The Tylenol Murders: How Tragedy Changed the Drug Industry Forever

It was Sept 29, 1982, when Mary Kellerman, a 12-year-old girl from Chicago, died after complaining of a simple cold. Her parents had given her a Tylenol. They didn’t know the pill was laced with the highly poisonous potassium cyanide.

On the same day, a 27-year-old postal worker named Adam Janus, from Illinois, also died of potassium cyanide poisoning. He’d taken extra strength Tylenol. His brother and sister-in-law, Stanley, 25, and Theresa, 19, had throbbing headaches after his death, which is not a strange symptom of losing a loved one. They both took extra-strength Tylenol from the same bottle Janus had taken a pill from. They died soon as well.

Over the next three days, three more deaths were reported. All the victims had taken Tylenol. Soon, all of America was panicking.

It was in early October, only a few days after the deaths, that investigators began to connect the dots that lead them to the bottles of Tylenol.

Almost immediately, Johnson & Johnson, the manufacturers got on the news and issued a massive recall of the more than 31 million bottles of Tylenol in circulation at that time.

After it became clear that the cyanide was getting into the pills after it left the manufacturing plant, police believed someone was lacing them and returning them to stores.

James Lewis, a New Yorker, stepped up as the Tylenol killer. He wrote a letter to Johnson & Johnson demanding $1 million to stop the poisoning. Police and federal investigators found that Lewis had no links to the Chicago events and was just trying to make some money off the tragedy. Regardless of his innocence in the murders, he was charged with extortion and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Other “copy-cat” crimes involving Tylenol and other over-the-counter medications happened again in the 1980s and early 1990s. No one is sure, to this day, what the motives of the killer(s) were.

What’s interesting is that before the murders, Tylenol and other drugs didn’t have all the safety packaging we’ve grown so used to. It was the cyanide lacing  that gave way to the new tamper-proof packaging, which includes foil seals and other features that make any kind of foul play obvious to the consumer.

Tylenol also replaced the extra-strength “capsules,” which could be opened up and laced, with the “caplets,” which are nearly impossible to open without destroying the pill entirely.

In 1983, the U.S. Congress passed “the Tylenol bill,” making it a federal offense to tamper with consumer products. In 1989, the FDA established federal guidelines for all manufacturers of similar products tamper-proof.

If you ever wondered about the foil on the lid or the plastic around the neck of the bottle, now you know how they came to be the safety standard for all medications like Tylenol.

Sadly, the murderer(s) responsible for all the deaths in 1982 were never caught. Many conspiracy theories still float around the Internet about the crime, however. Feel free to share any you know of here, below.

Here’s a video that explains what happened: