A French proverb comes down to us from 1742, attributed to one François de Charette: “On ne fait pas d’omelette sans casser des oeufs”. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.
Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was a big fan of socialism in his day and an enthusiastic supporter of the gulags, of Josef Stalin.“[The] unfortunate Commissar” he wrote, must shoot his own workers “so that he might the more impressively ask the rest of the staff whether they yet grasped the fact that orders are meant to be executed.”.
Connoisseurs of the animated series South Park will remember the Prime Directive of Mr. Garrison’s favorite third grader, Eric Cartman. “You will respect my authoritah“!
All well and good for a cartoon. Few would have guessed the real-world Federal Government would poison its own citizens, to enforce its own authoritah.
The Eighteenth Amendment establishing national prohibition of intoxicating liquors was passed out of Congress on December 17, 1917 and sent to the states, for ratification. The “Volstead” act, so named for Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Andrew Volstead, was enacted to carry out the will of congress.
At last ratified in January 1919, “Prohibition” went into effect at midnight, January 16, 1920. For thirteen years it was illegal to import, export, transport or sell intoxicating liquor, wine or beer in the United States.“Industrial alcohol” such as solvents, polishes and fuels were “denatured” and rendered distasteful by the addition of dyes and chemicals. The problem was, it wasn’t long before bootleggers figured out how to “renature” the stuff.
The Treasury Department, in charge of enforcement at that time, estimated that over 60 million gallons of industrial alcohol were stolen during Prohibition.
Not to be defied, the federal government upped the ante. The Parasite Leviathan, would not be defied.
By the end of 1926, denaturing processes were reformulated with the introduction of known poisons such as kerosene, gasoline, iodine, zinc, nicotine, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, quinine and acetone.
Treasury officials went so far as to impose a requirement of no less than 10% by volume of methanol, a virulent toxin used in anti-freeze.
You will respect my authoritah.
You can renature this stuff ’til the cows come home. It will kill you.
Sixty people wound up at New York’s Bellevue Hospital on Christmas eve 1926, desperately ill from contaminated alcohol. Eight of them died. Within two days, the death toll stood at thirty-one. The number soared to 400 by New Year’s Day , with no end in sight.
Many who didn’t die, probably wished it. Holiday revelers experienced hallucinations, uncontrollable vomiting, even blindness.
TIME Magazine reported a doubling in toxicity levels in the January 10, 1927 issue, compared with the old method: “The new formula included “4 parts methanol (wood alcohol), 2.25 parts pyridine bases, 0.5 parts benzene to 100 parts ethyl alcohol”. TIME noted, “Three ordinary drinks of this may cause blindness. (In case you didn’t guess, “blind drink” isn’t just a figure of speech).”
To paraphrase Wikipedia, Pyridine is a highly flammable chemical structurally related to benzene, with the unpleasant smell of dead fish.
New York medical examiner Charles Norris was quick to understand the problem and organized a press conference to warn of the danger. “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.”
Norris pointed out that the poorest people of the city, were most likely to be victims: “Those who cannot afford expensive protection and deal in low-grade stuff”.
The towering sanctimony of the other side, is hard to believe. Teetotalers argued the dead had “brought it on themselves”. Long-time leader of the anti-saloon league Wayne Wheeler proclaimed “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.”
You will respect my Authoritah.
In its thirteen years of existence, Prohibition was an unmitigated disaster. Portable stills went on sale within a week of enactment and organized smuggling was quick to follow. California grape growers increased acreage by over 700% over the first five years, selling dry blocks of grapes as “bricks of Rhine” or “blocks of Port”. The mayor of New York City himself sent instructions to his constituents, on how to make wine.
Smuggling operations became widespread as cars were souped up to outrun “the law”. This lead in time to competitive car racing, beginning on the streets and back roads and later moving to dedicated race tracks. It’s why we have NASCAR, today.
Organized crime muscled up to become vastly more powerful, due to the influx of enormous sums of cash. The corruption of public officials was a national scandal.
Gaining convictions for breaking a law everyone hated became increasingly difficult. The first 4,000 prohibition-related arrests resulted in only six convictions and not a single jail sentence.
It’s hard to compare alcohol consumption rates before and during prohibition but, if death by cirrhosis of the liver is any indication, alcohol consumption never went down by more than 10 to 20 per cent.
In the end, even John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a lifelong teetotaler who contributed $350,000 to the Anti-Saloon League, had to announce support for repeal.
On December 5, 1933, the state of Utah triggered the magic 2/3rds requirement to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment, repealing the Eighteenth and voiding the Volstead Act, returning control over alcohol policy to the states.
Not to be defied, federal officials poisoned industrial alcohol until the very last day, resulting in the death of no fewer than 10,000 Americans. They didn’t even pretend not to know, what was happening.
You will respect my authoritah!
Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Seymour Lowman had the last word among those who would tell you, “I’m from the government. I’m here to help”. If deliberately poisoned alcohol resulted in a more sober nation Lowman opined, then “a good job will have been done”.
6 thoughts on “January 10, 1927 You Will Respect my Authoritah!”
Reblogged this on Dave Loves History.
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Thanks Dave. Happy New Year to you, Cami & Ben.
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I’ve always thought the US prohibition experiment was interesting: fundamentally it was a form of social engineering – and it didn’t work, as you point out. I hadn’t known that the US government went to such lengths to stop people finding ways around it. Amazing. It underscores the fact that socially embedded customs such as drinking alcohol can’t be simply legislated out of existence: people have to consciously choose not to do it, and all that forcing them to stop does is make them resentful.
Curiously, we nearly got prohibition here in New Zealand, at the same time, and for similar reason: the First World War had a fairly specific focusing effect on the temperance movement. Over here that had various effects. Legislation passed during the war forbad ‘shouting’ in bars (buying each other drinks) and also prohibited women from working behind the bars – apparently women were going to tempt men to drink (!). Meanwhile the temperance movement kept pushing for action, with the result that bars were then required to close at 6 pm. That was introduced in 1917. It didn’t work either: the net effect was that men would leave work at 5, immediately head to the pub, and drink as fast as they could for an hour. The beer was served up in quarter-gallon jugs, then decanted by the drinkers into six-ounce glasses and quaffed. Being able to pitch back beer at speed was a virtue and symbol of manhood, apparently. And by 6.01 the streets were filled with drunken men who either got into fist fights or lurched home so they could be drunk in front of their families.
The wartime push for temperance in NZ finally reached its peak in early 1919 with a referendum over prohibition. By this time the social side of the movement had huge force, driven by evangelists warning of eternal damnation if anybody drank. And it was passed by the local vote. However, NZ never got prohibition: we still had tens of thousands of soldiers overseas, the majority of them survivors of the Western Front who couldn’t be threatened with the tortures of the damned. And so we never got prohibition. But we did get ‘6 o’clock closing’ – and, incredibly, it remained in force until 1967.
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Fascinating look into a world of unintended consequences, Matthew. Thank you.
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Goodness gracias..I had had no idea that a government was prepared to poiso its own people…
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It does seem so absurd, doesn’t it?