Today I found out that in an effort to scare people away from drinking alcohol, the American government once poisoned certain alcohol supplies; this resulted in the death of over 10,000 American Citizens.
This, of course, was during Prohibition. The government became frustrated with the fact that despite the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol being banned, the number of people drinking alcoholic beverages was markedly higher than it was before Prohibition. So to try to get people to stop drinking, the government decided to try a scare tactic.
One way bootleggers of this time made alcoholic beverages was to use denatured, industrial alcohol as the base. Denaturing the alcohol is simply a process to make it undrinkable, usually by adding something that makes it taste or smell disgusting or will induce vomiting. This was originally done (and is still done to this day) in order to allow companies to get around having to pay the high taxes associated with the manufacturing and sale of alcohol meant to be drunk. Alcohol used industrially, for non-beverage applications, are denatured and thus, they don’t have to pay these taxes and so it is significantly cheaper, gallon for gallon. Without this tax break, literally thousands of industrial products would become drastically more expensive than they currently are.
During prohibition, this denatured alcohol was often stolen from companies that made industrial alcohol used in various paints and solvents and the like. The bootleggers would then have their own chemists whose job it was to make the alcohol palatable again, basically undoing the denaturing process or to “renature” the alcohol.
With an estimated 60 million gallons of industrial alcohol stolen annually in the 1920s to be later renatured and sold as drinkable alcohol, the government, under President Coolidge, decided to up the stakes and make some of the denaturing formulas lethal, instead of just designed to make the alcohol unpalatable. To do this, they’d generally add things like methyl alcohol (the main denaturing chemical at 10% added, even today); other chemicals added are things such as kerosene, brucine, gasoline, benzene, cadmium, formaldehyde, chloroform, carbolic acid, acetone, and many others that were difficult for the bootlegger’s chemists to get out when they’d renature the alcohol.
After the first 100 or so people died shortly after the new denaturing process was released around Christmas, health officials were outraged and the news media picked up the story as intended. Unfortunately, the government’s plan didn’t quite work from that point on. It didn’t scare people away from drinking and rather had little to no effect on people’s consumption of alcohol; instead, the estimates are that it resulted in the deaths of over 10,000 people with a much larger number severely sickened and many blinded by the poisoning.
As New York City’s medical examiner Charles Norris stated: “The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol. 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.” (Chuck Norris fighting the man even back then)
People at the time, though, were split on the poisoning program, even with the deaths that were happening because of it. One side felt that the people who were drinking the illegal alcohol got what they deserved, particularly because they knew the risks and broke the law anyways; the other side felt it was a national experiment on exterminating members of society that the government felt were undesirable as American citizens. As one Chicago Tribune article in 1927 stated: “Normally, no American government would engage in such business. … It is only in the curious fanaticism of Prohibition that any means, however barbarous, are considered justified.”
Now, to be clear, the various governments of the world still require denaturing of alcohol that is not for oral consumption and the standard requirement of 10% methyl alcohol is still in effect in most countries. This isn’t really a problem anymore because people have much better ways to get their alcohol than trying to deal with denatured alcohol. The problem at the time was that the government knew full well that people would be drinking this poisoned alcohol and they hoped the deaths that resulted from this would scare other people away from drinking. Further, when it was clear that it wasn’t scaring anyone away from drinking and literally thousands were dying per year with significantly more than that severely sickened, they kept the program going anyways, though it was hotly debated in Congress.
So next time you start thinking the U.S. government is impossibly screwed up today; headed down the tubes; and beyond fixing, well, if you study American history much at all, it’s pretty clear it used to be a lot more screwed up than it is today, not just concerning this issue, but many, many others. And yet, we’re still here.
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- The term “The Real McCoy” originated in the prohibition era. Captain William S. McCoy was a rum runner who coordinated most rum transported by ship during prohibition. He was known for never watering down his imports; thus, his product was “The Real McCoy”.
- This wasn’t the only time the U.S. Government decided to poison the supply of some illegal substance in order to try to scare people away from using it. In the 1970s the government sprayed marijuana fields with Paraquat, which is an herbicide. They thought this had the dual benefit of killing large portions of the crop and also scaring people away from buying marijuana in those areas because the surviving plants would essentially be laced with a mild toxin. Public outcry at the time however, forced the government to stop doing this.
- It was the 18th Amendment, passed in 1919, which banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages in the United States (note: it didn’t ban the consumption of alcohol). The Volstead Act, officially the “National Prohibition Act”, then laid out the rules for this ban and was passed on October 28, 1919, despite President Wilson’s veto; prohibition itself began on January 1st, 1920. Only 1,520 Federal Prohibition agents were hired to enforce this act, nationwide.
- The Volstead Act was amended on March 22, 1933 by the Cullen-Harrison Act, which allowed the manufacturing and sale of certain kinds of alcoholic beverages. The 18th Amendment itself was repealed in December of 1933. When President Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act, he made the now famous remark, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.” A mere one day after the Cullen-Harrison Act went into effect on April 7, 1933, Anheuser-Busch, Inc, sent a case of Budweiser to the White House as a gift to President Roosevelt.
- As happens quite often when people are told they can’t do something, the banning of alcohol resulted in alcoholic beverages being consumed at an estimated three times the rate it was before the banning took effect.
- Prohibition was widely supported by diverse groups across the nation when it first was made law, even among the heavy drinkers. It was widely thought that a ban on alcohol would drastically improve society as a whole (many of society’s problems of the day were thought to be a result of rampant alcohol use; some were even actually valid points, though many were not). Thus, sacrificing alcoholic drinks was a little thing compared to creating a better society. Will Rogers often joked about the southern prohibitionists: “The South is dry and will vote dry. That is, everybody sober enough to stagger to the polls.”
- One of the chief controversies of the day among medical professionals was that alcohol was prescribed by physicians for medicinal purposes. As such, medical professionals across the nation lobbied for the repeal of prohibition as it applied to medicinal liquors, such as beer, which was often prescribed.
- While the Volstead Act banned the manufacturing, sale, and transport of alcohol, it did allow home brewing of wine and cider from fruit. An individual home was allowed to produce up to 200 gallons per year.
- Grape growers of the day began selling “bricks of wine”, which were primarily blocks of “Rhine Wine”. These often included the following instructions: “After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for twenty days, because then it would turn into wine.”
- Also because the Volstead Act did not ban the consumption or storage of alcohol, before the act went into effect, many people stockpiled various alcoholic beverages.
- Notorious gangster Al Capone, Bugs Moran, and many others made their riches primarily through illegal alcohol sales and distribution. Capone controlled over 10,000 speakeasies in Chicago alone. Speakeasies were basically places that discreetly served liquor. They often also served food and had live bands to make themselves look like credible institutions. Others were simply regular businesses that kept alcohol on hand to sell to patrons who knew of their side-business.
- The term “speakeasy” comes from bartenders telling patrons to “speak easy” when ordering, so as not to be overheard.
- The repeal of the Volstead Act not only took the primary funding away from numerous gangsters, but also created thousands of new jobs at a time when they were desperately needed in the United States.
- The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATF) maintains a list of approved formulas by which to render the ethanol undrinkable, which can be found here. These range from formulas to make it taste gross all the way to being very lethal.
- Today in the United States about 50% of people report drinking more than 12 alcoholic beverages in the last year; about 14% say they drank 1-11 alcoholic beverages in the last year; with the remaining 36% abstaining from alcoholic beverages in the calendar year the survey was done. Source: Summary Health Statistics for U.S. Adults: National Health Interview Survey, 2008, table 27
- The total for all alcohol related deaths per year in the United States is around 85,000 deaths a year. For comparison, the number of deaths associated with Tobacco annually is around 400,000-500,000; poor diet and physical inactivity at around 365,000; prescription drug related deaths around 32,000; suicide around 30,600; homicide around 20,000; gun-related deaths around 29,000; aspirin related deaths around 7,000; all illicit drug use at around 17,000; and Marijuana deaths around 0.
- The word “prohibition” comes from the Latin “prohibitionem”, meaning “hindering or forbidding”. It was used to mean “forced alcohol abstinence” as early as 1851.
Expand for References:
- A Touch of Borgia in American Government
- Remembering Tuskegee
- Eugenics Board of North Carolina
- The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
- Formulas for Denatured Alcohol and Rum
- Prohibition in the United States
- Image Source
- Annual Causes of Death in the United States
- Alcohol Use
- Poisons and Prohibitions: The Persistence of Folly
- Prohibition: The Greatest American Blunder
- Denatured Alcohol
- Etymology Dictionary: Prohibition