallowed bichloride of mercury. And during those days, the newspapers repeated every rumor smoking around them – his infidelities had driven her to suicide; Pickford had wished to get rid of her and tricked his wife into taking the poison; as the days passed, he became more evil, she more saintly. So many people flocked to Thomas’s funeral in Paris that women fainted in the crush and the streets became carpeted with countless hats, knocked off and trampled.
The police launched an investigation, including an autopsy, and concluded that it was, as Pickford had said, just a terrible accident. In an interview, with The Los Angeles Examiner, after his return to California, Pickford couldn’t stop dwelling on how much his wife had wanted to live: “The physicians held out hope for her until the last moment, until they found her kidneys paralyzed. Then they lost hope. But the doctors told me she had fought harder than any patient they ever had.”
Not the happiest of conclusions. And it was not one that laid to rest all the doubts and whispers about Pickford. It may be one reason why he faded away as a Hollywood star. But then it’s real life with all its imperfections, not a mystery novel. And if my subversive plan worked here you read until I reached that conclusion.