The Tylenol Murders: Why We Have Annoying Pill Bottles
It’s a uniquely frustrating experience to open a fresh bottle of ibuprofen and nobly attempt to carefully peel off that little foil seal when you already have a headache and inevitably end up stabbing it with your fingernail and just dealing with tiny jagged bits of foil around the rim for the length of the bottle’s lifetime, but it’s pretty horrifying that we didn’t always have to do it. Anybody could put god knows what in there! In fact, the whole reason it’s a thing is because some madperson killed seven people in 1982 by poisoning random bottles of Tylenol, apparently for madperson reasons.
The Tylenol Murders
On September 29, 1982, four people in the Chicago area suddenly collapsed and died. Within a few days, three more people perished in the exact same manner. It was like that Game of Thrones shadow baby was just running around untraceably offing folks, except this was Illinois, not some weird beach in Westeros.
Narrowing It Down
Because three of the first four victims were in the same family, investigators “took a lot of stuff -- the coffee grounds, the flowers” from the house in an attempt to figure out just what the fuck was happening, but the only clue to the cause of their deaths was that they’d recently taken Tylenol. Without much else to go on, they examined capsules from the victims’ bottles and, sure enough, found that they’d been opened, emptied, and filled with cyanide.
Panic at the Drugstore
It seemed at first like a disgruntled factory worker expressing their dissatisfaction in a deeply HR-unapproved way, but the bottles were traced to multiple factories across the country, which meant someone in Chicago had to be taking the bottles off the shelves, doing their murder thing, and then putting them back. Panic ensued as drugstore employees roundhouse-kicked the Tylenol off their shelves and Chicago police roamed the streets yelling at people through loudspeakers not to take Tylenol.
It Wasn’t the Only Incident
Weirdly enough, on the other side of the country, a California man was poisoned by Tylenol capsules laced with strychnine. He survived, so he could tell authorities that he bought the pills way before the Chicago attacks, meaning at least two people got the idea and the urge to randomly murder people in this specific way that hadn’t ever really been done before at the same time.
The Biggest Recall in History
On October 6, the day after the California victim was identified, Johnson & Johnson issued a recall of more than 31 million bottles of Tylenol, the biggest retail product recall in history at the time. Production ground to a halt and their stock plummeted as Johnson & Johnson swapped Tylenol ads for PSAs pleading with consumers not to use their product, which would have counted as some sweet performance art had it not been so necessary.
The government worked fast to implement new regulations requiring products like medicine to be sealed with a material “which restricts air into the product and which, if broken, would be evident to an observer or consumer.” The Cook County Board in Illinois voted immediately for such measures, and the FDA issued their rules by November, although again, it seems bananas that nobody has considered this before.
Halloween Was a Bummer
The attacks coincidentally occurred a month before Halloween, stirring up those overwhelmingly debunked fears of tainted candy just when they started to die down. Trick-or-treating was banned in some places all over the country, and candy sales were down 20–50%. Won’t someone think of the candy companies?
A bunch of monsters were inspired by the sensational news coverage to carry out their own pharmaceutical terrorism, with more than 270 additional incidents in the wake of the Tylenol murders. The most high-profile cases, however, were far from random, as the killers used the presumably arbitrary nature of the poisonings as a cover to kill their spouses. Spoiler: It didn’t work.
So Who Did It?
The randomness of the attacks was exactly what made bringing the bastard who caused this whole mess to justice so hard. The only motive investigators could infer was financial, possibly some other company trying to drive Tylenol out of the market by any means necessary, but all they had to go on was security camera footage of some bearded guy who definitely did not look like a corporate hitman. Luckily, a lead jumped straight into their laps.
Johnson & Johnson soon received a letter demanding $1 million to “stop the killings” that led investigators to James Lewis, a man with a history of violence that included the attempted ax murder of his mother and investigation for the murder of a former client. It sounded like an open and shut case, except Lewis wasn’t even in Chicago at the time, nor did he have any access to the bank account to which he demanded payment, which was owned by a travel agency that had recently fired his wife. He was apparently trying to frame them somehow. He still got convicted of extortion.
Next, they looked at a dock worker named Roger Arnold, who a local bar owner told them had recently bought a ton of cyanide. Arnold was cleared of suspicion for the Tylenol murders, though it’s unclear what legitimate reason a dock worker might need that much cyanide, and he was soon in prison anyway after shooting a man he thought was the bar owner who ratted him out.
Six years later, police thought Laurie Dann, a woman who shot up an Illinois elementary school in 1988, might have had something to do with it, but only because she was in the Chicago area at the time and apparently a murderer. They couldn’t find any other connection, but hey, it was worth a try.
James Lewis Again
Fast forward to 2009, when the FBI was prompted “by the recent 25th anniversary of this case” and “advances in forensic technology” to search Lewis’s house, just in case he left any written confessions lying around for two decades. Lewis is currently not in prison for the murders, so apparently, nothing came of it.
By 2011, someone in a brainstorming session apparently said, “I don’t know, the Unabomber? Have we tried the Unabomber?” Ted Kaczynski denied involvement but refused to provide DNA samples for testing, pointing out pretty fairly that “partial DNA profiles can throw suspicion on persons who are entirely innocent.” He eventually agreed in exchange for stopping the auction of some of his belongings by the FBI, but they were like “nah,” so he probably wasn’t a serious suspect.
James Lewis… Again?
In 2022, investigators once again interviewed Lewis and claimed they had a “chargeable, circumstantial case” but also that “charges are not thought to be imminent.” Lewis is currently 76 years old, so it is kind of a “charge or get off the pot” situation. For his part, Lewis is pretty mad about being “harassed over something for 40 years that didn’t have anything to do with” and questions why no one is asking Johnson & Johnson about their “destruction of all the evidence.” Hey, maybe he’s cracked it: Johnson & Johnson poisoned their own product for… reasons. Anything’s worth a look at this point.
Top image: Ragesoss/Wikimedia Commons