The Prohibition Doc Who Prescribed Booze

Under the Volstead Act, medical alcohol was the precursor of medical marijuana, but it seems that the shadowy Dr. Victor Lyon was also a mixologist.

01.18.16 5:08 AM ET

In 1920, after leading a five-year campaign to stamp out the narcotics trade in the Philippines, Spanish-American War veteran Major Alfred V. Dalrymple was appointed Chicago’s chief prohibition officer. At a talk in the town’s City Club that autumn, he argued that Benedict Arnold “was no greater traitor than any citizen who opposes the enforcement prohibition while it remains a law.” Dalrymple singled out two groups for particular excoriation: pharmacists and physicians. In fact, he had sworn earlier that year that he planned to fill jails so full of doctors and druggists “that their feet will stick out the windows.” The major comes across as a bit of a blowhard as we look back with almost a century of hindsight. But here’s the thing: He wasn’t wrong. Doctors and druggists were steering a lot of liquor into Americans’ hands.

What we call Prohibition was an accretion of shifting laws and regulations—bookended by two constitutional amendments—that controlled production of and access to industrial, medicinal, and beverage alcohol in the United States from 1920 until 1933. Although total prohibition in America was the utopian dream of some temperance crusaders and anti-saloon zealots, what the Volstead Act actually forbade was not alcohol but intoxicating beverages. Whiskey for a julep? That’s a beverage. No dice. Whiskey for headaches, though, or coughs? Why, that’s medicine (spiritus frumenti in apothecary Latin) expressly permitted under the act. For patients with legitimate medical complaints, a supply of bonded whiskey, brandy, New England rum, or fortified wines was as close as the nearest drugstore. Until medicinal cannabis came around, you never saw a nation of such sickly people—or dispensaries going up so fast.

During the Volstead years, scofflaw physicians routinely padded their incomes by helping patients qualify for whiskey allowances with bogus prescriptions. One New York doctor seems to have taken a different, no less illegal, approach to alcohol.

From 1921 to about 1930, German-born physician Victor Lyon kept a secret journal of booze recipes. If published during Prohibition, Lyon’s recipes and formulas for making and faking spirits, wines, and cordials could have landed the doctor in jail. Cocktails per se were not illegal then; Americans could mix drinks at home with alcohol purchased before Prohibition until their supplies ran dry. Instructions for producing alcohol, however, were forbidden. Publishers could be, and were, arrested and fined if they provided formulas for making liquor, wines, or beer. Just days into the Noble Experiment in 1920, for instance, revenue agents nabbed John Mitchell, editor of the Richmond Planet, for publishing a booze recipe collection. Wisely, Dr. Lyon camouflaged his notes.

They came to my attention about 10 years ago when the late Philadelphia chef Fritz Blank slid a little blue book across his library table. “Here,” he said “This is more your area than mine.” Like me, Fritz was a collector. Our shared obsession? Books about food, drinks, and the people who make them. Although I’d handled tens of thousands of cookbooks, bartenders’ guides, manuals on livestock, butchery, and related material, the format, and size of that blue one was unfamiliar. Something unusual, then, something rare. I glanced at Fritz sitting nearby, but he looked away, pulling a folder from one of his research piles. I turned the book over in my hands. Gold letters glittered as light hit its spine: George Sylvester Viereck. I frowned and turned to face him. “Who is Viereck?”

“I have no idea.” He had already pulled his glasses from their perch on his boxy little chef’s hat and was making a show of busying himself with the folder’s contents. “Look inside.”

The name bothered me. George Sylvester Viereck. An author, obviously, but … something else. Something sordid. When I opened the book and began running my eyes and fingertips over the pages, any thoughts of scandal-hounded writers drained away. The wear on its cover, the brittle and slightly tanned paper, those vanilla smells of slow decomposition, and the archaic handwriting all suggested the thing was older than either of us at the table. The book’s age, however, might have been one of the few true things about it. The entire thing, from cover to cover, was a deception.

Despite the spine’s promise of Viereck’s writing, there were no printed pages at all. Instead: hundreds of handwritten notes about, and formulas for, booze. Recipes for gin and other juniper spirits cropped up again and again; so did a dozen or so for absinthes. Cordials. Whiskeys, both real and artificial. Brandies. Not brandies for connoisseurs, but there they were along with notes on how alcohol reacts under certain conditions and how Cognac might be colored with oak extract and adjusted with syrups to get ready for market. Loose slips of paper tucked in its pages tied it to Prohibition-era New York; here was a prescription from a Manhattan hospital, there a business card from Harlem. Flipping between the pages, I realized most of the recipes were in English, but dozens were in German, a language I hadn’t spoken since adolescence. There was Kümmel, Doppel Kümmel, and Eiskümmel. Latin, too, crept in as later entries veered into pharmaceutical preparations. Lotion for head lice. Tattoo removal. Salves for chilblains and cures for freckles. I looked up at Fritz. “Freckles need cures?”

He smiled and waved away my question with an avuncular shoo. “It’s yours. Have it.”

And so that little blue book came to me, its temporary custodian. In the intervening years, I chipped away at its recipes, sussing out their sources. I looked into the life of Viereck, a disgraced German-American author whom Colonel Henry Watterson of Louisville’s Courier-Journal once called a “venom-bloated toad of treason” for his pro-German propaganda. Eventually I traced the notebook to Victor Lyon, a doctor who kept an office in the family’s Harlem home. Despite penciled adjustments here and there among Lyon’s notes, almost all his alcohol formulas were culled from English and German language druggists’ handbooks, journal articles, farming books, distillers’ treatises, and cordial-makers’ manuals dating back to the middle of the 19th century—earlier than Prohibition, earlier even than Bram Stoker’s Dracula, older than the first American football game, older in some cases than the American Civil War. These aren’t formulas that originated in the Jazz Age; in most cases, they preceded it.

Now, Victor Lyon was a master at the low profile. No photo of him—not even from a passport application—has surfaced. After his mother died in 1921 and his father four years later, federal and state census workers noted him living at the Harlem address for decades with his unmarried sister (a “spinster,” the records call her). He pops up in some medical directories, alumni lists, and served on an exemption board for conscripts in World War I. In that war, he had registered as a physician working for General Electric. Other than that, the man’s a ghost. His registration form for the war notes that he is tall with gray eyes and gray hair. He claims, writing in that familiar script we see in the notebook, to be native-born American, but he lied; rampant anti-German hysteria in the United States at the time led many so-called “hyphenated Americans” to hide or outright reject their Germanic heritage.

So why did Lyon write these recipes? One possibility is that he was safeguarding knowledge he felt might be lost, much as medieval monks once labored behind monastery walls to transcribe and preserve ancient works. Even if that’s all he was doing, it makes for fascinating reading, a rare peek behind the curtain of American beverage arts.

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Another possibility, hinted at by his marginalia and corrections, is that this was his working recipe book. After all, the formulas aren’t random; of the tens of thousands of such booze recipes floating around a century ago, Lyon recorded many with supposed health-giving properties. Gin blossomed as a Prohibition staple in part because nearly anybody could make simple versions with nothing more than juniper oil, alcohol, and a jug, but since its earliest days, the juniper-flavored spirit has been touted as sovereign against urinary tract complaints. Peppermint oil, essential to so many crème de menthe formulas, has been used to settled quarrelsome bellies since colonial days. Still is. Ginger wine? Official pharmacy manuals prescribed it for stomach complaints for centuries. Brandy comforts colds and, like whiskey, is used as a solvent for medicinal herbs. Absinthe, banned even before national Prohibition, gained traction in part because Swiss and French doctors prescribed it as an anti-malarial.

The nature of his recipes—combined with penciled adjustments to quantities, price lists for raw materials, addresses of suppliers for bottles and labels, and even profit and loss calculations scattered throughout the notebook and its ephemera—suggests that Victor Lyon was making cordials and flavored spirits to sell to his patients. Like uncounted thousands of Americans from bellboys to milkmaids who earned a little extra on the side from opportunistic bootlegging, Dr. Lyon seems to have embraced the illicit alcohol trade.

For now, I’m hanging onto the doctor’s notebook. One day it will end up in some library or museum alongside Lost Recipes of Prohibition, a book I wrote about Lyon, his notebook, and the bootlegging scene in Prohibition-era America. Until then, guests around the house may find themselves downing some of Victor Lyon’s more elegant concoctions. Ginger brandy, anyone?

Matthew Rowley is the author of Lost Recipes of Prohibition: Notes from a Bootlegger’s Manual, Moonshine! and other books. The former museum curator lives in Southern California. Find him on Twitter as @mbrowley.