Politics & Poison: Government Sanctioned Murder During Prohibition

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Liz Greene, a history geek and an anxiety-ridden realist from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. You can follow her latest misadventures on her blog, Instant Lo. Enjoy!

When it comes to failed social experiments in U.S. history, Prohibition takes the cake. Far from ushering in the utopian society promised by the temperance movement, Prohibition only succeeded in making matters much worse.

The new law was met with outright rebellion. Bootleggers made a fortune distilling and selling alcohol. Thousands of speakeasies popped up, serving a thirsty population who cared little for the legality of the situation. Organized crime rose to the forefront, distributing booze, warring with rival gangs, and taking out innocent bystanders in the process. Murder became a familiar headline. [1]

But the mob and unskilled bootleggers weren’t the only ones causing death and destruction during Prohibition. The federal government had a large role to play as well.

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The Nature of Things

Before Prohibition, the production, distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages was the fifth-largest industry in America. Alcohol producers and sellers were licensed and very closely regulated. However, once the 18th amendment passed, those regulations disappeared, along with everything else involved in the business of alcohol.

Bootleggers made their beverages quickly and carelessly. Lead and many other sources of toxins in the illegal alcohol resulted in countless people being paralyzed, blinded or killed. Bootleggers didn’t intend to harm their customers — a combination of ignorance and lack of skill was the only agent behind their poisoned hooch. [2] The government, however, had far darker intentions.

The Poisonous Plan

Even during Prohibition, alcohol could be legally distilled for industrial purposes. It had a variety of uses in paints, solvents, fuels, medicines and industrial processes. To keep it from making its way into alcoholic drinks, the government required that bitter tasting (and sometimes toxic) substances be added to make it undrinkable — the result being deemed denatured alcohol.

By the mid-1920s, 60 million gallons of industrial alcohol were being stolen annually to supply the demand for booze. Liquor syndicates employed chemists to renature the alcohol, returning it to a drinkable state. [3] With stolen and redistilled alcohol as the primary source of liquor in the country, federal officials ordered manufacturers to make their products far more deadly.

Under mandate from the federal government, distillers began adding a number of chemicals to industrial alcohol, including mercury, benzene, cadmium, zinc, ether, chloroform, carbolic acid, acetone, iodine, brucine, formaldehyde, kerosene, gasoline and methyl alcohol. Methyl alcohol in particular was hard to remove by re-distillation — and incredibly deadly. [4]

An Outcry Ignored

As bodies began to pile up in the morgue, New York City medical examiner Charles Norris spoke out against the government’s actions:

“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.”

Other anti-Prohibitionists were equally outraged. Senator James Reed of Missouri proclaimed

“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.”

But the government paid no attention to detractors and the poisoning continued until the end of Prohibition in 1933. When all was said and done, over 10,000 Americans are believed to have died from the government-sanctioned poisoning of industrial alcohol. [5]

Prohibition was a massive failure. It was not well-enforced, gave rise to organized crime, and failed to take into account that alcoholism is based on a variety of risk factors, none of which can be prevented by the government. [6] In the end, there simply wasn’t enough public support to make it successful. Unfortunately, far too many people had to pay with their lives for this botched social experiment.

  1. https://reason.com/archives/2003/01/29/prohibition-violence
  2. http://www.1920-30.com/prohibition/prohibition-poison.html
  3. https://www.boundless.com/u-s-history/textbooks/boundless-u-s-history-textbook/the-roaring-twenties-24/the-roaring-twenties-186/prohibition-1023-9725/
  4. http://www.japi.org/august_2014/26_cr_methyl_alcohol_poisoning.pdf
  5. http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2010/02/the_chemists_war.1.html
  6. https://www.beachesrecovery.com/the-consequences-of-alcohol-abuse-infographic/