Charles Norris (medical examiner)

Charles Norris (medical examiner)
Charles Norris
Born 4 December 1867
Hoboken, New Jersey
Died 11 September 1935 (age 67)
New York City, New York State, United States
Cause of death Heart failure
Nationality American
Home town New York City, New York State, United States
Parents Father: Joseph Parker Norris
Mother: Frances Stevens Norris[1]

Charles Norris (1867–1935) was New York's first appointed chief medical examiner (1918–1935) and pioneer of forensic toxicology in America.[1]


Early life

Norris was born on December 4, 1867. He was first educated at Cutler's Private School in Manhattan, later entering Yale University and earning a Ph.D in science. He then went to Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, earning a doctorate in medicine in 1892. After studying for four years in Europe, he returned to New York, and in 1904 became the laboratory director at Bellevue and Allied Hospitals.[1]

New York medical examiner

In 1917, Norris, applying for the job of chief medical examiner, took a civil service examination and passed. Mayor John F. Hylan immediately took legal action against him, claiming that in performing autopsies as part of the examination he had violated the law. Fortunately for Norris, the state government took notice and intervened, forcing Hylan to appoint Norris chief medical examiner.[1]

Norris immediately set about improving his department. After hiring several distinguished scientists and chemists, including Alexander Gettler, he was forced, due to the lack of any supplies, to buy them all out of his own money. Other problems included the possibility of his workers being drafted to serve in the army (which he solved by writing to Hylan), and the low salaries of his workers, which averaged less than $4,000 a year.[1]

Fremont and Annie Jackson

On 27 April 1922, husband and wife Fremont and Annie Jackson were found dead in their room in the Hotel Margaret, killed by hydrogen cyanide seeping up from the basement, which had been recently fumigated. After Norris confirmed that the Jacksons had been killed by cyanide poisoning, he tried to press charges against both the owner of the Hotel Margaret and its fumigator. Unfortunately, due to the effectiveness of the defendants' lawyers, they both were acquitted.[1]

Tetraethyl lead and the "looney gas building"

In 1924, Norris was called in to investigate the mysterious insanity and deaths of workers in a plant that made tetraethyl lead. It was mostly made in Standard Oil's plant, which was soon nicknamed the "looney gas building" due to the insanity of the workers there. Although Standard Oil had tried to deny that the deaths were due to tetraethyl lead, New Jersey ordered the plant shut down. Unfortunately, a federal investigation failed to find a link between tetraethyl lead and the ailments of the workers, and the plant resumed production soon afterwards.[1]


In the spring of 1935, Norris began to feel ill. He began staying away from public events. That summer, he took a vacation to South America, hoping to improve his health. Unfortunately, however, once he returned in late August, his health steadily deteriorated. He died at 8:30 p.m. on September 11, 1935, of heart failure.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Deborah Blum. The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. New York: Penguin, 2011.

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