Tuesday, July 11, 2023

The Tylenol killings

Metropolitan Museum of Art

     James Lewis, the only suspect in the 1982 Tylenol killings, was found dead at his home in Boston Sunday. Anyone who was around the Chicago area remembers just how frightening these random murders were. I describe them in my recent book, "Every Goddamn Day," published by the University of Chicago Press. 

Sept. 29, 1982 

     “Mary, are you okay?” 
     Dennis Kellerman hovers by the bathroom door. He saw his 12-year-old daughter go inside. Then a thud. 
    She had woken up feeling unwell—a scratchy throat—and her parents said she could stay home from school. Her dad knocks again. “Mary, are you okay?” 
     He opens the door. It’s about 7 a.m. 
     Adam Janus, 27, an Arlington Heights postal worker, is also staying home with a cold. At noon he picks up his children from preschool and stops by Jewel to grab some medicine. He goes home and has lunch.
      “I’m going to take two Tylenol and lie down,” he says.
      About 3:45 in Winfield, Mary Reiner is home with her four children, the youngest a week old. Her husband comes home to find her collapsed on the floor. 
     An hour later, the family of Adam Janus is planning his funeral. His brother, Stanley, who has a bad back, asks his wife to get him something. She takes two red-and-white capsules for him from a bottle in the bathroom. And two for herself. He takes them. And so does she. He crumples to the floor. She does too. 
     At 6:30 p.m., Mary McFarland is at work, at an Illinois Bell store in Lombard. She has a headache. . . . 
     Arlington Heights public health nurse Helen Jensen is called in to help figure out what is going on. She goes to the Janus house, where she sees the bottle of Extra-Strength Tylenol. She takes it with her to Northwest Community Hospital, where doctors and police are frantically puzzling over what is happening.
      “Maybe it’s the Tylenol,” she says, setting the bottle down. 
     They phone the Cook County medical examiner’s office. Edmund Donoghue tells them to smell the bottle. They do. Almonds. A strong scent. The telltale odor of cyanide. Johnson & Johnson yanks the drug from shelves the next morning. Police drive slowly down residential streets, in that pre-internet age, using loudspeakers to warn residents not to take the popular painkiller. A few days later, all Tylenol bottles—31 million of them, worth $100 million—are recalled. 
     Seven people die in the Tylenol murders. There will also be hundreds of copycat crimes—acid in eye drops, strychnine in capsules. From now on, medicines will come in bottles with tamper-proof caps, or blister packs. A man will be convicted of trying to extort $1 million from Johnson & Johnson, but no one is ever charged with the killings.


  1. A person of interest was investigated and cleared in connection with the Tylenol killings, but the media attention he received affected his state of mind. Blaming his situation on the owner of a popular Lincoln Avenue dive bar (in which I spent a lot of time in the late 70s), he mistakenly shot another man to death on a North Side street in 1983. The shooter served 15 years for killing a total stranger, who unfortunately had a strong resemblance to his intended victim.
    The shooting so unnerved the Oxford' Pub's owner that he sold his business and disappeared. The buzz among the regulars was that he'd fled to South America. The Oxford was closed, gutted, and renovated...into just another yuppie hamburger joint. After that, I limited my carousing to the more friendly confines of Wrigleyville. (SG)

  2. Anyone who lived in Chicago then remembers those days when we were afraid of capsules sold over-the-counter. In today's "Sun-Times," Tom McNamee describes those days as a time when many of us realized how fragile the "social contract" is and how much we need to be able to assume "that we're all in this together or we're all lost." And now, years later, many of us wonder if that "social contract" is so tattered that we'll never regain it.

  3. There is a really good podcast "The Tylenol Murders" that provides a lot of details of the event.

  4. And ever since - people have struggled getting child proof tops off their pain relivers.

    1. I think the childproof caps were already in use, but what wasn't were the various types of plastic and cellophane sealants that indicate that a bottle had not been opened, and which are now used on the packaging of just about every ingestible commodity that is sold on store shelves. Almost none had them before the Tylenol murders.

  5. Because 7 people died, tamper-proof packaging was created for pretty much anything that could be consumed.

    But hey, let’s not do anything about guns.

  6. I don't know. I go to the store and fruits, vegetables, various meats and other types of ingestible products aren't wrapped in anything, so I'm not sure exactly how they determined which things could be tampered with and which things were safe to allow the public access to without protection

  7. My husband was a manager with J&J in the western suburbs at the time. He was interviewed by the FBI in a professional manner. At the time, we were proud of the way J&J handled the situation.


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