On Dec. 28, 1926, New York City was facing a crisis. Charles Norris, the city’s first-ever medical examiner, had no choice but to speak out. In a matter of days, 23 people in the city had died and 89 had been hospitalized after drinking bootlegged liquor that had contained dangerous levels of chemicals.
While some public health officials today may be fighting the government’s inaction in enforcing coronavirus restrictions, in the Prohibition era the problem was the reverse. Calvin Coolidge’s government had just imposed new measures to force revelers to abide by Prohibition. These measures were killing American citizens.
“The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol. It knows what bootleggers are doing with it and yet it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison,” Norris said in a statement as New Yorkers who had fallen ill from illegal alcohol continued to die.
“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.”
By Dec. 31, The New York Times was reporting that the holiday death toll from “poison rum” had jumped to 47. But the grim statistics weren’t enough to stop the Prohibition zealots headed by the Department of Treasury from doctoring the industrial alcohol supply with dangerous substances like methanol, the same chemical that recently led the FDA to issue a warning about using certain unsafe hand sanitizers popping up amid pandemic shortages.
The U.S. government would continue to doctor the industrial alcohol supply through the end of Prohibition knowing that it was killing U.S. citizens. It is believed around 10,000 people died as a result.
“On the last day before the taps ran dry, the streets of San Francisco were jammed”
Alcohol is all around us. It can be found in our household products, perfumes, disinfectants, hand sanitizers, and as an additive in fuel, not to mention our liquor cabinets.
Well before Prohibition, the government took steps to differentiate industrial alcohol from sipping spirits by mandating the addition of chemicals to grain alcohol to make the former undrinkable. This process resulted in what was called denatured alcohol, or wood spirits.
Manufacturers of industrial alcohol were happy to follow the 1906 regulations as the additives allowed their products to avoid the taxes levied on the those being slung by bartenders around the country. Plus, a tasty happy hour cocktail was readily available. Who would even consider drinking the stuff being used to clean homes?
But that all changed when the temperance movement gained a foothold in American society. The stakes were high for the teetotalers. They were after no less than saving the American soul.
America has perhaps never seen a country-wide party the likes of the one that occurred on the eve of Jan. 17, 1920, when the Volstead Act would go into effect.
“On the last day before the taps ran dry, the streets of San Francisco were jammed. A frenzy of cars, trucks, wagons and every other imaginable form of conveyance crisscrossed the town and battled its steepest hills. Porches, staircase landings and sidewalks were piled high with boxes and crates delivered just before transporting their contents would become illegal,” Daniel Okrent wrote in Smithsonian Magazine.
In New York, a dramatic bar crawl ensued, with bartenders serving up the last legal sips before the clock struck midnight.
Susan Cheever evokes the scene in Drinking in America: “Black-bordered invitations had summoned the faithful to funerals all over town to perform ‘the last rites and ceremonies for our spirited friend John Barleycorn.’ At the Park Avenue Hotel, black-robed girls wept and keened, and at the bar there was a last round of sad, slurred toasts. At Healey’s on Sixth Avenue, patrons tossed their empty glasses into a silk-lined coffin, and every customer was given a small casket as they left for the last time ‘to remember the fallen.’ Uptown, women in cloche hats and ermine coats chug-a-lugged their last drinks.”
It should have been clear from the get-go that Prohibition was going to be nearly impossible to enforce. It was enacted over the veto of President Wilson, and his successor blatantly flouted the law in the White House; it only outlawed the selling, manufacturing, and transportation of alcohol, not the drinking of it; and then there is the fact that Americans have never taken infringements on their personal liberty well.
From its inception, the United States has been a land of entrepreneurs and there was no bigger, more exciting, or more potentially lucrative challenge in the 1920s than figuring out how to slake the thirst of suffering citizens. The IRS, which was tasked with Prohibition enforcement, was no match for the bootleggers and criminal enterprises that the Volstead Act wrought.
“Stills sprang up in every household. A six-thousand-gallon pipeline of beer was run through the Yonkers sewer system to bring beer from boats on the Hudson River to local saloons. One Midwestern gang froze unmarked bottles in ice blocks bound across Lake Huron, a trick that worked well until the weather turned unseasonably warm. Another gang drove over the Canadian border dressed as priests and were waved through by customs without anyone looking under their robes—until the day one of them had a flat tire,” Cheever writes.
“Rum runners in everything from rowboats to yachts used the nation’s beaches as their landing points… Struggling to staunch the flow of liquor, revenue agents dumped enough beer, wine, and whiskey into New York Harbor to float a drunken armada.”
While drinkable liquor was smuggled into the country, huge quantities of alcohol was also being produced in the U.S. using the often-stolen industrial supplies.
Bootlegged liquor has always held a tinge of danger. If produced incorrectly, bathtub gin can be deadly. In the early days of Prohibition, illegal alcohol supplies were already taking their toll. But the policies the U.S. government began to implement towards the end of 1926 accelerated the problem.
By the mid-1920s, it was clear the dry faction led by the fanatic Anti-Saloon League president Wayne Wheeler had a problem. The drinking rates six years into Prohibition were skyrocketing. The policy meant to save America had backfired.
The only thing to do, they thought, was double down.
Behind the scenes, there was a war raging, one that has often been called the “war of the chemists.” With industrial alcohol the main supply available, bootleggers employed chemists to remove the additives to turn the undrinkable drinkable. The government, in turn, decided to assemble their own flock of scientists to create a new formula for industrial alcohol that would be harder to manipulate.
On Dec. 30, 1926, the New York Times announced that the government’s new Formula A would double the amount of poisonous chemicals present in wood alcohol.
According to Katie Serena in All That’s Interesting, the new formulas included “kerosene, gasoline, iodine, zinc, nicotine, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, quinine and acetone. Most dangerous of all, they demanded that at least 10 percent of the total product be replaced with methyl alcohol or methanol. Today, methanol is most commonly used as an ingredient in antifreeze.”
While the government increased the poison in the industrial alcohol supply, Wheeler and his allies also waged a disinformation campaign, claiming that this new formula would be more unpleasant than the old, but no more deadly. And besides, they contended, it wasn’t their fault if people were flouting the law and choosing to drink illegally.
“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,” Wheeler told the New York Times.
Seeing the devastation occurring under his watch in New York City as people continued to drink bootleg liquor made from this new formula, Norris fought back against the government’s policy. In a December 1928 piece in The North American Review, he wrote, “In a word, wood alcohol is not ‘poison liquor.’ It is simply poison. If it gets into liquor, the liquor is poisoned.”
The occasion of the article was the death of 25 New Yorkers from badly processed alcohol over three days in October 1928. “They are definitely dead and there is no doubt as to the cause of their death,” Norris wrote. “These are not statistics, but the bare record of a tragedy as shocking and in a sense dramatic as a fearful crash on the subway.”
A search of the New York Times archives from 1927 to 1933 turns up a slew of headlines revealing the extent of the deaths from poisonous alcohol, not to mention the less deadly but no less devastating effects like blindness and hallucinations: June 20, 1927: “Three die from alcohol”; Feb. 28, 1929: “Alcohol Deaths Show Steady Rise”; Aug. 11, 1930: “Found dead of alcohol poisoning”; Oct. 23, 1930: “Alcohol Deaths Up 300% Since 1920”; August 17, 1932: “Dies After Drinking Wood Alcohol.”
“Governments used to murder by the bullet only. Now it’s by the quart,” humorist Will Rogers commented.
In the end, Prohibition was one big deadly bust. On Dec. 5, 1933, it was repealed. Not only had the government knowingly aided in the deaths of thousands of its own citizens in its paternalistic effort to save them, but it had also left the country worse off than it had been when bars were allowed to operate in the open.
As Cheever writes, “Prohibition was supposed to make the country healthy, but instead it made them sick. Prohibition was supposed to cut down on crime, eradicate poverty, and reunite the American family. Instead it increased crime immeasurably and created organized crime syndicates.”