The United States Government Killed Thousands During Prohibition
The United States Government Killed Thousands During Prohibition

The United States Government Killed Thousands During Prohibition

Matthew Weber - May 7, 2017

The United States Government Killed Thousands During Prohibition
A police raid confiscating illegal alcohol, in Elk Lake, Canada, in 1925. Slate

Government Sanctioned Poisoning

The U.S. government, in an attempt to keep illegal alcohol out of the hands of citizens, started to put poison into non-drinkable alcoholic liquids. These liquids were being used by bootleggers to brew alcohol in place of normal, drinkable alcohol.

One of the reasons why they used this type of alcohol is because it is many times stronger than the normal stuff, which made it more profitable. The easier to get drunk, the more money someone will pay. These alcohols were called industrial alcohols. The bootleggers would hire chemists, who would put it through a process called “renaturing” which would make it drinkable and digestible. The bootleggers and chemists would get these alcohols from reputable sources.

The government, in an attempt to scare people from buying renatured alcoholic brews, mandated that the manufacturers of these liquids put stronger poisons into their Industrial Alcohols. This included methyl alcohol, which is very toxic to the human body.

It was Christmas 1926 when this was first discovered. By the end of the year, more than 100 people in New York alone would be dead or dying from the poisons added to alcohol.

By the time Prohibition ended in 1933, more than 10,000 were dead. The government continued to mandate the poisonous alcohol into these brews, and people apparently continued to drink it. What was meant to be a deterrent, turned out to be as New York City Medical Examiner Charles Norris said in 1927, “[the United State’s] national experiment in extermination.”

Norris was a loud critic of the U.S. government’s attempt to curtail the use of alcohol in such a manner. Likely because he was part of a profession who got to see the results as the dead continued to show up on his autopsy tables. He wrote in 1930, “The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol… [Y]et 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 government was not the only responsible party. Prohibition spawned a wave of organized crime, and people like Al Capone who ran groups of speakeasy organizations. Criminals who specialized in brewing and selling alcohol didn’t have to put up with the high regulation that the alcohol industry does today. That meant that booze was often contaminated by metals, bacteria, and other poisonous materials that made it dangerous to drink.

The end of Prohibition, then, likely saved thousands of lives in the United States. It rejuvenated an industry that had been banned from business for more than a decade and allowed for stringent controls on quality. It also got the government out of the business of poisoning people to keep them from doing something illegal.

Some Sources and Further Reading

History Collection – 40 Historical Markers on the Road to Prohibition

Cato Institute – Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure

History Collection – Doctors Wrote Prescriptions for Liquor during Prohibition

The Guardian – Why didn’t prohibition work?

History Collection – Here’s How Winston Churchill Got His Drink on in America During Prohibition