The True Crime Story of the Chicago Tylenol Murders and How It Changed the World

Jennifer Geer

How a country’s innocence was lost.

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Image by mmmCCC from Pixabay

In the fall of 1982, the world changed forever. Seven people in the Chicago area died from consuming poisoned Extra Strength Tylenol capsules. It was determined that someone had taken the pill bottles off the store shelves, purposely filled the capsules with potassium cyanide, and then returned the bottles to the store without anyone noticing.

The fear of product tampering gripped not only America but the entire world. Before this event, medicine bottles, milk bottles, orange juice containers, none of this was tamper-proof. Nothing was wrapped in plastic. Nothing had lids designed to alert you if the product had previously been opened.

People did not suspect that another person might poison or meddle with a food or medicine product. It was unheard of.

Until Chicago in 1982, when seven people died after taking Tylenol.

Mary Kellerman

It all began in the fall of 1982 when 12-year-old Mary Kellerman experienced a sore throat the morning of September 29th. Her parents gave her an Extra Strength Tylenol for her symptoms.

What her parents didn’t know is the Tylenol they gave their daughter was laced with potassium cyanide. This is such a deadly substance that it has previously been used in gas form for executions, but was discontinued since the 1990s, as it causes the victims to suffer greatly.

Mary collapsed and died almost immediately after taking her Tylenol capsule. It was not understood at first what had happened to her.

The Janus family

Mary Kellerman was dead by 7 AM. A few hours later, in a nearby suburb, Adam Janus, a healthy 27-year-old picked up a bottle of Tylenol from his local store because he felt he was coming down with a cold. He collapsed unconscious after taking the Tylenol and died at the hospital.

While his family gathered together at his house to mourn his untimely death, his brother Stanley, and Stanley’s wife Theresa complained of having headaches. They found Adam’s bottle of Tylenol in his medicine cabinet. After taking the pills, they both collapsed and died shortly after.

The Tylenol was still not suspected. Healthcare workers believed carbon monoxide poisoning might be the culprit, and monitored the other family members in the hospital. But no symptoms appeared.

Mary Reiner

Mary Reiner was a mother of four children, her youngest, a newborn. She had recently come home from the hospital after delivering her fourth baby and was feeling discomfort from post-childbirth. She took a Tylenol in front of her 8-year-old daughter and collapsed immediately.

Mary Mc Farland

Single mother Mary McFarland had a headache and took a Tylenol at work. She collapsed shortly after, leaving her two small children motherless.

Paula Prince

Flight attendant Paula Prince was coming home from O’Hare International Airport and picked up a bottle of Tylenol from her local pharmacy. She was coming down with a cold, took the Tylenol and went to bed. She was found dead the next day with an open bottle of Tylenol on her bathroom counter.

Authorities began piecing it together

It’s not clear exactly how officials determined the Tylenol was the cause of the deaths. But, by the next day, Chicago police were driving through the streets with loudspeakers warning people not to take Tylenol. Remember, this was pre-internet.

Chicago officials held a press-conference alerting the public to the poisonings, and the world panicked.

By October 1st, investigators realized the capsules had been taken apart, replaced with the cyanide, and put back together. They called the deaths homicides, and stores all around the country began pulling Tylenol from their shelves.

It’s important to point out that in those days, there was not a large amount of various pain-relieving products like we have today. Tylenol was very popular, widely used, and people took it for many different ailments.

The panic people experienced at finding out what they had thought was a safe substance to take and to give to their children, was intense and spanned the globe.

The world changed overnight, and the former trust the public felt at buying products at the grocery store vanished.

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Surveillance photo of Paula Prince buying Tylenol, taken at Walgreen's 1601 North Wells Street, Chicago Illinois, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Copycat attacks and Halloween

The US Food and Drug Administration tested over 1 million capsules around the country and found no tainted bottles anywhere outside of the Chicago area. But on October 5, 1982, a man in California was sickened after taking Tylenol laced with strychnine. Three bottles in all were traced back to a local drugstore. But investigators did not believe this was connected to the Chicago killings. It was the first of several copycat poisonings that would happen over the next few years.

The realization that over the counter medicine anywhere could be poisoned at any time led to a worry that no pills or food product were safe. This extended to the fear that children would be fed poisoned candy from trick-or-treating on Halloween. Remember, the poisonings happened at the beginning of September. By October 31st, the public was at a heightened level of anxiety.

As a 2nd grader myself, I recall handing over my bucket of candy to my parents to carefully check each item before letting me have it. Homemade treats were thrown out. All packaged treats were inspected for tampering. This may seem normal now, but before the anxieties of product-tampering, there was very little fear of poisoned Halloween candy.

But the fear in 1982 was evident. An article from the New York Times on October 31, 1982, reported several cases of razor blades and needles found in Halloween candy. In the article, parents were encouraged to escort their children while trick-or-treating and to check over all of their treats. It’s hard to stress how unusual this was in 1982. It may seem normal now for a parent to take a child trick-or-treating. But before this, kids were routinely sent out to trick or treat alone and nobody worried about poisoned candy.

Johnson & Johnson’s response

Photo by Anastasiia Ostapovych on Unsplash

In what was perhaps one of the best PR campaigns ever, Johnson & Johnson, the makers of Tylenol, managed a swift response to the crisis and regained public trust. The company immediately recalled 31 million bottles of Tylenol and helped authorities to warn the public. They offered to replace pills that were already purchased for free, and they put out a reward for information that would lead to the capture of the person involved in the murders.

Because the bottles had come from different production plants and were found in several stores around the Chicago area, it was determined that it was not a problem with the Tylenol, but a packaging problem.

Someone had tainted the medication after they were placed on the store shelves. Investigators theorized the killer was a lone madman.

This could have easily been the end of the Tylenol brand. However, Johnson & Johnson was candid with the public, and within six weeks of the murders, they switched from capsules to caplets and introduced a new tamper-proof bottle. Other over-the-counter medication companies follow suit, and now you can’t buy a bottle of pills without tamper-resistant seals.

The suspects

To this day, the killer has not been found. One man, James Lewis, wrote a ransom letter to Johnson & Johnson, claiming to be the Tylenol poisoner and asking for $1 million to stop tampering with the pills.

Lewis led a strange and troubled life, but investigators could not find any evidence to prove he was in Chicago at the time of the poisonings. He was sent to prison for extortion but has always maintained his innocence in regard to the poisonings. And with no proof he was anywhere near Chicago when the pills were tampered with, this was a dead end.

Although there was a lack of evidence, Lewis must have remained suspicious to investigators. In 2010, Lewis and his wife were subpoenaed for their DNA concerning the poisonings, but nothing came out of it.

Another suspect, Roger Arnold, had told several Chicago bar owners that he had killed people with cyanide. But no evidence was found, and he was never charged with the murders.

Other theories

  • Criminal profilers say that we may have never found the killer because, after the killings, the person committed suicide or died of other causes.
  • Some have suggested domestic terrorist groups, but experts say this is unlikely as they usually claim their crimes and make demands.
  • The final theory comes from Michelle Rosen, daughter of the victim, Mary Reiner. She has never stopped searching for answers. She doesn’t believe in the lone madman theory and has an entire website dedicated to her investigation. Rosen’s theory is that the tampering did not happen on store shelves, but at the manufacturing plant before the product was shipped out.

The case was never solved

Although many of the victims’ family members hope for closure, we seem to be no closer to finding the killer than we were back in 1982. Yet, it’s not unheard of for cold cases to be solved decades later. Perhaps investigators will come across some lost clue to lead them to the culprit. Or the killer will one day reveal themselves.

But, whether the killer is ever found or not, the fact remains, the Tylenol murders of 1982 irrevocably changed the world. The next time you tear off the plastic and rip open a foil seal to your over-the-counter medicine, you can be assured, nobody could have tampered with your pills.

If you’d like to take a deeper dive into this mystery, Stuff You Should Know Podcasts dedicated two episodes Part I and Part II to the Tylenol Murders.

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Jennifer covers lifestyle content and local news for the Chicago area. New articles published each weekday.

Chicago, IL
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