The Tylenol Poisonings

An unsolved murder story…

This image was taken from off of google images.

Prior to 1982, a small Tylenol bottle was used to relieve common ailments. After 1982 Tylenol became the poster child for crisis management.

Johnson and Johnson…

Before the year of 1982, Johnson and Johnson distributed a product like no other, they dominated the over-the-counter pain killer market at the time and they were looked at by America to continue distributing this miracle of a drug. Many people depended on Johnson and Johnson to be effective, consistent, and trustworthy.

Unfortunately, the empire that Johnson and Johnson had built over the years was critically threatened due to seven people falling dead after the use of Tylenol Extra Strength.

October 1982:

The first victim was a 12-year-old girl who woke up with flu-like symptoms, the girl was given Tylenol by her parent. The next victim was a woman who had just given birth to her fourth child. Authorities were baffled, all seven victims died in the same circumstances but there was no evidence of foul play.

First Responders were dumbfounded by the string of deaths and had asked themselves what did they all have in common? A nurse from the public health department was combing through the inventory of the homes in which these victims had died and realized that all seven of them had taken about 2 pills of Tylenol Extra Strength. She reported her findings and thought it would be very unlikely for an over the counter to be poisoned.

Further investigation proved her theory, this meant that there was a criminal lurking in the streets. Someone had taken these over-the-counter pain killers off of the shelf, they had laced them with 10,000 times the lethal dose of potassium cyanide and put them right back on the shelf for purchase.

The Johnson and Johnson market share then at 37% dropped to a whopping 7%. This was because the nation was plagued by fear and stopped purchasing the pain killer altogether.

Johnson and Johnson’s reaction:

Once the news broke about the Tylenol murders Johnson and Johnson established a crisis response team. As terror began to spread through the nation, the company had to make some of the biggest decisions they had ever made. The two options Johnson and Johnson had was to either take every bottle off of the shelves of every distributor or to risk more deaths. After originally recalling all Tylenol products in the area of Chicago, Johnson and Johnson decided to recall all 31 million Tylenol bottles, this was a whopping 100 million dollars in value.

Along with the recalls, the company offered a hotline to the public and sent a notice to all doctor's offices, hospitals, and pharmacies. Johnson and Johnson also offered a reward of $100,000 dollars to anyone with information leading to the person responsible for the Tylenol murderer.

As Johnson and Johnson’s final effort to restore trust with their company, Johnson and Johnson replaced all already purchased bottles of Tylenol with new bottles. The new bottles had tablets in them, they were harder to tamper with according to Johnson and Johnson.

With no more deaths, Johnson and Johnson turned their attention to regaining the trust of their consumers.

A closer look into the victims of the Tylenol murders:

In the early morning hours of September 29th of 1982, a twelve-year-old girl named Mary Kellerman woke up with a runny nose and other flu-like symptoms. She told her parents all about her symptoms and they gave her a Tylenol Extra Strength and a glass of water. Not knowing that the Tylenol capsule was laced with about 10,000 times the lethal dose of Potassium Cyanide. Mary was dead before 7 am that day, her death would strike fear into the nation.

The same day, a 27-year-old postal worker named Adam Janus died of what was believed to be a Heart attack. Later authorities found out that it was indeed potassium cyanide poisoning due to a Tylenol pill that had been tampered with. His brother 25 years old and sister-in-law 19 years old both were experiencing throbbing headaches due to sobbing because they lost a loved one. They both took a Tylenol Extra Strength. His brother died that same day and his sister-in-law died two days later.

The same week three more strange deaths occurred, their names were: 35-year-old Mary McFarland of Elmhurst, Illinois, 35-year-old Paula Prince of Chicago, and 27-year-old Mary Weiner of Winfield, Illinois. All of these people took Tylenol shortly before they ended up deceased.

The investigation:

Investigators determined that the Tylenol was tampered with once the bottles had left the factory. The authorities hypothesized that the Tylenol was laced either at the distributor meaning the store, or someone purchased or stole the bottles and then returned them to the shelves where they were sold once more.

To this day, the perpetrator(s) has never been found.

One man named James Lewis claimed that there was a ransom note sent to Johnson and Johnson. The ransom note consisted of a demand for $1 million from the company to stop the poisonings. Authorities concluded that James Lewis was not involved due to the fact that he resided in NY. James was charged with extortion and sentenced to 20 years in prison, he was released in 1995 after serving 13 years in prison.

“Copy-Cat” poisonings started happening in the late 80s and early 90s. They were as deadly or deadlier than the original Tylenol murders. The copy-cat poisonings used Tylenol and other over-the-counter pain killers.

The introduction of the tamper-proof bottle…

Since the 80s, Johnson and Johnson ended up working with the FDA and introduced the tamper-proof seal on all medications that are presented as over-the-counter.

Now, all over the counter products are required to have a tamper seal on them with a notice on the bottle that states if the seal is opened or tampered with to throw the medication away.

Johnson and Johnson’s rebound:

After the crisis involving Johnson and Johnson’s Tylenol Extra Strength, the company rebounded and created a new Tylenol capsule to restore the trust with the public consumer.

Once they restored trust, they became the empire they had used to be. Tylenol made by Johnson and Johnson was again a hot commodity. They once again became the nation's favorite over-the-counter pain killer.


Although the Tylenol Murder Victims can never be brought back, their deaths resulted in a new and improved way to keep all over-the-counter medications safe and secure. This was the beginning of the FDA’s involvement with over-the-counter medication.

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