The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition

Khalid Elhassan - October 10, 2021

One of the oddest and deadliest decisions made by American law enforcement occurred in the 1920s when the authorities deliberately poisoned alcohol in a bid to combat illegal drinking and enforce Prohibition. Thousands died from alcohol poisoning as a result, and many more suffered severe – sometimes permanent – injuries. Following are thirty things about that and other fascinating but lesser-known Prohibition facts.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
A bootlegger truck with a false facade to conceal a hidden compartment for the transportation of illegal alcohol during Prohibition. Messy Nessy Chic

30. To Enforce Prohibition, the US Government Poisoned Alcohol

In 2021, many health professionals think that the government is doing too little to combat Covid-19, and that its enforcement of the restrictions and regulations necessary to combat its spread is too lax. About a century ago, back in the 1920s, the case was the opposite. Then, many health professionals thought that the government had done too much – as in a way, way, too much – and had exhibited excessive vigor in its fight against the consumption of alcohol. An example of such excess was the government’s deliberate poisoning of alcohol stocks it knew would end up consumed by the public. It began as the Holiday Season approached in 1926, and the administration of President Calvin Coolidge was determined to force celebrants to abide by Prohibition.

The federal ban on the sale of alcohol had opened the floodgates for organized crime to smuggle alcohol from abroad into the US, and for bootleggers to distribute it throughout the country. However, there was also a major domestic source of booze: industrial alcohol, which bootleggers routinely diverted from its intended uses and into drinking liquor. So some zealots in the Treasury Department, responsible for the enforcement of Prohibition, decided to doctor industrial alcohol supply with dangerous substances such as methanol. At least 10,000 people died as a result, and many more were blinded or suffered other serious injuries.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
Patrons enjoying drinks at the Hunt Club, a New York City speakeasy with a filing system listing their 23,000 eligible customers, that was checked before a customer got through the door. Vintage News Daily

29. The Decision to Poison Industrial Alcohol

Despite Prohibition, America saw a rise in the consumption of alcohol in the mid-1920s. The law was openly flouted, with too many speakeasies to count let alone raid, supplied by bootleggers who acted with impunity and near open defiance of law enforcement. So the federal authorities decided to go after a key source of the illegal booze: the still legal industrial alcohol stocks. In its industrial form, such 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.

The results were immediate. During the Holiday Season that year, emergency rooms across the country 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“.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
Label on denatured alcohol, poisoned by the US government to enforce prohibition. Mob Museum

28. Industrial vs Drinking Alcohol

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 authorities had 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 their stocks to denature them made them exempt from the liquor taxes imposed on drinkable alcohol, so they were more than happy to comply. People determined to remove chemical additives from denatured industrial alcohol could do so if they really wanted to, and some did – a process known as “renaturing”. However, with legal alcohol readily available, and often quite cheap, the incentive to go through the trouble – especially on a large scale – was simply not there. All that changed with the enactment of Prohibition, and the resultant scarcity of regular drinkable booze.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
A copper still and bucket, of the type used to make alcohol, or to “renature” industrial alcohol. Chicago History Museum

27. The US Treasury Department Upped Its Game to Make Industrial Alcohol Far More Poisonous Than it Had Been Before

Liquor did not disappear from America because of Prohibition: massive amounts of drinkable booze were smuggled into the country by bootleggers. However, Prohibition did at least succeed in interrupting 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 from stolen or otherwise diverted stocks of industrial alcohol. By the mid 1920s, the US Treasury Department, tasked with the enforcement of Prohibition, estimated that 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 known toxins such as acetone, quinine, formaldehyde, nicotine, zinc, camphor, chloroform, zinc, 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 US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
People were desperate to get their hands – or mouths – on a drink during Prohibition. Popular Mechanics

26. The Deadly Impact of the Treasury Department’s Decision to Make Denatured Alcohol More Lethal

The US 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. On Christmas Eve, 1926, a single New York City hospital, Bellevue, was inundated with dozens of people who fell seriously ill after they drank contaminated alcohol. By New Year’s Eve, 1200 people in New York City 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 well-heeled could afford 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“.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
Charles Norris, New York City’s medical examiner. Los Angeles Times

25. An Argument Raged About Whether Government Should Use Poison to Enforce Prohibition

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. Those who argued that it was unconscionable for the authorities to poison something they knew would end up consumed by citizens included New York City’s medical examiner, Charles Norris. 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 government’s defenders included Wayne B. Wheeler, of the Anti Saloon League. As he 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“.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
The end of Prohibition finally brought an end to the thousands of alcohol poisoning deaths. Tampa Bay Food Tours

24. Federal Authorities Shrugged Off the Deaths Caused by Their Poisoned Alcohol

Despite the furor, Prohibition’s enforcers continued to poison industrial alcohol, and the resultant deaths continued to pile up. The New York Times archives from 1927 to 1933 contain many headlines about the resultant 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 in Manhattan, but federal authorities 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 the 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.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
Drinking in Colonial America. Pinterest

23. Prohibition Was a Bad Solution, But the Problem It Sought to Address Was All Too Real

The above is just an example of the many ways. Prohibition was a flawed and misguided attempt to address a problem. However, Prohibition did not occur in a vacuum, and the problem it had sought to address was all too real, and quite serious. In a nutshell, America was, collectively speaking, a lush. A straight-up alcoholic country, in which booze was consumed and abused at levels far greater than any we are used to today. In 1839, British traveler Frederick Marryat marveled at American drinking habits in A Diary in America: “I am sure the Americans can fix nothing without a drink …

If you meet, you drink; if you part, you drink; if you make acquaintance, you drink; if you close a bargain you drink; they quarrel in their drink, and they make it up with a drink. They drink because it is hot; they drink because it is cold. If successful in elections, they drink and rejoice; if not, they drink and swear; they begin to drink early in the morning, they leave off late at night; they commence it early in life, and they continue it, until they soon drop into the grave“. Or as historian W. J. Rorabaugh put it: “Americans drank from the crack of dawn to the crack of dawn“.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
John Winthrop. Wikimedia

22. Americans Loved Their Booze From Before There Even Was an America

Benjamin Franklin compiled a list of contemporary terms for “drunk” in the 1730s, and he was able to cite over 200 examples. It should have come as no surprise, in light of just how much Colonial America loved alcohol. Even the Puritans liked their drink: In 1630, John Winthrop arrived in Massachusetts aboard a ship that was laden with over ten thousand gallons of wine, and that carried over three times as much beer as water. In the eighteenth century, rum was the most popular drink, and by the 1760s, New England alone had almost 160 commercial distilleries.

Out in the countryside, farmers fermented their own hard cider, and most of them kept a barrel by the door for their family and for whoever happened to drop by. By the early nineteenth century, hard liquor was so plentiful and so cheap, that it actually cost less than tea. For many, Americans’ love of alcohol was accepted as part of the country’s social fabric. James Madison drank a pint of whiskey each day, John Adams kicked off his mornings with a tankard of hard cider, and George Washington kept a still in Mount Vernon.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
A nineteenth-century couple drinking. Wellcome Image Collection

21. Americans Downed Massive Quantities of Alcohol

Early in America’s life as an independent country, the tolling of bells at 11 AM and 4 PM was known as “grog time”. Since 1782, soldiers of the US Army received four ounces of whiskey every day, as part of their ration. In towns and cities, it was commonly understood and accepted that most workers would not show up for work on Mondays, because they were too hungover from a weekend bender. In the countryside, Johnny Appleseed had scattered seeds in Indiana and Ohio that produced apples that were quite inedible, but when fermented, they were quite drinkable as hard cider.

There were at least fourteen thousand distilleries in America by 1810, and they were hardly able to keep up with the demand. By 1830, the average consumption rate for American adults was seven gallons of pure alcohol per year. Seven gallons of pure alcohol is a lot of booze. It is the equivalent of 1.7 bottles of 80 proof liquor per American adult – male or female – per week, or about 90 bottles per year. Since millions of American adults did not drink, the alcohol consumption of those who actually drank was significantly higher than the national average for all adults.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
To combat America’s alcohol addiction, opium was proposed as a substitute for booze. Encyclopedia Britannica

20. Opium Was Once Proposed as a Lesser Evil Alternative to Alcohol

With much of the country tipsy all the time or just about, social reformers began to call for solutions to the scourge of widespread alcohol abuse. Thus was born the temperance movement. However, when the movement first began, “temperance” did not initially carry the same meaning that it eventually would, and still does today. For example, Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, a Declaration of Independence signer, friend of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and an early temperance advocate, sought to wean drinkers off the booze with an intermediate beverage.

So he urged whiskey guzzlers to drink instead what he deemed to be a less harmful alternative: wine, that was mixed with opium and laudanum. By the 1840s, an organized movement had emerged to fight the massive epidemic of alcohol abuse. Originally, it aimed to persuade drinkers, as individuals, to reform their ways and become abstainers. In some communities, preaching, the church, and social pressure were successful measures that managed to drastically cut down the number of drinkers in the local community. However, it soon became clear that moral persuasion was not enough.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
Irish immigrants in nineteenth-century Boston. Imgur

19. The Shift From Moral Persuasion to Prohibition

It soon became clear that the problems caused by alcohol were not limited solely to the individual drinker and his or her – although it was most often his – immediate circle of dearest and nearest. Instead, they negatively impacted the community and society as a whole. So a new trend emerged within the ranks of the anti-alcohol reformers: prohibition. In 1851, Maine became the first state to enact prohibition when it criminalized the manufacture and sale of alcohol within its borders and subjected those engaged in such activities to fines and imprisonment.

The anti-drink movement was launched to fight a problem that had plagued America for a long time. However, the arrival of new waves of immigrants in the 1840s and 1850s, particularly Irish and Germans, ended up linking anti-drink and anti-immigrant sentiments. Simply put, the new immigrants’ drinking habits were different from those whose American ancestry stretched back for generations. Saloons and bars – establishments where people congregated primarily to drink – had not been widespread in America before the 1840s, when immigrants first began to arrive in huge numbers from Ireland and Germany.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
Nineteenth century German immigrants boarding a steamer in Hamburg, destination America. Live Science

18. The Movement to Ban Alcohol Soon Took a Nativists vs Immigrants Tinge

Beer only became big in America in the 1840s with the arrival of Irish and German immigrants in large numbers. Until then, Americans had mostly drank cider or hard liquor. However, the Irish, and especially the Germans, were beer drinkers, and immigrants from those countries brought with them the pub and beer garden culture, which morphed in America into saloons and bars. Those who disliked immigrants soon came to dislike those establishments. As a rule of thumb, the movement to ban alcohol was most widespread amongst those whose ancestors had been in America for generations. Those prohibitionists predominated in rural and small-town America and tended to be traditional and conservative.

On the other side, hostility to nascent prohibition was vehement amongst immigrants who began to arrive in ever greater numbers in the mid-nineteenth century. Waves of new arrivals from Ireland, Germany, Italy, Greece, and Eastern Europe, infused America with ever greater numbers of people for whom drinking was not just a social activity, but a traditional part of their culture. Their numbers were greatest in America’s burgeoning cities. From that perspective, the fight over prohibition took on the nineteenth and early twentieth-century aspect of Red America vs Blue America.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
A nineteenth century brewery. Pinterest

17. The Explosion of Beer Consumption in Nineteenth-Century America

Beer is America’s most popular alcoholic beverage nowadays, but until well into the nineteenth century, it had been liquor. In 1850, Americans drank about 36 million gallons of beer. By 1890, the country’s population had tripled, but its beer consumption had increased twenty-four fold, to 855 million gallons. That was brought about by Irish, and even more so German, immigrants. The Germans brought good beer, the know how to brew it, and the savvy to market it as something it was not.

As early as 1866, the recently created United States Brewers Association set out to differentiate beer from liquor. The hard stuff, the Brewers Association declared, brought about: “domestic misery, pauperism, disease, and crime“. Beer on the other hand was depicted as a healthy and wholesome beverage that just happened to have some alcohol in it, and that was more a type of “liquid bread” than booze. As early as 1870, there were about 100,000 saloons in America. By 1900, that figure had tripled to roughly 300,000.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
A nineteenth century San Francisco saloon. Flickr

16. Saloon Numbers Exploded, and They Became Nuisances in Much of America

Before zoning laws became widespread, saloons were often found in the heart of residential neighborhoods. The reek of whiskey and stale beer combined with the stench of vomit and the sight of boisterous staggering drunks – when they were not passed out on the sidewalks – to turn saloons into eyesores and nuisances. In some parts of the country, saloons were especially thick on the ground. In Leadville, North Dakota, the 20,000 inhabitants could take their pick of so many drinking establishments, that there was one saloon for every 100 townspeople – women and children included.

It was even worse in San Francisco, where there was a saloon for every 96 inhabitants. That figure is derived from counting only the city’s 3000 licensed saloons: the city had another 2000 unlicensed drinking establishments. Across the country, men, women, and children, could often be seen as they exited saloons with buckets of beer to take home. As one New Yorker put it: “I doubt if one child in a thousand, who brings his [bucket] to be filled at the average New York bar, is sent away empty-handed“.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
A nineteenth century Chicago saloon. Chicago Public Library

15. The Innovations That Led to a Mushrooming in the Numbers of Saloons

Beer has a short shelf life, so throughout most of history, it did not make much economic to brew more beer than could be consumed locally. If you tried to transport it to distant markets, beer would spoil before it got there. Progress changed that. By the second half of the nineteenth century, pasteurization had increased beer’s shelf life, and between that, efficient refrigeration, and an expanding rail network, brewers were able to operate nationwide. However, in order to operate across the country, brewers needed a nationwide distribution network.

So they created one with a system of saloon subsidies. By the early 1900s, a saloon operator who agreed to sell only one brand of beer was guaranteed support from the brewer. Brewers advanced prospective saloon keepers cash, loans, credit for furniture, and whatever else was needed to get the establishment up and running and quenching the public’s thirst for beer. As a contemporary put it: “No man with two hundred dollars, who was not subject to arrest on sight, need go without a saloon in Chicago“.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
Nineteenth-century American women destroying a saloon in their town. Fine Art America

14. The Fight Against Alcohol Birthed the Fight for Women’s Rights

In the 1840s, women began to play a prominent role in an organized effort to address America’s booze problem. It made sense that women would lead that fight, considering how much they suffered from the country’s alcohol epidemic – and they were not even the ones who got to enjoy the drinking. A drunk husband or father was cause for enough misery. Alcoholic male bread winners often squandered their incomes in the emerging saloons, or neglected their work and lost out on income because of the bottle.

Then there was the “syphilis of the innocent“: an epidemic of STDs caught by hubbies in seedy saloons, where clients could find more than just booze, that was then passed on to their wives. It is thus unsurprising that America’s women featured prominently in the ranks of those who most detested alcohol, and deeply loathed not just the drink, but its makers and sellers as well. The fight for suffrage and women’s rights in America began as an offshoot of the fight against alcohol, and many early suffragettes first became politically active in that struggle.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, left, and Susan B. Anthony. National Portrait Gallery

13. Prohibition Played a Key Role in the Emergence of the Suffrage Movement

Early suffragette Susan B. Anthony abhorred alcohol and gave her first speech in 1849 to a group called the Daughters of Temperance. She joined the suffrage movement when male temperance advocates tried to keep her quiet. In 1852, the Sons of Temperance denied her the right to speak at a meeting because she was a woman. As their chairman put it, “the sisters” were not there to speak, but “to listen and learn“. The same thing happened at a NY Temperance Society meeting, and at a World Temperance Society Convention.

So Anthony joined forces with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who referred to alcohol as “The Unclean Thing“, and devoted the rest of her life to the suffrage movement. In the nineteenth century, the single greatest motivator for women to want to vote was the desire to do something about alcohol. They saw the emergence of saloons as a malignity that threatened the moral fabric of society and wanted them closed, or at least regulated. They wanted greater protection from the physical abuse of drunken spouses. They wanted property rights to protect themselves and their children from profligate husbands who blew the family’s finances on booze.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
Temperance advocate Eliza Thompson. Wikimedia

12. Prohibition Was the Single Biggest Motivator for Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Desire to Secure Political Rights

Women wanted laws that regulated or banned ban alcohol, but it was difficult for women to get such laws enacted when they lacked the ability to elect the lawmakers. Thus, as the nineteenth century progressed, more and more women came to see the vote as a vital means of protecting themselves and their families, often from threats posed by alcohol. Considering the booze epidemic’s negative impact on women, women’s rights advocates such as Susan B. Anthony and Eliza Thompson made temperance a women’s issue.

As they saw it, women’s issues could not be resolved if authority was left solely in the hands of men. Thus was borne one of the most potent arguments for rallying women to demand the right to vote. The logic was airtight and solid enough to break through the widespread acceptance by many women that they had no business in politics. Alcohol harmed women. Women wanted something done about alcohol. Men were not doing enough about alcohol. Women needed the vote to see to it that something was done about alcohol.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
Nineteenth century suffragists. Marie Claire

11. Brewers Became Avowed Enemies of Women’s Right to Vote

The Brewers Association sought to differentiate beer from liquor, and even joined those who attacked distilled spirits. However, when faced with a common threat, the brewers swiftly closed with the distillers to ward off a new threat that threatened the very existence of their businesses: women’s votes. America’s women tended to be in the anti-alcohol camp, but so long as they were unable to vote, their sentiments posed little threat to drink manufacturers’ bottom line. That changed when some states began to grant women the right to vote.

By considerable majorities, women voters tended to back candidates who advocated for temperance and prohibition. The result was a steady tightening of alcohol-related regulations at the local and state levels and a steady rise in statewide prohibition laws. So brewers and distillers fought against the granting of the right to vote to women, by generously funding and supporting anti-suffrage politicians and organizations. Fortunately for women’s rights, the advocates of prohibition managed to counter the drink sellers’ lobbying with a lobby of their own, the most powerful one in the history of the US.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
An Anti-Saloon League propaganda poster. American Library Association

10. The Most Powerful Lobbying Group in America’s History

Throughout the history of the United States, there has never been a lobbying group as powerful as the Anti-Salon League (ASL). Through a sustained political pressure campaign, it managed to achieve its goal in spectacular fashion on January 16th, 1919, when the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified. When Prohibition went into effect a year later, the ASL declared on the date of its victory that: “at one minute past midnight… a new nation will be born“. It had taken them decades of hard work to get there.

The ASL was founded in Ohio in 1893 as a state society, became a national organization two years later, and soon morphed into America’s most powerful lobby. It achieved its goal of national prohibition by strict discipline, a narrow focus on the single issue of alcohol, and a refusal to fritter its energies on anything else. As an early leader put it: “The Anti-Saloon League is not in politics as a party, nor are we trying to abolish vice, gambling, horse racing, murder, theft or arson … The gold standard, the unlimited coinage of silver, protection, free trade and currency reform, do not concern us in the least“.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
The Sixteenth Amendment, which authorized the US government to collect personal income taxes directly from citizens. Docs Teach

9. The Role of Taxes in the Fight for and Against Prohibition

One of the best arguments deployed by brewers and distillers against prohibition was the importance of their taxes. Alcohol manufacturers’ taxes amounted at times to 40% of the US Government’s budget. 71% of the federal government’s internal revenue in 1910, and 30% of its overall revenue, came from alcohol taxes. As prohibition’s tide continued to rise, alcohol manufacturers found themselves in the incongruous position of being an industry that welcomed – and sometimes even invited – the government to tax it more. The more dependent Uncle Sam was on taxes collected from alcohol manufacturers, the less likely it was to enact prohibition and kill off an industry whose taxes were so vital.

The bottom fell out that argument when the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified in 1913. It allowed the US government to directly tax individuals based on income, instead of apportioning taxes among the states based on population. The new revenue stream from personal income taxes suddenly meant that the excise taxes on alcohol were no longer necessary to the fiscal survival of the US Government. It was a game-changer: the Prohibition amendment was approved by Congress four years later, in late 1917, and ratified by the states in early 1919.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
A pro-prohibition poster. Imgur

8. Prohibition Was Enacted by a Minority and Imposed Upon a Majority

Prohibition is the best example in American history of a minority that successfully leveraged its clout to ram through laws opposed by a clear majority. The Anti Saloon League never sought to gain majorities: it knew that “Wets”, those opposed to prohibition in the parlance of the day, greatly outnumbered the “Dries” who wanted to do away with alcohol. Instead, prohibition’s proponents reasoned that by controlling, say, 10% of the vote in any close race, they could decide the election.

To gather that 10%, the ASL turned to America’s literalist Protestant churches, who in turn turned out their congregations to vote for ASL-approved candidates. A small but committed base of single-issue voters could be extremely powerful. It did not take long for politicians – both Republicans and Democrats, and even those who drank life fish – to realize that it was unwise to antagonize the ASL. Soon, politicians began to elbow each other out of the way to demonstrate their fealty to the ASL.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
An 1879 Harper’s Weekly editorial cartoon, criticizing the systemic disenfranchisement of black voters in the South. Wikimedia

7. Prohibition’s Advocates Turned to Anti-Black Racism to Gather Support in the South

Before the Civil War, Southerners had not been big supporters of the temperance movement, mainly because it was formed and backed by the same Northern progressive types who had been staunch abolitionists. As to white prohibitionists, they initially saw the newly enfranchised freed black slaves as natural allies, and they actually did gain the support of some black leaders, such as Booker T. Washington. That changed after black votes proved decisive in defeating an amendment to Tennessee’s constitution in 1887, that would have banned liquor in The Volunteer State.

Persuasion did not work, so the advocates of temperance turned to suppression, and began to appeal to white Southerners by playing up the image of black men with a bottle of booze in one hand, and a ballot in the other. After Reconstruction, temperance advocates began to make inroads in the South with stark appeals to anti-black racism. Southerners were obsessed with the specter of their white women getting ravished by black men, so the Dries linked supposedly out-of-control randy blacks to alcohol.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
The depiction of black legislators in ‘Birth of a Nation’. American History TV

6. Prohibitionists Were Major Advocates for the Disenfranchisement of Black Votes

The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, and The Leopard’s Spots, were examples of fiction that played up prohibitionist tropes. Popular novels upon which D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was based, they depicted negroes with “eyes bloodshot with whiskey” invade the homes of whites, to violate and plunder. As an official publication of the Methodist Church put it: “Under slavery, the Negroes were protected from alcohol … consequently they developed no high degree of ability to resist its evil effect“.

A Dry congressman from Arkansas even argued that banning alcohol would result in fewer lynchings because fewer blacks would commit crimes if they had no access to liquor. The suppression of the black vote proved highly effective for the cause of prohibition. In southern state after southern state, blacks were disenfranchised, and once the ballot was ripped out of their hands, the enactment of local or statewide prohibition was a cinch. An Alabama Baptist publication gleefully predicted an upcoming temperance victory thus: “The stronghold of the whiskey power in the state has been eliminated by the disenfranchisement of the Negro“.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
A black family leaving the South. Encyclopedia Britannica

5. While Prohibitionists Sought to Disenfranchise Black Voters, Alcohol Manufacturers Became Champions of Black Voting Rights

Just as Dries sought to suppress and disenfranchise blacks because they tended to vote Wet, Wets – especially the brewers and distillers – sought to defend black voting rights. Alcohol manufacturers persistently fought against poll taxes that disenfranchised blacks. When that failed, they sent field agents into southern states to secure black votes. Their standard kit included a photo of Abraham Lincoln, some Wet propaganda, a power of attorney form, and cash to pay a black voter’s poll tax. Alcohol manufacturers’ support of black voting rights infuriated Southern whites.

Their ire against the booze industry was further aroused by anti-Semitism: the distillation of alcohol had become a largely Jewish industry. Dry politicians began to routinely list the names of major distillers, such as Hirschbaum, Steinberg, and Schaumberg, to make the point that their fight was not against “American” industry, but a “foreign” one that was exploiting and debauching America’s blacks. The press got in on the act, as exemplified by a 1909 McClure magazine article that referred to the: “unscrupulous Jewish type of mind which has taken charge of the wholesale liquor trade of this country“.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Encyclopedia Britannica

4. Prohibitionists Whipped Up Racist, Anti-Semitic, and Anti-Immigrant Sentiments to Further Their Cause

Collier’s did an expose about the cheap liquor popular in southern black dives, commonly known as “nigger gin” and manufactured by Jewish distiller Lee Levy. It came in a variety of brand names, such as Black Cock Vigor Gin, sold in bottles featuring illustrations of nearly nude white women. In the North, the saloons were seen by reformers as an integral part of corrupt urban political machines that were increasingly dominated by immigrants, and that was becoming increasingly powerful. Doing away with the saloons was seen as one way to do away with those political machines.

The advocates of temperance and prohibition were not above appealing to racism, or to rallying support for the Dry cause by whipping up anti-immigrant hysteria. For example, pioneering women’s suffrage and prohibition advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton decried the prospect of “Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a Monarchy and a Republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence … making laws for Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, or Fanny Kemble“.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
The spread of prohibition at the state and local level. Pinterest

3. Geography and Demography Allowed a Prohibitionist Minority to Impose Its Will on an Anti-Prohibition Majority

Mississippi’s legislature voted for the Eighteenth Amendment on January 8th, 1918, and The Magnolia State became the first to ratify Prohibition. Ratification by a total of 36 out of America’s then 48 states were needed for national Prohibition to go into effect, but geography and demography made the prohibitionists’ task relatively easy. As a rule of thumb, the cities were overwhelmingly against Prohibition, while the countryside was for it. However, most of the country’s big cities – and most of the population for that matter – were concentrated in relatively few states.

That made it possible for Prohibition’s advocates to completely write off America’s twelve most urbanized states – the Pennsylvanias, New Jerseys, and even the Connecticuts – and still achieve ratification with victories in the less populous and more rural states. It was an early twentieth-century version of Red America losing a popular vote to Blue America, and still winning an election. Prohibition was also helped by the era’s shockingly unequal apportionment of legislatures. Today, we take “one person, one vote” for granted. It was not always so, and it certainly was not so in the early twentieth century when Prohibition was ratified.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
Prohibition ratification map. Distillery Trail

2. Unequal Representation in State Legislatures Helped a Prohibitionist Minority to Impose Its Will on an Anti-Prohibition Majority

In the early twentieth century, rural citizens were routinely over-represented in state legislatures, while urban citizens were underrepresented. In New York, for example, an urban legislator might represent seven times as many people as the rural legislator seated next to him. It meant that the vote of a single Upstate citizen – most likely protestant, prohibitionist, and Republican – was equivalent to the vote of seven Irish-American anti-prohibition Democrats from Manhattan. The figures were even more skewed in New Jersey, where each county got a state senator, regardless of population: Dry rural Cape May County, population 19,000, had the same representation as Wet urban Essex County, population 652,000.

Prohibitionists and their leading organization, the Anti Saloon League, had long understood and accepted that they were a minority. They sought to avoid referendums because they knew that if voters were given the option of a straight up or down vote on Prohibition, Prohibition would lose. Instead, prohibitionists concentrated on capturing legislators, by leveraging their committed and disciplined Dry followers into disciplined block voting that could swing elections. Perhaps nothing better illustrates that than Mississippi, the first state to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment. When submitted directly to voters, a prohibition amendment to the state constitution was rejected by a majority of Wet voters, 53% to 47%. Just two months later, however, Mississippi’s legislatures approved the Eighteenth Amendment, 75% to 25%.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
Police emptying beer barrels during Prohibition. Imgur

1. A Victorious Minority

As Prohibition’s advocates had predicted, the lower population and more rural states were the quickest to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment. The exceptions were Connecticut and Rhode Island, both of which had a majority Catholic population, and both of which refused to ratify. Their votes were neither missed nor needed, as the prohibitionists ran up the score in the legislatures of other small and rural states. On January 16th, 1919, Nebraska became the 36th state to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment, when its lower house voted in favor 98-0. It was official, and Prohibition was automatically scheduled to go into effect a year later.

The Eighteenth Amendment brought about drastic changes in the role of the federal government and its interactions with Americans, and fundamentally changed the way we live. It also set off a cascade of unintended and unforeseen consequences and changes impacting a bewildering variety of subjects. The rise of organized crime, the concept of home dinner parties, modern American tourism habits, radical changes in speedboat design, and the deep engagement of women in politics – all the preceding, and more, can be traced back to Prohibition. It might have ended in failure, but it changed America forever.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Aaron, Paul, and Musto, David – Temperance and Prohibition in America: An Historical Overview (1981)

Behr, Edward – Prohibition: Thirteen Yeas That Changed America (1996)

Burns, Eric – The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol (2003)

Cheever, Susan – Drinking in America: Our Secret History (2015)

Daily Beast – How the US Government Enforced Prohibition by Poisoning Americans

Encyclopedia Britannica – Anti Saloon League

Encyclopedia Britannica – Temperance Movement

History Collection – 18 Details in the Daily Life of a Bootlegger During Prohibition

Murdoch, Catherine Gilbert – Domesticating Drink: Women, Men, and Alcohol in America, 1870 – 1940 (1998)

Orkent, Daniel – Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (2010)

New York Times, January 19th, 2019 – How the Klan Fueled Prohibition

PBS – Prohibition: Anti Saloon League

Sismondo, Christine – America Walks Into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops (2011)

Slate – The Chemists’ War

Time Magazine, January 10th, 1927 – Prohibition: Poison

Time Magazine, January 14th, 2015 – The History of Poisoned Alcohol Includes an Unlikely Culprit: The US Government

Vox – The US Government Once Poisoned Alcohol to Get People to Stop Drinking

Walsh, Victor A., Journal of American Ethnic History vol. 10 no. 1-2 (Fall 1990 – Winter 1991) – Drowning the Shamrock: Drink, Teetotalism and the Irish Catholics of Gilded Age Pittsburgh

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