The next time you struggle impatiently with the tamper-proof seals on over-the-counter medicine, remember the Tylenol Scare that occurred in the autumn of 1982 after someone put potassium cyanide in Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules, killing seven people in the Chicago area.
The victims of the Tylenol poisoner included 12-year-old Mary Kellerman and a young mother named Mary Reiner, who had just delivered her fourth child. After Adam Janus died at Northwest Community Hospital, relatives got together in his home; Adam's brother Stanley found a bottle of Tylenol in the kitchen, gave his 19-year-old wife Theresa a capsule, and took one himself. Stanley and Theresa both died. Once the deaths were linked to Tylenol usage, paranoia swept the company. Police drove through Chicago neighborhoods issuing a warning over loudspeakers. National news broadcasts spread the alarm nationwide. Retail chains removed Extra-Strength Tylenol from their shelves. Hospitals were flooded with calls from people who feared they had been poisoned, prompting the head of Seattle's Poison Control Center to announce that if someone took a lethal dose they would not live long enough to make a phone call. Tests indicated that the contaminated capsules contained 65 milligrams of cyanide, ten thousand times the five to seven micrograms needed to kill.
Johnson & Johnson, which owned the McNeil Consumer Products subsidiary that produced Tylenol, issued a half million warnings to doctors and distributors. It halted production of the analgesic in capsule form. Later, the company offered to exchange the estimated 22 million bottles of capsules in circulation for the painkiller in pill or liquid form. Three lawsuits seeking damages totaling $35 million were filed against Johnson & Johnson by families of the victims while a fourth, a class action suit, requested refunds for all 1982 Tylenol purchasers -- a $600 million buy back. Legal experts predicted that Johnson & Johnson could successfully defend itself in court by claiming it could not be held responsible for failing to anticipate the acts of a mad killer.
In six short years Johnson & Johnson had made Tylenol a top seller through aggressive advertising, increasing its market share from a mere four percent to more than 35 percent, and selling an estimated $400 million worth of non-prescription painkiller a year. In the weeks and months following the murders, market analysts and stockbrokers speculated whether Johnson & Johnson could rehabilitate the Tylenol name, now associated in the minds of millions with instant death. Some experts suggested that the company should market the analgesic under a completely new name.
The question remained: who had committed the crime? The possibility that cyanide had been inserted into the capsules during production was soon ruled out. Law enforcement's best guess was that some madman had acquired a dozen or more bottles of the painkiller, tampered with the contents, then randomly selected stores where he would place one or two bottles back on the shelf. Investigators found six bottles of poisoned capsules at six different outlets in the Chicago area. Crime psychologists were at a loss to explain such deranged behavior or provide police with useful profiles. (Most mass murderers stalk specific victims and desire direct contact with them.) There was speculation that the killer harbored a grudge against Johnson & Johnson or the pharmaceutical industry or the medical field in general. Or, some said, his rage was focused on society, and he got his thrills by terrifying the public at large.
The police had few leads. A letter reached the McNeil offices in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania with the word TYLENOL written across the envelope; it demanded a ransom of $1 million to be delivered to a Chicago post office box, and threatened more deaths if payment wasn't made. Investigators linked the extortion attempt to a conman named James Lewis. It was determined that Lewis wasn't the real killer, but he served thirteen years of a 20-year sentence for extortion. On January 20, 1983 ABC News reported that the FBI was seeking an unidentified man who had been seen attending the funerals of Adam, Theresa and Stanley Janus. But a year later the authorities still had made no arrests.
Police sought links between the Tylenol murders and other unsolved poisonings in Wyoming, Pennsylvania and California. In the latter case, small non-fatal doses of strychnine were found in several bottles of Tylenol capsules. Copycat crimes were the greatest fear of authorities. There were 270 cases of suspected product tampering in the months following the Chicago murders -- mercuric chloride in Excedrin Extra-Strength capsules, rat poison in Anacin, acid in Sinex nasal spray and Visine eye drops, sodium hydroxide in chocolate milk, razor blades in franks, and straight pins in candy bars. In years to come there would be other cases of product tampering that resulted in death: Excedrin and Tylenol in 1986, Sudafed in 1991, Goody's Headache Powder in 1992. Some wondered if the Tylenol killer was still at work.
Congress, the Food and Drug Administration, and pharmaceutical manufacturers turned to the problem of packaging non-prescription drugs to thwart tampering and restore the public's shattered faith in the products. In May 1983, Congress approved the "Tylenol Bill," making malicious tampering with consumer products a federal offense. FDA Commissioner Arthur Hayes confessed that a 100 percent tamper-proof package was impossible to construct. Aluminum or wax seals on the bottle openings, plastic wraps around the bottle's cap and neck, and placing capsules in blister packs were some of the suggestions made and acted upon. New FDA guidelines were welcomed by manufacturers faced with a plethora of hastily rendered state and local requirements. Companies that produced tamper-resistant packaging and sealing saw sales skyrocket. It was estimated that new safety measures would cost $20 million a year and raise consumer costs about two percent. But few consumers complained about higher prices or the aggravation of trying to open tamper-proof bottles. The Tylenol Murderer, who was never caught, took care of that.
In 1986, Stella Nickell of Washington state killed her husband Bruce with cyanide-laced Excedrin in order to collect on his life insurance. In an attempt to cover her tracks, she also killed a complete stranger by placing three packages of tampered Excedrin and Anacin capsules on the shelves of three stores. One of the packages was purchased by Sue Snow, who became Nickell's other victim. Nickell was sentenced to 90 years in prison. In 1993, Joseph Meling, also of Washington state, was convicted of murdering two people and trying to poison his wife. Meling tampered with capsules in six Sudafed packages, five of which he placed on store shelves. The sixth he gave his wife Jennifer, who survived the poisoning. Unfortunately, Kathleen Daneker and Stan McWhorter did not survive taking the tampered-with capsules they had purchased. The other three packages were recovered.
Chicago Tribune, 1 October 1982, 3 October 1983
New York Times, 3 October 1982, 14 February 1986
Time, 11 October 1982, 1 November 1982, 8 November 1982
Vanderbilt Television News Archives