The book describes the lives of Esther and husband Rene Castellani, their financial struggles, their jobs, Esther’s death, and Rene’s trial.
The first time that Esther started to feel sick was around October 1964. She thought it was due to overeating. Esther had a healthy appetite and indeed, loved milk shakes. She smoked, drank a lot of coffee, so any stomach issues or burning sensations were always dismissed as the consequences of her lifestyle.
But then the pain went to her back, her right shoulder blade, and her fingers started to tingle. She was cared for by a doctor and while I read those parts I was screaming ‘GET A SECOND OPINION‘ because it was too easy to blame her eating habits and smoking. You don’t start violent vomiting and have tingling extremities from being a bad eater or from chain-smoking.
I sincerely felt that by the time they were running blood tests and making X-rays, we had lost precious time. And then finally, a second opinion. Dr. Moscovich immediately had Esther admitted to the hospital. She would never leave the hospital alive.
Esther deteriorated to the point where she lost her limb coordination, her skin burned, and her kidneys were shutting down. In the meantime, Rene went to work, planned to buy another house with his mistress, and claimed to be getting a divorce. Esther died on July 11, 1965. She was only 40 years old. The next day, Rene and his mistress applied for a mortgage and used married names despite not being married.
The first autopsy showed heart failure but why? Dr. Moscovich went back through all the files, his medical books, and cracked his brain trying to figure out why Esther’s organs were failing her. From the moment that he started to suspect arsenic, the story rolls over into the police investigation with Esther’s exhumation, and the subsequent trial.
About the Poison
Arsenic is a natural element that can be found in rocks, soil, water, air, plants, and contaminated drinking water, think pesticides or fertilizers. Most of the arsenic that you digest is taken care of by your liver. You discard of it in your urine and stool. A certain level of arsenic toxicity in our bodies is not uncommon. But the levels that Esther had in her blood, were suspicious.
The symptoms of arsenic poisoning start roughly 30-60 minutes after ingestion. Mild poisoning can be handled by a healthy body in roughly 12 hours. With Esther, there were periods of being very sick and than a recovery.
Arsenic is a compound that you don’t smell, you don’t taste it. However, when it gets warmed up and goes from solid to gas, it smells a bit like garlic. It used to be a favourite way to get rid of people as these above-mentioned symptoms mimic cholera, food poisoning, etc. It can be found during an autopsy if you are alert to it.
From chapter 15 onwards, you can learn a lot about detecting arsenic poisoning by exploring human hair and nails.
Lazarus wrote an exceptional book that recreated the time in which the Castellani family lived. The details about their jobs, all the music references, and how radio had us captured at the time, make you feel like you were there in the 50s and 60s.
The book is very well written and has an good pace. In the beginning you hear a lot about Rene, his job at the radio station, the music at the time, and the family’s financial struggles. After chapter 6, the story goes straight into Esther’s declining health and eventually, her death. In between, there is attention for their couple’s parents, friends, children, and of course, the reason why Esther had to die. Rene had set his sights on another woman.
There is black-and-white photography throughout the book (check out the Beatles on page 74) with an epilogue, bibliography of books, websites, and an index. Highly recommended reading.
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