Most consumers think little about the potential hazards of the products they buy on a daily basis. The assumption is twofold: first, that the powers that be have protections in place to prevent the worst from happening, and second that no one would be ghoulish enough to deliberately tamper with something an unwitting person would consume. Today this is mostly true, but it was not the case in 1982, when a series of deaths sparked a national panic and nearly brought down a pharmaceutical giant. The murders, later dubbed the Chicago Tylenol Murders, remain unsolved, but the changes they brought to American consumer culture still impact consumers more than thirty years later.
The grisly crime began in September 1982, when 12-year old Mary Kellerman complained to her parents about a cold. The Kellerman’s gave her a Tylenol capsule. She died only hours later. The same morning, a postal worker named Adam Janus died of what was initially believed to be a heart attack. His brother and sister-in-law, Stanley and Teresa, returned home after they heard news of the tragedy. They too died soon after taking Tylenol extra-strength capsules from the same bottle Adam had opened earlier in the day. Three more deaths followed in quick succession: Mary McFarland, Paula Prince, and Mary Weiner all succumbed to sudden deaths not long after consuming Tylenol capsules.
Police followed up on the only link the seven victims shared: the fact that they’d all consumed Tylenol hours or days before their death. The capsules in each case were sent to labs for testing which revealed a horrifying fact: the capsules had been laced with potassium cyanide, in a dose strong enough to kill a person many times over. Police concluded that since only Chicago area residents had been stricken by the cyanide, with no other deaths anywhere else in the country, the capsules must have been tampered with at the store level rather than the manufacturing level. They surmised that the killer must have taken bottles off the shelves of local stores, poisoned the capsules, and returned them to store shelves. So, the murders were not targeted but rather random acts against unknown victims. Police were baffled as to a possible motive for the killings.
The deaths sparked a frenzy of panic across the country. Worried people flooded hospitals and swamped poison control hotlines, concerned that they had consumed tainted medicine. Adding fuel to the fire, copycats looking for their own five minutes of fame tainted Tylenol caps with everything from rat poison to hydrochloric acid. There were over two hundred instances of copycats in the month following the Tylenol murders. For its part, Tylenol’s manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, responded to the murders and subsequent panic by pulling all Tylenol products and advertising, an act costing it millions of dollars. The future of the company was left in doubt; it seemed there was no way for the giant to rebound from this disaster.
As for the person or people who started the panic, police were at a loss. In October 1982, tax consultant James Lewis wrote a letter to Johnson & Johnson, demanding a million dollars to “stop the killings.” Police tracked down Lewis in New York. Lewis denied having anything to do with the Tylenol murders, but his denial didn’t stop investigators from suspecting him. He had a murky past. In Kansas City in 1978, he was charged with murder after police found remains of a former client of his stuffed into bags in his attic. The charges were dropped when a judge found the police searched his home illegally. Despite his murderous history, Lewis could never be concretely tied to the Tylenol murders. However, the letter was enough to charge him with extortion, which would lead to Lewis serving 13 years of a 20 year sentence in a federal prison. In 2008, the FBI reopened their investigation, with a renewed focus on Lewis as a probable suspect. However, their investigation turned up no new leads. The culprit remains a mystery.
In the wake of the murders, Johnson & Johnson took the lead, pledging to protect their customers from such attacks. They introduced tamper-proof packaging, which eventually became the industry standard for all over-the-counter medications. They also introduced the caplet, a tablet that was as easy to swallow as a capsule but much harder to tamper with. Tylenol rebounded in the wake of the killings, and once again became the top selling over-the-counter pain killer. The government responded as well. In 1983, Congress passed the “Tylenol bill,” which made it a felony to tamper with consumer products. For its part, the Food and Drug Administration established federal guidelines for manufacturers to adopt the new tamper-proof packaging.
The unfortunate truth is that it often takes a tragedy like the Chicago Tylenol Murders to put into place protections that, in retrospect, seem obvious. However, no one at the time could conceive that a person could be so twisted as to poison an over-the-counter medication used by millions of all ages. Seven people died, killed for reasons that might never be found. It is small comfort to their loved ones, but their deaths led to protections that have kept millions of people from meeting the same fate in the decades since.