When The U.S. Government Poisoned The Alcohol Supply During Prohibition
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.
The U.S. government was shocked that people didn't follow the law
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
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.
Industrial alcohol of the 1920s was full of nasty stuff
Even before they intervened, industrial alcohol was already an extremely toxic substance, so to say the government poisoned the alcohol supply is basically like saying they poisoned poison. Still, in 1927, the government began adding a number of toxic compounds to the supply of industrial alcohol, the most deadly of which was methyl alcohol, which comprised a whopping 10% of the total product. Deborah Blum explains:
It was like a chemists' war at this point. Bootlegger chemists trying to take things out, and government chemists trying to find a way to keep them in. But the bootlegger chemists had not been able to find a good way to get methanol out. People knew this was going to kill people. They were warning the government in advance. Charles Norris, who was the chief medical officer in New York City, and Alexander Gettler, who was the chief toxicologist in the city, told the government not to do this.
A lot of people died because of the chemical increase, but it's hard to know how many
What Slate refers to as "the federal poisoning program" ended the lives of thousands of people, but given the already toxic nature of moonshine, it's hard to quantify exactly how many people perished specifically because of these added chemicals. What is clear is the fact that drinkers started dropping by the tens of thousands when the poisoned alcohol went on the market. According to one government calculation, almost all of the 400,000 gallons of liquor confiscated in 1927 was full of poisonous chemicals.
This program wasn't a secret
Although the government's plan to add chemicals to industrial alcohol during Prohibition has faded in the memory of the public, they were keenly aware of it at the time. People knew the dangers of bootlegging and did it anyway, and the "dry" political figures that were in power at the time saw no problem with the government's actions. Blum explains:
[The dries were] running the Treasury Department, which is the department that primarily enforces the liquor laws. The president at the time, Calvin Coolidge, is a dry politician; Herbert Hoover, who also came in later, was a dry politician. They announce the plan as a big warning message from the government: 'Quit drinking, because we're going to make this a lot more poisonous.' They even had moments when they would call in reporters to make sure everyone knew.
This government program mostly affected the poor
It's no surprise that the wealthy more or less sidestepped the health issues faced by the poor during Prohibition. They didn't have to bootleg, and if they did, they could afford the good stuff. More often than not, they could just import whatever they needed and pay off whoever was in their way. The lower class wasn’t so lucky: In 1926, 1,200 people fell ill with alcohol poisoning, and 400 people died in New York City alone. A year later, that number jumped up to 700, most of them people who had to buy the cheap stuff that was filled with chemicals.
The government stopped adding chemicals before the end of Prohibition
Prohibition ended in 1933, but the government slowed its poisoning program long before the repeal of the 18th Amendment. They rolled back the chemicals that went into industrial alcohol, and when grain whiskey was reintroduced in the '30s, it was like nothing ever happened. People stopped talking about it, and that was that. Sure, thousands of people died, but it taught Americans a valuable lesson: Never drink something that came from some guy's bathtub. Even if nobody's trying to poison you, it's just not worth the risk.
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