How the Tylenol Murders Changed Everything

In September 1982, a young girl in Chicago wasn’t feeling well. She felt like she may be coming down with a cold and went to tell her parents. Like millions of parents do, millions of times, they gave her two extra strength Tylenol to ease her discomfort. Things seemed fine until they found her unresponsive on the bathroom floor. They rushed her to the hospital, but, unfortunately; she didn’t make it. 

What happened? Doctors sus[ected a stroke, but this was a 12-year-old. And then, around Chicago, similar events happened with the individual passing away shortly after getting to the hospital. Was there a common denominator between these tragic events?

I’m Jamie and this is Everything 80s, a podcast that looks back on a decade that forever changed the way we dressed, consumed, and connected. On today’s journey, we travel back to 1982 and the fear that gripped a city and country: This is the story of…the Tylenol Murders. 

If your household was anything like mine, you weren’t able to even touch a piece of Halloween candy until it was inspected by your parents. During the 1980s, there was a lot of fear of poisoned or tampered with candy. But how did this become a thing? What led to a change in manufacturing and the creation of tamper-proof bottles and products? We can probably look back to the Tylenol murders. The Pill tampering poisoner, the Tylenol killer, the Tylenol murders, or whatever you want to call it represents a truly terrifying time in the early 80s. 

This isn’t even necessarily a true crime story as it’s about the growth of news media and the rapid spread of information, public relations navigating, manufacturing regulations, changing the way we consumed medications, and how a famous brand was able to recover. And it all happened in 1982

Setting the Stage For the Tylenol Murders

Shortly after getting to the hospital. 12-year-old Mary Kellerman tragically didn’t survive.  As mentioned, doctors thought the only explanation was a stroke, but again, she was only 12. She didn’t even seem to be that sick, just a cold and sore throat that hopefully some rest and a few Tylenol would help with. This was a perfectly regular response.

Tylenol has been around since 1955, and its core ingredient, acetaminophen, is over 100 years old. But Just a few hours later–and not far from where Mary lived–27-year-old Adam Janice had to take the day off from work. He is suffering from shoulder pain and could use the break. Like millions of other people do, he reached for the Tylenol to try to relieve some of the pain. He takes the Tylenol and heads in for a nap. A half-hour later, his wife walks in to ask him something but finds him unresponsive. Paramedics quickly arrive only to find him in a coma.

Like Mary, Adam is rushed to hospital. It looks back, but his family–who have now arrived at the hospital–hopes it isn’t as bad as it looks. But it’s worse–Adam hasn’t made it. The family is understandably shocked and eventually heads back to Adam’s house. The family is distraught, crying, and begins to feel their own physical pain. Which causes them to also reach for the Tylenol. The same bottle that Adam had used earlier in the day…

Not long after–and to the same hospital–Adam’s brother Stanley and his wife are rushed in. The same doctor, bewildered of how a seemingly healthy 27-year-old could just pass away suddenly is now realizing the same thing is happening to the man’s brother- and sister-in-law. And within a few days, both of them are gone. And the brother was only 25. What the hell is going on? Why was there sudden death in the same family–and in the same way?

The doctor goes through various possibilities, such as food poisoning or carbon monoxide poisoning, but the symptoms of these don’t match what he’s just seen. Maybe they mixed medication they shouldn’t have, or combined the wrong things with alcohol? The doctor asks for all medication and food from the house to be brought to the hospital. Everything is rounded up and brought in–including the bottle of Tylenol.

What Was Going On?

Nothing looks out of the ordinary, and there weren’t any medications that came with high risk. But there were still a varying amount of over-the-counter medications. Including the bottle of Tylenol. And then one detective notices that there are 6 capsules missing from the Tylenol–and three deaths. Most people take two capsules at a time; was this anything significant? The Rocky Mountain Poison Center is contacted to see if they can get to the bottom of what’s happened. 

Meanwhile, in Winfield, Illinois–just 50 minutes outside of Chicago–Another 27-year-old, and another Mary, wasn’t feeling well. Mary Lynn Riner had recently given birth and hadn’t been feeling great. As everyone does, she also reached for some extra strength Tylenol. This time, just minutes later, she collapsed on the floor.

They rushed her to the hospital, and unfortunately, she didn’t make it. But this kept happening. In Lombard, Illinois, 40 minutes from Chicago, and just nine miles from Mary Lynn Riner, another Mary was complaining about having a headache while at work. 31-year-old Mary McFarlane excused herself and went to the breakroom to grab a Tylenol. Just minutes later, Mary collapsed on the floor. And you obviously know where this is going: she was rushed to hospital where she didn’t make it. Over the course of just a few days, seven people were now dead, and under similar circumstances. 

Police were treating each death as concerning and gathering evidence from the scenes. The doctors at the hospital had been brought bottles of Tylenol for each death. Investigators had to treat each death as more than natural causes, and bottles of Tylenol seemed linked to each unfortunate tragedy. But there was no way this simple product could be somehow involved.

It was now early October of 1982, and it was time to take a closer look. And there was something interesting; two of the bottles, each taken from separate homes, had the same number marking: MC2880. It also didn’t take long to notice that a strange smell was coming from each bottle. Some said it smelled like almonds–which is not good. There is one substance well known for having a smell similar to almonds: cyanide… Interestingly, only half of the population is said to be able to detect this almond smell. Luckily, this one investigator was able to. 

We all know cyanide is bad, but what exactly does it do? Cyanide blocks oxygen from red blood cells, which quickly causes asphyxiation. Basically, your blood cells cannot absorb oxygen from the lungs. It actually gets a bit more disturbing than this, but let’s just summarize that cyanide can cause cardiac arrest and lead to death–which is the way these people passed away.

The bottles of Tylenol were quickly sent for testing and the results came back: each pill contained 100 to 1000 times the amount of cyanide needed to kill a person. This was obviously cause for panic, but was this a horrific manufacturing error, or had someone tampered with the bottles, turning them into what was basically a murder weapon? 

Either way, Tylenol was involved in the quick and horrifying deaths of people who lived in the same area. Tylenol is owned by Johnson & Johnson and they were immediately notified. They sent a lawyer to the medical examiner’s lab and brought him up to speed with what was happening. I’m not sure how someone could process all this and then have to make a decision.

The first and obvious one was to contact the Tylenol plants and have them halt production. But these bottles had already been produced, sat on shelves, and were in these people’s homes for possibly months. How much else was out there? The Lawyer and company would need time to get on top of this, but time wasn’t an option. This was now a public health issue, and the public needed to be informed. This isn’t something to keep under wraps. 

Local police hit every drug store they could find to get Tylenol off the shelves. A press conference spread the word about how dangerous every bottle of Tylenol could potentially be. 

An Intentional Act

With cyanide levels at 1000x higher than what could kill a person, it was obvious that this was an intentional act. But at what level? Was this a disgruntled employee in one of the Tylenol factories? Had someone actually gone into the stores and tampered with the bottles?

So far, 5 bottles containing cyanide have been found. And then a few other bottles were found containing cyanide—all in the Chicago area. Luckily, these were bottles on shelves and hadn’t been purchased or consumed. But how much had been purchased and was sitting in medicine cabinets like a ticking time bomb? McNeil Consumer Products was a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson and they made Tylenol and sprang into action. Cooperating with authorities, they used the media, which now had a wider reach than at any other point in human history, to send out a mass warning to the public. And there was no way to sugarcoat this: Tylenol was killing people.

And, of course, Tylenol was everywhere. It was in every drugstore and pharmacy in every single town in the entire country. The tainted bottles had been purchased in drugstores, but also in supermarkets. Everything would have to be recalled. Estimates gauged that there were some 31 million bottles of Tylenol in circulation.

But there was no other option, and Johnson & Johnson had to take the hit of $100 million in product recall. They offered exchanges to replace previously purchased bottles. But wouldn’t the public not want to go anywhere near Tylenol? The poisoned bottles were extra-strength capsules, which were easier to tamper with. Johnson and Johnson offered solid tablets in exchange. 

More important than a replacement product, the company offered a $100,000 reward for any information pertaining to the murders. But by now, fear had gripped the public. Was it just Tylenol that was poisoned? What about Asprin, or generic brands? What about any other products? How far did this go, and how many products were at risk? Tamper-proof packaging and package safety measures were not what they are now, so anything could be at risk. Was milk safe? What about orange juice or‌ boxes of cookies? None of these things came in properly sealed packaging.

It was this incident that would lead to the sweeping changes that we’ll cover in a bit. But people were legitimately panicked and everyone looked at everyday products as potentially deadly. The public really hadn’t been scared in this way before. 

The Fear of the Tylenol Murders Spread

The New York Times said in an article that “News of the Tylenol poisonings in Chicago seemed to spread as fast as the fire of 1871. Because of the growth of news media in the early 80s, it was said that it only took four days for the entire country to know. The president of a survey research firm based in Chicago said that just a few days after the first reports of these mysterious deaths came out, “There was virtually total knowledge about it through America.” And then it became a national scare.

12 days after the first death in Chicago, The New York Times reported that officials in California discovered strychnine in Tylenol capsules. The day after that, the death of a Philadelphia man was linked to cyanide-tainted pills. Two days later, a 19-year-old janitor in Wyoming also died of cyanide poisoning. The Times article from October 10th, 1982 reported that he was thought to have taken Tylenol bought from a store that had obtained it from a Chicago distributor. Things were getting out of control and fear was very real. This is a common statement on this podcast, but can you imagine if social media existed in October 1982? 

Johnson and Johnson realized the tampering took place after the bottles had left the factory as they infected bottles came from several manufacturing plants. This meant there was a deranged individual causing this. That certainly didn’t help things. Someone had gone into the stores in the Chicago area, taken Tylenol off the shelves, laced them with cyanide, then returned them to the shelves for an unsuspecting victim. How far did this go? How do the police even begin to investigate this? The person possibly behind this then made contact…

A Possible Suspect?

As the investigations were underway, the authorities received a letter. It was from a man named James Lewis and it appeared to be a ransom letter. Lewis claimed to be the Tylenol killer and demanded a ransom of $1 million dollars or else he would continue to strike. Tylenol was being recalled, so what other medications or products could he tamper with?

Was this James Lewis actually involved, or was this one of those individuals that crawl out of the woodwork just looking to disrupt the investigation? The police didn’t want to leave anything to chance, so clearly had to pursue the lead. And they were actually able to track him down. It took quite a lot of back and forth until they eventually discover that Lewis lived in New York. After enough investigation, they  concluded that Lewis had no connection to Chicago or the surrounding area where the Tylenol Murders occurred. But this doesn’t mean he was let go, lewis was charged with extortion and received 20 years in prison.

So now the police had a real problem on their hands. How many of the leads do they take seriously, and now there was a genuine concern about possible copycats. The first thought was to investigate the stores where the Tylenol was purchased. They traced the purchase of one bottle to a specific store and asked to see the security footage. But all they could see was the victim buying it at the checkout. But they noticed something: a man in a beard wearing a light jacket was standing off to the side, appearing to just watch her. However, this didn’t lead to much.

As usual, a ton of tips were called in, as were endless amounts of possible tamperings. This is often where the fear of a threat comes from: the follow-up and reaction to the original event. The person behind this had accomplished their goal and caused widespread terror. The response to possible copycat incidents was getting as much, or more, attention as the original story. 

Halloween is Canceled??

I’m not sure how old you are, but if you were of a trick-or-treating age in 1982, you may remember your town canceling Halloween. Remember, this is October, and with Halloween just around the corner, and with the fear of poisoned Halloween candy, several neighborhoods and entire towns called off Halloween. In suburbs in Ohio, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, police completely outlawed Trick or Treating. And then banned dancing–wait, that’s Footloose.

This was the era where fear of razor blades in Halloween candy was beginning to grow. And the Tylenol Murders only exasperated it. The tainted candy thing has always been more of a myth or urban legend, but for Halloween of 1982, no one wanted to risk anything. The response was so significant that the New York Times shared that grocery store candy sales for the entire country were down 20 to 50%. 

But now the FBI got involved. A Tylenol Task Force is formed involving the city of Chicago, the FBI, and the FDA. The task force was assembled quickly when people were still wondering if the poisoning took place at the manufacturing level somewhere in the supply chain. Once they realized it took place on the store level, they created a 50-mile radius around Chicago as the focus of their investigation.

But who would do something like this? A disgruntled employee of either Johnson and Johnson or the specific stores where the bottles were found? Because why Tylenol of all things? It seemed so random, there wasn’t any pattern or logic behind it. Was it one person targeting a specific individual who they knew shopped at those specific stores and often used Tylenol? Another bizarre theory was that it was a person who had invested in tamper-proof technology, and this was a way to usher in a new era of manufacturing that they would cash in on. 

The task force had 1200 leads, but with none of them credible–or with any explanation behind this bizarre crime–they entertained a variety of theories. Eventually, they landed on the “mad poisoner” theory. In their eyes, the poisoner spent seven hours visiting stores in the Chicago area, getting the bottles and then, either taking them home or in their care, poisoned them and distributed them back in the stores.

And the obvious question is why? An answer we still don’t have to this day. No one has ever been charged. Were their suspects? Yes, a lot. The task force began with 20,000 suspects, narrowed it down to 400, then to 40, and finished with around 20. They quickly realized they weren’t going to track this person down. This is an era with minimal video surveillance. No one had a phone, digital footprint, or location tracking. We didn’t have debit cards that could track our movements and purchases. There was no paper trail. There were no clues, breaks, evidence, and, most disturbing, no motive. 

But I mentioned a list of 20 suspects. Surely someone had to stand out if they narrowed it down this far? We’ve covered James Lewis from New York, but then there is Roger Arnold. Arnold was one of the first named suspects. The public wanted results. They wanted a face and a name. Would identifying Arnold too quickly just be used as a sign of progress being made?

Arnold was an amateur chemist and worked near some of the stores the deadly Tylenol was bought. At his home was a book on how to kill people. Arnold then admitted he once possessed cyanide, but later threw it away before the murders. And another damning piece of evidence was Arnold’s wife admitted to getting sick once after taking Tylenol.

But this is as far as it went. Police eventually cleared him. Unfortunately, the media attention and stress of everything caused Arnold’s life to spiral into tragic circumstances. At one point, Ted Kaczynski, aka The Unabomber, was actually considered as a possible suspect, but clearly, nothing came of this. There is a little DNA, and apparently a fingerprint from one of the bottles, but the case of the Tylenol Murderer remains unsolved to this day.  

How in the world did Tylenol Make a Comeback After All This?

The fact that Tylenol is still as successful as they are after this is pretty astonishing. If you lived through this, you know what widespread panic the Tylenol murders caused, and this could have easily sunk them. But, obvious spoiler alert: they’re clearly still around.

But The Tylenol Murders were one of the worst public relations disasters a company had ever faced. And this wasn’t just limited to the US, but became a worldwide crisis for the company. Here in Canada, Extra strength Tylenol was pulled from open shelves. In most of the provinces, it was only available behind the pharmacist’s counter. Some countries completely banned the sale of it. 

Understandably, the fear the public experienced caused massive distrust at the time. Not only did they have to recall over $100 million in product–which they had to destroy–but their overall sales tanked. Before the 1982 event, Tylenol controlled around 37% of the over-the-counter pain relief market. The name Tylenol is as associated with acetaminophen as Kleenex is with facial tissue or Zamboni is with ice resurfacing machines. That’s right: Zamboni is a brand, not a thing.

Because of the Tylenol murders, their control of the market dropped to less than 8%. In Canada, there were no incidents of poisoning, but what was happening south of the border still influenced our public perception. Just like in the US, the Tylenol Murders caused a commercial disaster in Canada. In A Maclean’s article from October 18, 1982, a Shoppers Drug Mart employee was quoted as saying, “sales of Tylenol haven’t dropped, they’ve quit.” 

Not only was it important that the company respond in the right way, but they also had to step up and take control of the issue, and that meant changing the way products were manufactured and protected. Johnson & Johnson established new protocols to ensure the safety of their products. They worked with the FDA to create the best tamper-proof packaging possible.

If you’ve been frustrated by having to go through several layers of packaging to get to your product; it really all goes back to 1982. Foil seals were one of the most important innovations, as including them could easily show if the product had been tampered with. As were the plastic coverings on the top of the bottle and the sealed box. This soon became the industry standard, not only for pharmaceutical products but for food packaging, too.

Again, if you’re old enough, you may remember how products like Tylenol came in a box that wasn’t sealed shut, had an easy pop-off lid, and then just a piece of cotton between you and capsules. That was it. It was a strangely innocent time when every product in any store was easily accessible. 

Just one year after the Tylenol murders, the US congress passed the “Tylenol Bill.” It seems bizarre to think about, but it wasn’t a federal offense to tamper with consumer products. Now it would be. In 1989, it was now a requirement for all companies to make similar products tamper-proof. 

Tylenol Bounces Back

And there was one more important innovation you possibly never noticed. The capsules that were poisoned in 1982 were very easy to open, infect, and place back in a bottle that didn’t have tamper-proof packaging. Tylenol created a hard tablet but one coated with a gelatin. This created a slick tablet that was not only easier to swallow but also much harder to tamper with. 

But the company became admired for how well it handled the disaster. Johnson and Johnson could have easily tried to downplay things, but chose to cooperate, be transparent, and be actively involved with the entire process. Just 29 hours after the first death, the recall of every Tylenol bottle in the country was underway.

Some say the Tylenol murders would destroy the company, but the fact they bounced back to such a high level is pretty astounding. Eventually, Tylenol once again became the top pain reliever in the country. The response to this nightmare has been used as a case study in business classes around the world for years for the best way to handle a PR nightmare. It’s considered the textbook response to a crisis and the company actually received an award from the Public Relations Society of America. The company was on the brink but managed to regain the public’s trust. 

The Tylenol murders are the story of not only an unsolvable crime but how swiftly panic could now spread around the country and world. With more media outlets than ever before–and the birth of 24-hour news channels–we got info quicker than we had ever seen. It’s also the story of quick company reactions, rebuilding a brand, and navigating a public relations nightmare.

And at its core, the Tylenol Murders are about a loss of innocence. Something as simple as grocery shopping was now, as tainted as those Tylenol bottles were. The packaging of products was something we never had to think about before. Now, everyone was questioning every item they bought. What if you picked the wrong thing and accidentally chose the poisoned item? How safe were we really? It just became one more stressor we didn’t need.

We often think of modern-day parents as being overprotective and back in the 1980s, we as kids pretty much got to roam free. There may be some truth to this, but there was plenty to freak out parents and make them overprotective. Poisoned Halloween candy, the satanic panic, kidnapping, the Tylenol Murders, malfunctioning perms; there were still plenty of fears. 

So, if you’ve ever been frustrated by all the levels of packaging you have to get through on any type of product, you now know the story behind it.