On September 29th, 1982, a twelve-year-old girl named Mary Kellerman took an extra-strength Tylenol capsule. Shortly after, she died. She was the first victim of the Tylenol murderer, and her death heralded the beginning of the modern era of recalls that exists today. The story of people dying mysteriously after taking Tylenol captured the attention of the nation and sparked a panic, but Johnson & Johnson made quick moves to address the issue and recall the affected products.
The Tylenol Murders
In all, seven people in the Chicago area died as a result of consuming Tylenol that had been poisoned by cyanide. Mary Kellerman, Adam Janus, Stanley Janus, Theresa Janus, Mary McFarland, Paula Prince and Mary Reiner all died from taking the poisoned Tylenol. When the deaths were all linked to the victims recently taking Tylenol, officials quickly contained the problem by urging Chicagoans to discontinue use of Tylenol.
Johnson & Johnson immediately contacted hospitals to help discontinue the marketing and sale of Tylenol to help calm fears over the deaths. They then recalled all of the bottles of Tylenol then in circulation. In all, it was found that eight bottles of Tylenol were tampered with, and all in the Chicago area. This means that the killer likely tampered with bottles in retail stores and returned them to the shelves.
The investigations into the Chicago Tylenol killer were far-ranging and involved numerous law enforcement agencies. A man named James Williams Lewis was arrested for extortion after sending a letter to Johnson & Johnson claiming responsibility for the killings and demanding $1 million before he stopped. However, no evidence could connect him to the actual killings.
The true culprit, to this point, has not been found. A few suspects early in the case were considered, but cleared by the FBI when insufficient evidence was found to connect them with the killings.
The Tylenol killings directly impacted the way food and drugs are packaged. Tamper-resistant seals, for instance, were rolled out as a direct response to public fears over products being poisoned. Quality control in the pharmaceutical industry also saw a huge increase in focus, largely to help repair the brand image of Johnson & Johnson and other companies that were affected by copycat crimes in the 80’s. As such, this can be seen as the beginning of the modern era of product recalls.