How the unsolved 'Tylenol murders' changed the way we take pills

Tylenol murders 1982 on this day in history
Tylenol murders 1982 on this day in history

Tylenol is one of the most well known painkillers in the world. The over-the-counter pills, containing paracetamol, have been the popular choice for treating headaches, fevers and body pains since 1955.

But on this day in 1982, Tylenol became a household name for a much more sinister reason, as the famous Chicago Tylenol murders began.

Killer pills

On September 29, 1982, 12-year-old Chicago resident Mary Kellerman took an extra strength Tylenol caplet due to a sore throat.

Unbeknownst to her, the pill had been laced with the highly poisonous potassium cyanide, which took Mary’s life.

Later that day, 27-year-old Adam Janus also died of cyanide poisoning after taking a laced pill.

His brother and sister, who were suffering headaches due to grief, each took a Tylenol from the same bottle, and also died.

Tylenol on shelf. Source: Getty Images
The victims' deadly cyanide-laced Tylenol pills were bought from different stores around the Chicago area. Source: Getty Images

Over the next few days, three more deaths occurred which were linked to the laced Tylenol pills.

Mary McFarland, aged 35, Paula Prince, also 35 and Mary Weiner, 27, all perished due to laced pills.

By early October, investigators had made the connection between the poisonings and the Tylenol, and panic swept the United States.

Safety before profit

Alongside police investigations, Tylenol’s manufacturer Johnson & Johnson quickly established that the cyanide lacing occurred after the Tylenol had left the factory, hypothesising that someone had taken bottles off of the shelves and added the deadly component before returning them to the shelf for sale.

Drugstore clerk removes Tylenol capsules from the shelves of a pharmacy. Source: Getty Images
The Tylenol Recall Cost Johnson & Johnson approximately $665 million in lost sales. Source: Getty Images

Although Johnson & Johnson lost a significant amount of revenue throughout the Tylenol murders, they continued to play an active role in warning the public.

As well as offering to replace the 31 million bottles of recalled pills for free, Johnson & Johnson also offered a reward for anyone with information that would lead to the apprehension of those responsible for the murders.

Lab technician testing Tylenol capsules. Source: Getty Images
Several tests were performed and tainted capsules were discovered in several grocery stores and drugstores in the Chicago area, sitting on the shelf awaiting sale. Source: Getty Images


Several suspects were considered as the mastermind behind the Tylenol murders, but one man caught the public’s attention after a bold confession attempt.

James Lewis, wrote a ransom letter to Johnson & Johnson demanding $1 million in exchange for him to stop the poisonings.

A police research showed that Lewis lived in New York and authorities were content that he was not linked to the Chicago Tylenol murders.

He was charged with extortion and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Despite authorities concluding that he was not involved with the murders, Lewis gave authorities detailed sketches depicting how someone would lace the Tylenol capsules with cyanide.

But, he maintained his innocence.

Today, 39 years following the murders, the perpetrator has still not been apprehended.

Tylenol packaging. Source: Getty Images
Lewis hinted that the pills may have been 'injected' with cyanide. Source: Getty Images

Game changer

While the events of the Tylenol murders were devastating, they put into effect a number of safety precautions which are still utilised in pharmaceutical companies today.

In 1983, the US Congress passed ‘the Tylenol bill’, naming it a federal offence to tamper with consumer products.

In 1989, the US Food and Drug Administration established guidelines for manufacturers to make all items tamperproof, including foil seals and other features that would make foul play obvious to consumers.

Tylenol tamperproof packaging. Source: Getty Images
Tamper-proof seals are still used today including glued flaps on boxes, tight plastic neck seals and inner foil seals on the mouth of the bottle. Source: Getty Images

Capsules were also redesigned to appear as "caplets", which were coated with gelatin which made tampering near impossible.

Today, Johnson & Johnson’s "safety before profit" approach to handling the murders is still widely studied in business schools, and tamper proof packaging is commonplace.

However, it remains a bitter pill for the families of the victims that the Tylenol murders still remain unsolved.