The Unsolved Tylenol Murders — Why Pills Now Have Tamper-Resistant Packaging

Published November 8, 2017
Updated August 4, 2020

The Tylenol murders convinced the government to make tampering with pill bottles illegal.

Tylenol pills like those in the Tylenol murders

Wikimedia Commons Tylenol in “caplet” form, introduced after the 1982 Tylenol murders.

In 1982, Chicago experienced a wave of unexplained deaths.

Seven people, ranging in age from 12 to 35 had died suddenly. The only thing all seven had in common? They had all taken the popular over-the-counter painkiller, Tylenol.

The first victim of the crime was 12-year-old Mary Kellerman. She took a capsule of extra-strength Tylenol and died in her home. Later that day, a man named Adam Janus died in a hospital from unknown causes. He, too, had taken Tylenol.

Shortly after Janus’ funeral, his brother and sister-in-law died, from the same cyanide poisoning as Janus.

Over the next few days, three other women died as well, their causes of death almost identical to the Janus family and Mary Kellerman.

Police soon realized the one thing that all seven deaths had in common. All of the victims had taken Tylenol capsules — two half-shells filled with powdered acetaminophen — shortly before their deaths, and they had all been poisoned with cyanide.

Tylenol samples were taken from each household. It was revealed that the bottle at Mary Kellerman’s house, as well as the three individual women’s bottles, had been tainted. Adam Janus’ bottle was tainted as well, and police believe that during the funeral his brother and sister-in-law took capsules from the same bottle that had killed Adam.

Crushed up Tylenol pill

Getty Images Tylenol capsules, like those used in the Tylenol murders.

A long investigation revealed that the cyanide contamination had not come from within the manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson. Each of the contaminated bottles had come from different suppliers, but all had the same poison in them. Therefore, police could rule out sabotage from within Johnson & Johnson.

The issue remained though, as to where the poison had come from.

Police eventually discovered that there was only one likely scenario. The bottles of Tylenol must have been purchased by someone, contaminated at home, then returned to the store shelves.

While police investigated the deaths, Tylenol manufacturer Johnson & Johnson issued a nationwide recall of their products, as well as a warning to every hospital and pharmacy in the country that used Tylenol. They also offered to exchange every capsule of Tylenol purchased by the public with solid pills, which had a much lower risk of contamination.

Though the case was highly publicized nationwide, police never caught the person responsible. However, there was one suspect, initially, who has remained the prime suspect ever since.

During the initial investigations, a man named James William Lewis sent a letter to Johnson & Johnson asking for $1 million to stop the poisonings. He was later convicted of extortion and served 13 years of a 20-year sentence.

He has denied all responsibility for the killings ever since his release, however, the Department of Justice investigators maintain that he is the most likely candidate.

New Boxes of Tylenol

Getty ImagesThe first bottles put out after the scare, that featured “tamper-evident” packaging, including a box and an internal safety seal.

Though the culprit was never caught, the deaths and subsequent investigation sparked a huge change in the manufacturing and packaging of Tylenol. The capsules were reintroduced, but so were solid pills that were much harder to contaminate, along with a new tamper-proof package. Johnson & Johnson also established a relationship with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Food and Drug Administration.

In addition to new tamper-proof seals, tampering itself was made illegal. This resulted in one individual being sentenced to 90 years in prison for a copycat crime of the Tylenol murders.

Though the initial response to the scare was to stop purchasing Tylenol, Johnson & Johnson quickly turned the scare into a rebranding. The corporate response was widely heralded as being one of the best responses to a corporate crisis ever, and just a few months after the deaths, Johnson & Johnson stock had soared past where it had been before the scare.

Now that you’ve read about the Chicago Tylenol murders, read about the woman who accidentally poisoned 15 of her family members, when she was really only trying to poison her husband. Then, read about how the United States government once killed thousands of people by poisoning alcohol.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.