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

Published November 8, 2017
Updated September 13, 2021

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

Tylenol Murders

Getty ImagesAfter a string of people died taking Tylenol pills they didn’t realize were laced with cyanide, the FDA invented tamper-resistent packages for drugs.

In 1982, Chicago experienced a wave of unexplained deaths in a gruesome case that’s now known as the Tylenol Murders.

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.

An investigation soon revealed that the victims’ Tylenol had all been laced with cyanide — but how the poison made it into their bottles remains unsolved to this day.

The Tylenol Murders Take The Lives Of 7 People

In the early morning of Sept. 29, 12-year-old Mary Kellerman woke up feeling too sick to go to school. She took a capsule of extra-strength Tylenol. “I heard her go into the bathroom. I heard the door close. Then I heard something drop,” Kellerman’s father later recalled. “I opened the bathroom door, and my little girl was on the floor unconscious.”

She died in her home within four hours of taking the over-the-counter medicine.

Meanwhile, a 27-year-old postal worker named Adam Janus was rushed to the hospital, where he ultimately died from unknown causes. He, too, had taken Tylenol earlier that day. The deaths continued. Shortly after Janus’ funeral, his brother and sister-in-law died suddenly, too.

Over the next few days, three women died mysteriously, their causes of death almost identical to those in the Janus family and that of 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. But how could these painkillers have killed them?

Tylenol Murders Headlines

The Daily HeraldHeadlines on the Chicago Tylenol murders at the time it happened.

Tylenol samples were taken from each household, and 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 unknowingly took capsules from the same bottle that had killed him.

The Pills Were Laced With Cyanide

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.

Invention Of The Tamper-Evident 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.