In 1982, six adults and one 12-year-old girl died of cyanide poisoning in Chicago after taking capsules of Extra Strength Tylenol. The person responsible has never been found. Here's how this terrifying crime changed the pharmaceutical industry.
I opened them up and looked inside. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. However, as I was pouring them out of the bottles, I could tell there was a strong smell of almonds.
— Investigator Nick Pishos, Cook County medical examiner's office
Imagine a time before tamper-proof seals, when pills were sold with just a cotton ball tucked beneath the lid. Whoever tainted the Tylenol in 1982 needed only to get ahold of a bottle, poison the capsules within, and sneak them back onto the shelves. And whoever bought the bottle would be none the wiser. The police determined that the perpetrator had done exactly this, because the pills came from different plants, and had been purchased at different Chicago stores.
The effects were devastating. The first victim was 12-year-old Mary Kellerman, who died September 29, 1982 after her parents gave her a Tylenol to help ease the symptoms of her cold. Next was 27-year-old postal worker Adam Janus, followed soon after by his 25-year-old brother Stanley and Stanley's 19-year-old wife, Theresa, whose grief-induced pain tragically led them to take Tylenol from the bottle that had killed Adam.
While investigators were puzzling over these deaths, more people succumbed to the poison. Mary McFarland was 31; her brother told the Associated Press that "she went in the back room and took I don't know how many Tylenol — at least one, obviously — and within minutes she was on the floor." Next came Paula Prince, a 35-year-old flight attendant whose fatal purchase was captured on Walgreens cameras, and Mary Reiner, 27, who had just given birth to her fourth child one week before.
Confusion reigned. In a retrospective compiled 20 years after the murders, no-nonsense public health nurse Helen Jensen told Chicago Magazine that she remembered grabbing a bottle of Tylenol at the Janus house: "I said, 'This is the cause.' And of course nobody would believe me. And I stamped my feet. They said, 'Oh, no — it couldn't be. It couldn't be.'"
Turns out Jensen was right. The victims had all taken Tylenol shortly before their deaths. Incredibly, the pills were "laced with potassium cyanide at a level toxic enough to provide thousands of fatal doses." Thousands of fatal doses, all inserted into capsules which were then carefully, deliberately left for a consumer who happened to have a headache, or a sore back, or a cold, and had no way of knowing they were buying into someone's sickeningly random game of Russian roulette. Who would do such a thing?
Terrifyingly, the culprit was never caught, though a few compelling suspects emerged; one was the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, who grew up near Chicago (he was cleared). Another was James W. Lewis, who became the prime suspect after writing a letter to Tylenol manufacturers Johnson & Johnson "demanding $1 million dollars for an end to the poisonings." (He was apprehended and spent 13 years in prison for extortion, but was never charged with the Tylenol murders).
Chicago police and Johnson & Johnson, naturally, responded swiftly to this PR disaster in the making.
The deaths set off a nationwide panic, as stores rushed to remove Tylenol from their shelves and worried consumers overwhelmed hospitals and poison control hotlines. Chicago police went through the streets with loudspeakers, warning residents of the dangers of taking Tylenol. Johnson & Johnson, the drug's manufacturer, spent millions of dollars recalling the pills from stores.
The crime, still an open investigation, goaded the pharmaceutical industry into improving packaging for medicines. The "Tylenol terrorist" remains at large, and no motive was ever established. Some say it was the first act of domestic terrorism. Incredibly, the Tylenol murders inspired over 270 copycat tampering acts. As Crime Library recounts,
As a direct consequence of the Tylenol murders, Congress approved in May 1983 a new "Tylenol Bill" that made the malicious tampering of consumer products a federal offense. In 1989, the FDA set national requirements for all over the counter products to be tamper-resistant. [Author and crisis-management expert] Steven Fink summed up the feeling of the nation when he stated that, "whatever innocence we still had in the summer of 1982 was quickly shattered by the fall."
Top image, of bottles of Tylenol being tested in 1982, via Fox News.