January 10, 1927 Poisoned Hooch

Not to be defied, federal officials poisoned industrial alcohol until the very last day, running up the tab to no fewer than 10,000 dead Americans. The government didn’t even pretend not to know, what was going on.


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.”. 

Yikes

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.Prohibition-midnight-e1568752688531-1024x511 (1).jpg“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.

war-propaganda

Not to be defied, the federal government upped the ante.  The Parasite Leviathan, was not to 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.

copper-still
A copper still and bucket, like those used in the creation and renaturing of alcohol at home. H’T allthatsinteresting.com, and Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Many who didn’t die, probably wished they had. 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.

prohibition_2

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.

alcohol_poison_passed

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, running up the tab to no fewer than 10,000 dead Americans.   The government didn’t even pretend not to know, what was going on.

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”.

Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a husband, a father, a son and a grandfather. A history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I started "Today in History" back in 2013, thinking I’d learn a thing or two. I told myself I’d publish 365. The leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I‘m closing in on a thousand. I do it because I want to & I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong, as anybody else. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thanks for coming along for the ride. Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

2 thoughts on “January 10, 1927 Poisoned Hooch”

  1. That poisoning began with the Act of June 6, 1907. This, allied with the Pure Food Law, a prohibition trap that became enforceable in 1907, wrecked the economy and caused a lengthy depression. “Specially” denatured alcohol was less poisonous and more artisanal distillers tried to reverse the process. But methanol evaporates like and with ethanol and the problem was a little like separating fissile Uranium from U238 in that both were similar. The excise law, cruel as it was, was praised unto Heaven by the Methodist White Terror and other monopolists of Christian values. For all I know, they are still doing it today. Many laws against trade and production have these side effects that bring the economy tumbling down. Nobody wants to claim credit after it’s too late, and much effort is invested in inventing plausible ways of explaining crashes away without reference to laws suddenly criminalizing a slice of the economy. This is part of the reason I vote libertarian–to have an alibi.

    Liked by 1 person

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