It was Christmas Eve 1926, the streets aglitter with snow and
lights, when the man afraid of Santa
Claus stumbled into the emergency room at New York City's Bellevue
Hospital. He was flushed, gasping with fear:
Santa Claus, he kept telling the
nurses, was just behind him, wielding a baseball bat.
staff realized how sick he was the toxin-induced hallucination was just a
symptom - the man died. So did another holiday partygoer. And another. As dusk
fell on Christmas, the hospital staff tallied up more than 60 people made
desperately ill by alcohol and eight dead from it. Within the next two days,
yet another 23 people died in the city from celebrating the
Doctors were accustomed to alcohol poisoning by then, the
routine of life in the
The bootlegged whiskies and so-called gins often
made people sick. The liquor produced in hidden stills frequently came tainted
with metals and other impurities. But this outbreak was bizarrely different.
The deaths, as investigators would shortly realize, came courtesy of the U.S.
Frustrated that people continued to consume alcohol even
after it was banned, federal officials had decided to try a different kind of
They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols
manufactured in the United States, products regularly stolen by bootleggers and
resold as drinkable spirits.
The idea was to scare people into giving
up illicit drinking.
Instead, by the time Prohibition ended in 1933,
the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000
"Our national experiment in
extermination." - Charles
Norris, the chief medical examiner of New York City during the 1920s
In the 1970s the U.S. government's sprayed Mexican marijuana fields
with Paraquat, an herbicide. Its use was primarily intended to destroy crops,
but government officials also insisted that awareness of the toxin would deter
marijuana smokers. They echoed the official position of the 1920s-if some
citizens ended up poisoned, well, they'd brought it upon themselves.
"Normally, no American government would engage in such business.
It is only in the curious fanaticism of Prohibition that any means, however
barbarous, are considered justified." Chicago Tribune editorial 1927
"Must Uncle Sam guarantee safety first for souses?" Omaha Bee.
Industrial alcohol is basically grain alcohol with some unpleasant
chemicals mixed in to render it undrinkable.
The U.S. government
started requiring this "denaturing" process in 1906 for manufacturers who
wanted to avoid the taxes levied on potable spirits.
The U.S. Treasury
Department, charged with overseeing alcohol enforcement, estimated that by the
mid-1920s, some 60 million gallons of industrial alcohol were stolen annually
to supply the country's drinkers.
In response, in 1926, President
Calvin Coolidge's government decided to turn to chemistry as an enforcement
tool. Some 70 denaturing formulas existed by the 1920s.
de·na·ture [dee-ney-cher] verb (used with object),
deprive (something) of its natural character, properties, etc.
render (any of various alcohols) unfit for drinking by adding an unwholesome
substance that does not alter usefulness for other purposes.
Biochemistry . to treat (a protein or the like) by chemical or physical means
so as to alter its original state.
4. to make (fissionable material)
unsuitable for use in an atomic weapon by mixing it with unfissionable
Most simply added poisonous
methyl alcohol into the mix. Others used bitter-tasting compounds that were
less lethal, designed to make the alcohol taste so awful that it became
undrinkable. To sell the stolen industrial alcohol, the liquor syndicates
employed chemists to "renature" the products, returning them to a drinkable
state. The bootleggers paid their chemists a lot more than the government did,
and they excelled at their job. Stolen and redistilled alcohol became the
primary source of liquor in the country. So federal officials ordered
manufacturers to make their products far more deadly.
By mid-1927, the
new denaturing formulas included some notable poisons-kerosene and brucine (a
plant alkaloid closely related to strychnine), gasoline, benzene, cadmium,
iodine, zinc, mercury salts, nicotine, ether, formaldehyde, chloroform,
camphor, carbolic acid, quinine, and acetone.
The Treasury Department
also demanded more methyl alcohol be added-up to 10 percent of total product.
It was the last that proved most deadly.
"The government knows
it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol," New York City
medical examiner Charles
Norris said at a hastily organized press conference. "[Y]et 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."
department issued warnings to citizens, detailing the dangers in whiskey
circulating in the city: "[P]ractically all the liquor that is sold in New York
today is toxic," read one 1928 alert. Charles Norris publicized every death by
alcohol poisoning. Charles Norris assigned his toxicologist, Alexander Gettler,
to analyze confiscated whiskey for poisons. Norris also condemned the federal
program for its disproportionate effect on the country's poorest residents.
Wealthy people, Charles Norris pointed out, could afford the best whiskey
available. Most of those sickened and dying were those "who cannot afford
expensive protection and deal in low grade stuff."
The numbers were not
trivial. In 1926, in New York City, 1,200 were sickened by poisonous alcohol;
The following year, deaths climbed to 700. These numbers were
repeated in cities around the country as public-health officials nationwide
joined in the angry clamor.
Furious anti-Prohibition legislators pushed
for a halt in the use of lethal chemistry.
"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." - Sen. James Reed of Missouri
special denaturing program ended only once the 18th Amendment was repealed in
When Prohibition ended and good grain whiskey
reappeared, it was almost as if the craziness of Prohibition - and the
poisonous measures taken to enforce it had never quite happened.
adapted from Deborah Blum
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