James Lewis Credit: Gene Pesek

The Reader’s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.

In the fall of 1982, seven people in the Chicago area died suddenly after taking Tylenol that had been laced with cyanide. During the initial investigation of the crime, a man named James Lewis wrote a letter to Johnson & Johnson, the manufacturers of Tylenol, and claimed responsibility for the murders. If they wanted him to stop killing, he wrote, they could wire $1 million to his bank account. Lewis later went to prison for extortion. The Tylenol murders have never been solved, though at one point, the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, was a suspect.

In 2000, Joy Bergmann revisited the story in “A Bitter Pill”. The more she learned, the stranger it got. The Tylenol case was not the first time, she discovered, that Lewis had been connected with a murder. Later, from prison, he insisted on helping with the investigation.

In November 1983, Lewis called assistant U.S. attorney Jeremy Margolis, who had helped to put him in the pokey.

“He volunteered his services because he had time on his hands and was very smart,” remembers Margolis. Lewis told him “he’d love to sit and talk with me and solve the Tylenol killings. I accepted his offer.”

Margolis and Lewis subsequently met several times in Margolis’s office for “hours and hours and hours” of discussions and theorizing. According to Margolis, Lewis arrived armed with “probably hundreds of pages of manuscripts, diagrams, and theories…as to how these killings might have happened.”