This Day in History: September 29th- Poison Tylenol

This Day In History: September 29, 1982

death-pillsOn the morning of September 29, 1982, a 12-year-old girl in suburban Chicago named Mary Kellerman complained to her parents that she wasn’t feeling well. They gave her two Tylenol Extra-Strength capsules, and she continued preparing for her day. A short time later, her parents found her collapsed in the bathroom. They rushed her to the emergency room, but she was pronounced dead on arrival.

Later that afternoon, postal worker Adam Janus took a dose of the over-the-counter pain reliever and died in the hospital. Tragically, when his brother Stanley and sister-in-law Theresa returned home after his death, they both took Tylenol from the same bottle Adam did to relieve their grief-induced stress headaches – with the same deadly results.

Luckily, the paramedics who responded in all three incidents were on the ball, and it was quickly established that the four victims had taken Tylenol. The bottles in question were taken to be tested, and blood tests were performed on the deceased.

Everyone’s worst fears were realized when laboratory testing proved that the Tylenol capsules contained no Tylenol at all, but 65 milligrams of potassium cyanide. Not surprisingly, all four of the victim’s blood tests came back showing evidence of this cyanide.

Before a product recall could be made, three more people died from the tainted capsules: new mother 27-year-old Mary Reiner, 31-year-old Mary McFarland and 35-year-old Paula Prince. When a journalist from the Chicago City News Bureau made the connection that all the recent deaths were linked to Tylenol and reported it, the public freaked out.

On October 1, the city’s mayor asked everyone to turn in all their Tylenol products and then banned them within Chicago. Poison Control Centers were swamped with calls from anxiety-ridden citizens afraid they may have ingested cyanide-tainted Tylenol, making it next-to-impossible for legitimate calls to get through.

It didn’t take long for the panic to go national, and on October 5 Johnson and Johnson ordered a recall on their entire Tylenol product line, spending millions to have it all removed from store shelves across the country. There were at least 270 copycat incidents in the aftermath of the Tylenol poisonings; the FDA reported pills being tainted with everything from rat poison to hydrochloric acid.

The Tylenol killings had a profound affect on American life – it caused a revolution in product safety standards almost overnight. Until then, over-the-counter drugs were sold in no-muss, no-fuss, easy to open bottles, with nothing between the cap, the pills, and the consumer (it really was a different time). After the poisonings, the food and pharmaceutical companies had to look at their packaging a completely different way, and added tamper-proof seals and security indicators, which has drastically reduced the occurrence of tragedies like the Tylenol murders.

The person responsible for the Tylenol murders has never been caught. A special task was formed in 2008 in the hopes of solving the case, but the 32-year-old mystery still remains unsolved.

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Bonus Fact:

  • Cyanide poisoning works by not allowing the body to use oxygen.  So the blood remains oxygenated after it passes through your body and back to the lungs.  Thus, it causes the body to suffocate, even though the lungs are working properly.
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  • Adam Hovey

    Why in the world would someone do that?

    • J. F. Gecik

      “Why would someone do that,” you asked, Adam?

      One possible reason would be to cause serious financial damage (or even bankruptcy) to the manufacturer (Johson and Johnson), which a vengeful criminal may have considered to have inflicted terrible damage upon him/her. [In other words, it could have been someone fired by Johnson and Johnson, someone gravely harmed by the side effects of a J&J product, etc..]

      Another possibility is that the criminal was psychotic, incapable of choosing correctly between right and wrong — someone who was seeking attention (but anonymously) in one of the worst possible ways.

      A third possibility — at which some readers will scoff — is that the perpetrator was diabolically possessed and was acting in response to satanic promptings. As any good police detective will tell you, satanism definitely exists in our world — and as many good and highly experienced clergymen will tell you, demonic possession exists too.

      The article states: “Until then [the 1982 date of the tragedy], over-the-counter drugs were sold in no-muss, no-fuss, easy to open bottles, with nothing between the cap, the pills, and the consumer (it really was a different time).”

      Yes, “it really was a different time.” I was born almost exactly 31 years before the Tylenol-related events, so I know. In the 1950s and into the early 1960s, a far higher percentage of people were actively religious, really trying to serve God, really teaching their children to be good (and not to inflict evil on others). More than 50% of the public went to places of worship on the weekend. Very many businesses were closed on Sunday. Children received corporal punishment and prayed in public schools! Divorce was rare. Abortion was illegal (because it was known to be murder), and it was mentioned only in whispers. [The list could go on and on.]

      But society in “western” nations began to go into decay around the mid-1960s and continued devastatingly so through the 1970s (with the decriminalization of abortion, “easy” divorce, and other factors, some of which are too controversial for me to mention here). A certain group of people succeeded in closing many mental hospitals, placing vast numbers of mentally ill people on the streets (with the unwise assumption that they would properly medicate themselves). Perhaps one of those people was responsible for the Tylenol killings.

      Unfortunately, the downward societal trend of the period (mid-1960s to the 1982 date of the Tylenol tragedy) did not come to an end. We have continued gradually “down a slippery slope” during the subsequent 33 years — with no end in sight. [Any sensible, decent person could produce a list of atrocities and degradations that have increasingly plagued the western world during the last three decades (e.g., vile language and “soft-core porn” on “broadcast” TV, hard-core porn on “cable” TV and the Internet, the resultant abuse of children, etc.).

      Mankind will become more and more beastly throughout the 21st Century — unless society miraculously undergoes another spiritual reawakening, as has happened at other points in human history.