Deaths during Prohibition? Government poisonings? How could that be?
There was widespread support for National Prohibition (1920-1933) when it began. In fact, many states already had state-wide prohibition before 1920.
In general, people both wanted and expected the Noble Experiment to be a success.
I. The Promise
II. The Reality
I. The Promise
Temperance advocates promised that National Prohibition would usher in a beautiful new world. Crime, poverty, violence, marital abuse, industrial injuries, sickness and premature death would all go down. In their place would be prosperity, less violence, fewer injuries, better health, and greater longevity. Deaths during Prohibition were to drop.
II. The Reality
The promises did not come true. Prohibition actually made problems worse. It also created new problems. There was mob violence and murder. It killed innocent bystanders. Murder in general increased sharply. But there was a less well-known source of deaths during Prohibition. It was the federal government.
Prohibition destroyed the fifth largest industry in the U.S. That was the production, distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages. Previously there had been licensing and strict regulation of legal alcohol producers and sellers.
But there was no regulation of illegal operators. They made their beverages quickly and carelessly. For instance, the lead solder used in illegal stills could leach toxins into the bootleg. That made it it poisonous. And there were many other sources of toxins in the illegal alcohol. As a result, drinking bootleg alcohol paralyzed, blinded, or killed many people.
Bootleggers didn’t intend their bootleg to contain toxins. They didn’t want to kill their customers. The government was doing that. That was bad for bootleggers’ business. But that was the government’s goal.
It was legal to distill alcohol for industrial purposes. Alcohol was a common ingredient in paints, solvents, fuels and meds. Also, many industrial processes used it.
So the federal government required the addition of terrible tasting substances to make alcohol undrinkable. Some of the substances were toxic. Denatured alcohol was the result.
By the mid-1920s, bootlegers were stealing 60 million gallons of denatured alcohol each year. Bootleggers re-distilled it to remove most of the foul and sometimes toxic substances. Thus, bootlegging of industrial alcohol continued.
More Poisons Ordered
In 1926, the government turned to the use of more poisons in its fight against drinking. It ordered distillers to make their alcohol more deadly. Specifically, twice as deadly.
Then, the next year, the government ordered the addition of additional poisons. They included these.
- Mercury salts.
- Carbolic acid.
- Brucine (similar to strychnine).
- Formaldehyde (the major content of embalming fluid).
- Methyl alcohol (wood alcohol).
The government had to approve the poison formulas. As much as 10% of the poisoned industrial alcohol was wood alcohol. The latter was hard to remove by re-distillation. So it was very deadly.
The government defended its action. A leading official was blunt.
The great mass of Americans do not drink liquor. There are two fringes of society who are hunting for “booze.” They are the so-called upper crust and the down-and-out in the slums. They are dying off fast from poison “hooch.” If America can be made sober and temperate in 50 years a good job will have been done.1
Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League was also adamant.
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. ‘To root out a bad habit costs many lives and long years of effort.’2
Futile Opposition to Poisoning
The poisonings outraged many people. For example, Sen. Edward I. Edwards called it ‘legalized murder.’
Sen. James Reed said that “Only one possessing the instincts of a wild beast would desire to kill or make blind the man who takes a drink of liquor, even if he purchased it from one violating the Prohibition statutes.’3
But the government would not stop. The poisoning continued until the end of Prohibition. That was seven years later. By then, over 10,000 Americans probably died from the government’s poisoning program.
III. Resources: Deaths During Prohibition
Over 92 Per Cent of Hooch Poison. Spokane Daily Chron, June 24, 1926, p. 9.
Poison. Time, Jan 10, 1927.
Rothman, L. The History of Poisoned Alcohol Includes an Unlikely Culprit: The U.S. Government. Time, Jan. 14, 2015.
References for Deaths During Prohibition
1 Prohibition: New Sponge. Time, Sept. 19, 1927.
3 Blum, D. The Chemist’s War. Slate, Feb. 19 2010.