The Right Chemistry: Nothing humorous about this Uncle Fester

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Clandestine chemist Steve Preisler has written about synthesizing methamphetamine, LSD, nitroglycerin, phosgene and the nerve gas sarin.

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His appearance in the video is striking. Uncle Fester is in a red devil costume replete with horns and a tail. This is not the Uncle Fester you may remember from the 1960s Addams family sitcom, the one who sleeps on a bed of nails, feeds his plants blood and makes a light bulb glow by putting it in his mouth. This Uncle Fester is a clandestine chemist, real name Steve Preisler, who acquired the nickname during his undergraduate days as a chemistry major because of his penchant for doing crazy things in the lab. After graduating, he put his chemical knowledge to use by converting ephedrine, at the time readily available in various cold remedies, to methamphetamine, “speed” or “crank” in street language. For this he got nabbed and sentenced in 1984 to five years in prison.

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In jail he happened to watch a television exposé of “terrorist publishers” who released books with instructions for making explosives. An idea was born! He would get back at the authorities, who in his mind had imposed an unfair sentence for making just a few grams of “meth.” He would train an army of chefs in the art of cooking crank! Preisler borrowed a typewriter and under the pseudonym “Uncle Fester” cranked out his cult classic, Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture, in which he detailed methods of synthesizing “meth” and its required precursors from simple, mostly readily available chemicals. The book, speckled with whimsical anecdotes, gave specific instructions easily followed by anyone with a basic background in organic chemistry. Preisler called his work “good clean chemist fun,” but authorities labeled him as “the most dangerous man in America.”

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Fester is still at it, as a 2021 Vice Media video by makes clear. He seems to relish his infamy as a disseminator of “forbidden knowledge” as evidenced by the devil costume, but there are several disturbing issues here. While the procedures as shown in the video are way too haphazard to be followed, it does repeatedly refer to his Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture, now into the eighth edition. The book is even available on Amazon for would-be chemists trying to follow in Fester’s footsteps. But there is something else. His reckless spilling of unmeasured amounts of chemicals, smoking while dealing with flammable substances, lack of ventilation, callous use of toxic mercury compounds and disposal of chemicals in the toilet all demonstrate a total disregard for safety. This is just not the way to do chemistry of any kind! A real smudge on the face of a most useful science.

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When asked why “America’s favourite clandestine chemist” is not afraid the video will trigger his arrest, Preisler claims that he has deliberately left out the last step in the synthesis, ensuring that nobody will be able to make meth based on what they have seen. He also points out that murders are routinely shown on television and wonders why anyone would object to a little chemistry being shown. Well, the chemistry being shown is not innocuous and can lead to real deaths. His argument that large scale “meth” manufacture today is in the hands of Mexican cartels and authorities should not be bothered by little guys cooking up a few grams for their own occasional use is a vacuous one. Preisler attempts to justify this by referring to the classic dictum that “only the dose makes the poison,” although curiously, as a chemist, he is unaware that this was first voiced by Paracelsus. Evidence, however, indicates that there is plenty of meth being synthesized in clandestine labs north of the border that supply addicts, not “occasional” users.

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It is little wonder that creators of the television series Breaking Bad sought out “Uncle Fester” for advice. That popular show depicted a high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with cancer and worries about his family’s financial situation after his demise, which seems imminent. He decides to descend into the criminal underworld and cook some meth to make money. Preisler says he helped with the scripts and design of the equipment used. He even suggests that the character of Walter White was based on him! That is possible because by the time the series aired in 2008, “Uncle Fester” and his books had garnered a large following. He had written about synthesizing various other controversial chemicals including LSD, nitroglycerin and phosgene. In Silent Death, he describes the synthesis of the nerve gas sarin. That book was found in the belongings of the terrorist gang that unleashed an attack with this gas in the Tokyo subway system in 1995 killing 14 people. Preisler’s bizarre comment was “that was regrettable, but it is nice to know the recipe works.”

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Today, Preisler mocks and taunts the authorities he claims are out to get him, even though he is not himself producing anything. He also vigorously attacks “copyright piracy,” claiming stolen copies of his works can be illegally downloaded. He pontificates about the evils of stealing other people’s work! What about taking chemical reactions that have been developed by researchers for the advancement of chemistry and hijacking them to teach covert chemists how to make drugs that cause misery and death?

The Addams’s Uncle Fester never did anything that nefarious. He didn’t even use drugs. When he had a headache he just placed his head inside a large screw press and proceeded to tighten it. Sometimes he even used the screw press simply for enjoyment. Quite different from the clandestine chemist “Uncle Fester” who enjoys screwing with people’s lives. He is a blight on the face of chemistry.

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Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society (mcgill.ca/oss). He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.

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