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1982 Chicago Tylenol murders

The Tylenol crisis occurred in the autumn of 1982, when seven people in the Chicago area in the United States died after ingesting Extra Strength Tylenol medicine capsules which had been laced with potassium cyanide poison. This incident was the first known case of death caused by deliberate product tampering. The perpetrator has never been caught, but the incident led to reforms in the packaging of over-the-counter substances and to federal anti-tampering laws. At the request of later Chairman Joseph Chiesa, new product consultant Calle & Company rescued the brand with the invention of Tylenol Gelcaps, the first inherently tamper-proof [enrobed]capsule, recapturing the 92% of capsule segment sales lost to product tampering.


The incidents

In the early morning of Wednesday, September 29, 1982, 12-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village died after taking a capsule of Extra Strength Tylenol. Adam Janus of Arlington Heights died in the hospital shortly thereafter. His brother, Stanley (of Lisle), and his wife Theresa died after gathering to mourn, taking pills from the same bottle. By October 1, 1982, the poisoning had also taken the lives of Paula Prince of Chicago, Mary Reiner of Winfield, and Mary McFarland of Elmhurst. Investigators soon discovered the Tylenol link. Urgent warnings were broadcast, and police drove through Chicago neighborhoods issuing warnings over loudspeakers.

As the tampered bottles came from different factories, and the seven deaths had all occurred in the Chicago area, the possibility of sabotage during production was ruled out. Instead, the culprit was believed to have entered various supermarkets and drug stores over a period of weeks, pilfered packages of Tylenol from the shelves, adulterated their contents with solid cyanide compound at another location, and then replaced the bottles. In addition to the five bottles which led to the victims' deaths, three other tampered bottles were discovered.

Johnson & Johnson, the parent company of McNeil, distributed warnings to hospitals and distributors and halted Tylenol production and advertising. On October 5, 1982, it issued a nationwide recall of Tylenol products; an estimated 31 million bottles were in circulation, with a retail value of over US$100 million. The company also advertised in the national media for individuals not to consume any products that contained Tylenol. When it was determined that only capsules were tampered with, they offered to exchange all Tylenol capsules already purchased by the public with solid tablets.


The crime has never been solved, although opportunistic extortionist James W. Lewis claimed responsibility and made a money demand. Lewis was arrested and though ultimately found to have no connection to the deaths, ended up serving 13 years of a 20-year prison term for the extortion attempt.

A second man, Roger Arnold, was investigated and cleared of the killings. However, the media attention caused him to have a nervous breakdown and he blamed bar owner Marty Sinclair for sending the police his way. He shot and killed a man he believed to be Sinclair, but who was in fact an innocent man who did not know Arnold. Arnold wound up serving 15 years on a 30 year sentence for second degree murder.

A $100,000 reward, posted by Johnson & Johnson for the capture and conviction of the "Tylenol Killer," has never been claimed.


Johnson & Johnson was praised by the media at the time for its handling of the incident. While at the time of the scare the market share of Tylenol collapsed from 35% to 8%, it rebounded in less than a year, a move credited to J&J's prompt and aggressive reaction. In November it reintroduced capsules, but in a new, triple-sealed package, coupled with heavy price promotions, and within several years Tylenol had become the most popular over-the-counter analgesic in the US.

A number of copycat attacks involving Tylenol and other products (see Stella Nickell for information on the 1986 Excedrin tampering murders) ensued during the following years. One of these incidents occurred in the Chicago area; unlike Tylenol, it actually forced the end of the product affected by the hoax, Encaprin, from Procter & Gamble. However, the incident did inspire the pharmaceutical, food, and consumer product industries to develop tamper-resistant packaging, such as induction seals, and improved quality control methods. Moreover, product tampering was made a federal crime.

Additionally, the tragedy prompted the pharmaceutical industry to move away from capsules, which were easy to contaminate as a foreign substance could be placed inside without obvious signs of tampering. Within the year, the Food and Drug Administration introduced more stringent regulations to avoid product tampering. This led to the eventual replacement of the capsule with the solid "caplet", a tablet made in the shape of a capsule, as a drug delivery form and to the addition of tamper-evident safety-seals to bottles of many sorts.

In pop culture

The Tylenol crisis has been referenced in many films and books. It has also been used as a basis to spread urban legends about poison in kids' candy at Halloween and other poisoned foods or drinks purchased by consumers.

In the 1999 film The Insider, Russell Crowe's character, Jeffrey Wigand, explains the incident to Al Pacino’s character while discussing Johnson & Johnson's corporate responsibility and contrasting that with the seeming non-existence of social responsibility of his current employer, a large tobacco company, Brown and Williamson.

The incident was alluded to in the "Last Laugh" episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation in which the team investigates two deaths caused by drinking water from bottles which have been tampered with.

The incident was also alluded to in an episode of Numb3rs called "Toxin," in which over-the-counter medicines made by a leading pharmaceutical company were poisoned by a disgruntled former employee. The poison used was a drug called Primalect.

In the Thomas Harris novel Silence of the Lambs, Jack Crawford mentions the Tylenol crisis, saying "I have to retire in two years. If I find Jimmy Hoffa and the Tylenol Killer, I'll still have to hang it up."

In George Carlin's special Carlin on Campus, he mentions the incident, noting, "I'd rather have a headache. At least you figure maybe the headache will go away. That cyanide stuff hangs on."

It was also mentioned in an episode of VH1's I Love The 80's. Two of the comedians joked that the Bayer company might have tampered with the bottles.

See also

  • Tamper resistance
  • Tamper-evident
  • Packaging

Further reading

  • Wolnik KA, Fricke FL, Bonnin E, Gaston CM, Satzger RD. The Tylenol tampering incident--tracing the source. Anal Chem 1984;56:466A-8A, 470A, 474A. PMID 6711821
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "1982_Chicago_Tylenol_murders". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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