Uncle Sam Sent Countless Drinkers to the ER With Alcohol Poisoning
Throughout the 1926 Holiday Season, America’s emergency rooms saw an unprecedented spike in alcohol poisoning. By New Year’s Eve, 1926, New York City alone saw many fatalities. As the city’s medical examiner put it: “The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol. It knows what bootleggers are doing with it and yet it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison … Knowing this to be true, the United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible“.
Wherever we go, alcohol is bound to be near us. Even for those who don’t drink and have no beer or wine in their fridges or liquor in their cabinets. Alcohol is found as an additive in their fuel tanks, and many household products such as nail polish, disinfectants, hand sanitizers, and perfumes contain alcohol. In 1906, the federal government mandated that chemicals be added to grain alcohol intended for industrial use, to make it undrinkable. Alcohol thus treated is known as “denatured” alcohol or “wood spirits”. The mandate was met with little resistance from the manufacturers of industrial alcohol.
The addition of chemicals to industrial alcohol stocks to denature them made them exempt from the liquor taxes imposed on drinkable alcohol. As a result, industrial alcohol manufacturers were more than happy to comply with the government directive to denature their stocks. People determined to remove chemical additives from denatured industrial alcohol could do so if they really wanted to. Some did just that, with a process known as “renaturing”. However, with legal alcohol readily available, and often quite cheap, there was little incentive to go through the trouble.
That changed with the enactment of Prohibition, and the resultant scarcity of regular drinkable booze. Liquor did not disappear from America because of Prohibition: massive amounts of drinkable booze were smuggled into the country by bootleggers. However, Prohibition disrupted the supply chain, and even smuggling on a massive scale was not enough to meet the demand. So bootleggers began to produce massive amounts of liquor in the United States. They sourced it from stolen or otherwise diverted stocks of industrial alcohol.
The Government Went Out of Its Way to Prevent the Reuse of Industrial Alcohol as Drinking Booze
The US Treasury Department, tasked with the enforcement of Prohibition, estimated that in the mid-1920s, around 60 million gallons of industrial liquor were stolen each year. Bootleggers then employed chemists to “renature” it, and return it to a drinkable state. Stolen and re-distilled industrial alcohol became America’s primary source of liquor. So in late 1926, the Treasury Department decided to up its game and revamp the denaturing formulas used to make industrial alcohol undrinkable. The new mix included many known toxins.
They included quinine, acetone, nicotine, formaldehyde, zinc, camphor, chloroform, iodine, kerosene, and gasoline. Most dangerous of all, the new formula required that at least 10% of the total volume must consist of methyl alcohol or methanol, commonly used today in antifreeze. The results were disastrous. The Treasury Department’s new formula made the process used by the bootleggers’ chemists up until that point to renature industrial alcohol all but useless, as it left them unable to separate out each of the harmful chemicals.
Whether Uncle Sam Had the Right to Poison Drinkers
Christmas Eve, 1926, was hectic in New York City’s hospitals. Just one of them, Bellevue, was inundated with dozens of people who fell seriously ill after they drank contaminated alcohol. By New Year’s Eve, 1,200 people in the Big Apple had been sickened by poisonous alcohol, and at least 400 had died. The city’s medical examiner assigned a toxicologist to examine confiscated whiskey, and based on the findings, issued an alert to warn the citizens that: “practically all the liquor that is sold in New York today is toxic“.
The impact fell heaviest on the poor: the rich and well-heeled could afford to consume the best liquor available, such as real whiskey smuggled in from abroad. As the medical examiner noted, most of those harmed by the repurposed industrial alcohol were those: “who cannot afford expensive protection and deal in low grade stuff“. When the public learned that the federal government had deliberately poisoned industrial alcohol stocks, an argument raged about whether it had the right to do so.
Many Argued that Drinkers of Poisoned Alcohol Deserved Their Fate
New York City’s medical examiner, Charles Norris, was among those who argued that it was unconscionable for the authorities to poison something they knew would be consumed by citizens. He wrote in the North American Review that: “In a word, wood alcohol is not ‘poison liquor.’ It is simply poison. If it gets into liquor, the liquor is poisoned “. New Jersey Senator Edward I. Edwards summed it up as “legalized murder“. The defenders of the government included Wayne B. Wheeler, of the Anti Saloon League.
As Wheeler told the New York Times: “The Government is under no obligation to furnish the people with alcohol that is drinkable when the Constitution prohibits it. The person who drinks this industrial alcohol is a deliberate suicide“. Defenders of the policy noted that the poisoned industrial alcohol was labeled poison, and pinned the blame on the bootleggers who nonetheless sold it for human consumption. To prohibitionists, the harm to drinkers was acceptable. Seymour M. Lawman, the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in charge of Prohibition, told citizens in 1927 that the fringes of society that drink were “dying off fast from poison ‘hooch’“. If that resulted in a sober country, he continued, then “a good job will have been done“.
Government Officials Shrugged Off the Mass Poisoning of Drinkers
Prohibition’s enforcers ignored the furor, and continued to poison industrial alcohol. The resultant deaths continued to pile up. The New York Times archives from 1927 to 1933 contain many headlines about the damage. Not only deaths, but also blindness, hallucinations, and other side effects that sent poisoned drinkers to emergency rooms and left many with permanent damage to their health. June 20th, 1927: Three Die From Alcohol; February 28th, 1929: Alcohol Deaths Show Steady Rise; August 23rd, 1930: Alcohol Deaths Up 300% Since 1920; August 17th, 1932: Dies After Drinking Wood Alcohol. When large scale fatalities occurred, Prohibition agents shrugged it off.
In 1928, over thirty people died from alcohol poisoning in a single incident Manhattan, but US government officials declared that there was nothing they could do. A federal grand jury stated that industrial alcohol is not a beverage, but a recognized poison whose use and sale are regulated by state, not federal laws. As such, state authorities should look into its sale and improper use. As humorist Will Rogers quipped: “Governments used to murder by the bullets only. Now it’s by the quarts“. All in all, an estimated 10,000 people or more died from alcohol poisoning during Prohibition, and many more suffered serious damage to their health. The carnage finally ended with the end of Prohibition, when people regained access to regular booze, and thus no longer had to gamble with denatured industrial alcohol.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading