Prohibition’s Bootleggers and Industrial Alcohol
America saw a rise in the consumption of alcohol in the mid-1920s, despite Prohibition. The law was openly flouted, with too many speakeasies to count let alone raid, supplied by bootleggers who acted with impunity. So the federal authorities went after a key source of the illegal booze: the still legal industrial alcohol stocks. Industrial alcohol is undrinkable, but bootleggers had figured out ways to make it fit for human consumption. So in 1926, the federal authorities mandated that the amount of harmful chemicals in industrial alcohol be greatly increased. Disaster ensued. In that year’s Holiday Season, emergency rooms across the country saw an unprecedented spike in alcohol poisonings. 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“. Alcohol is always near us. Even for those who don’t drink or keep booze at home, 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 authorities mandated the addition of chemicals to industrial alcohol, to make it undrinkable.