Deaths During Prohibition: Government Poisoned Alcohol to Stop Drinking

The Promise

Temperance advocates promised that 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.

The Reality

The promises not come true. National Prohibition (1920-1933) actually made problems worse. And it created new problems. There was mob violence and murder. It killed innocent bystanders. Murder in general increased dramatically. But there was a less well-known source of deaths during Prohibition. It was the federal government.

National Prohibition destroyed the fifth largest industry in the U.S. That was the production, distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages.  There had been licensing and strict regulation of egitimate alcohol producers and sellers. But there was no regulation of illegal operators. They made their beverages quickly and carelessly. The lead solder used in illegal stills could leach toxins into the bootleg. That made it it poisonous. There were many other sources of toxins in the illegal alcohol. 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. It was bad for bootleggers’ business. 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 medicines. Many industrial processes used it. So the federal government required the addition of terrible tasting substances to make it undrinkable. Some of the substances were toxic. Denatured alcohol was the result. deaths during prohibition By the mid-1920s, bootlegers were stealing 60 million gallons of denatured alcohol each year. Bootleggers re-distilled it to remove most of the bad tasting 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. Twice as deadly, to be specific.

The next year the government ordered the addirtion of new poisons. They included these.

  • deaths during prohibitionMercury salts.
  • Benzene.
  • Cadmium.
  • Zinc.
  • Ether.
  • Chloroform.
  • Carbolic acid.
  • Acetone.
  • Iodine.
  • Brucine (similar to strychnine).
  • Formaldehyde (the major component of embalming fluid).
  • Methyl alcohol (wood alcohol).
  • Kerosene.
  • Gasoline.

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.

Poisoning Defended

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.

deaths during prohibitionThe 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
deaths during prohibition

Sen. James A. Reed

The poisonings outraged many anti-Prohibitionists. Senator 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.

References for Deaths During Prohibition

1  Prohibition: New Sponge. Time, Sept. 19, 1927.

2 Ibid.

3  Blum, D. The Chemist’s War. Slate, Feb. 19 2010.

Resources  for 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.