When The U.S. Government Poisoned The Alcohol Supply During Prohibition

By | January 16, 2020

The U.S. government was shocked that people didn't follow the law

The Prohibition Party was hemming and hawing about alcohol consumption for years before they got their way in 1919 with the passage of the 18th Amendment, banning the manufacture, sale, or transportation of "intoxicating liquors." The law was nearly impossible to enforce, however, because the "Lost Generation" of the 1920s didn't give up easily. They spent their nights in speakeasies, gangsters sold their own alcohol, and home chemistry experienced a resurgence. Everyone knew that people were brewing their own alcohol, which became known as moonshine, one of the main ingredients of which was industrial alcohol. It wasn't safe, but it got you tore up from the floor up.

In this era of chaos and lawlessness, the people in power tried a number of tactics to keep the populace in line, one of which involved the government poisoning the alcohol supply. Well, sort of. They didn't send men around to pour strychnine into bottles of booze, but they did increase the levels of harmful chemicals in substances that were used in bootleg liquor. The plan, bolstered by moral crusaders, wasn't meant to kill a bunch of people; they were simply hoping that the prospect of death would discourage illicit drinking, a tactic that has never worked ever.

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Source: Britannica

After the ratification of the 18th Amendment, the government naively imagined that all the flappers and fedora'd jazz enthusiasts would fall in line and become teetotalers. Instead, when Prohibition went into effect on January 1, 1920, they simply took it underground. The gangsters who built bootlegging empires and small-time home brewers alike sometimes smuggled alcohol from out of the country into America, but more often than not, they just made their own stuff out of whatever industrial alcohol they could get their hands on.

Industrial alcohol wasn't safe to drink, and the government made it worse

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Source: Vox

Industrial alcohol isn't the same as the fun kind, containing added chemicals that render it undrinkable. "But wait," we hear you ask, "didn't that make bootleggers' products dangerous?" It sure did! Some moonshiners paid chemists to "renature" industrial alcohol, but those who couldn't afford such services just crossed their fingers and drank. In this challenge, the government saw an opportunity. The U.S. Treasury Department, hilariously charged with overseeing alcohol enforcement, approved the addition of more chemicals to the process of manufacturing industrial alcohol to make it harder to bootleg. That didn't stop people from moonshining, of course. They continued chugging whatever alcohol they could get their hands on, a decision that often proved deadly.