In late September/early October 1982, seven Chicago-area people died from popping Tylenol pills laced with cyanide. Adam Janus was experiencing chest pain. He popped a few Extra-Strength Tylenol and collapsed an hour later. He died. That night, Janus’ younger brother and sister-in-law, grief-stricken and achey, popped a few of Adam’s Tylenol pills. They died. A 12-year old girl with a cold took some Extra-Strength Tylenol on account of a cold. Dead.
All in all, seven were felled by the poisoned pills. Hysteria followed. A 1982 TIME story reports, “Police cruisers, rolling through Chicago streets Thursday afternoon and evening, blared warnings over loudspeakers.” The drug was removed from shelves. Vague copycat incidents — pins and needles discovered in candy bars — led several communities to ban Halloween trick-or-treating. A gentleman was arrested after trying to extort Johnson & Johnson for $100,000, though he was never charged with the murders. Tamper-proof seals became the norm.
As more than 140 police and FBI investigators hunted for the killer, Tylenol’s parent company Johnson & Johnson did something unprecedented at the time: It helped issue warnings and immediately recalled all 31 million bottles of its product off store shelves nationwide. It cost the company an estimated $100 million. The massive product recall, referred to as “the recall that started them all,” continues to be hailed as an example of good corporate citizenship—and public relations. The Tylenol brand, initially considered doomed, returned to being the top-selling pain reliever within two months.
Yet, the killer was never found. The Tylenol poisonings remain one of the nation’s most notorious unsolved murder mysteries.