Pubdate: Fri, 19 Feb 2010
Source: Slate (US Web)
Copyright: 2010 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive Co. LLC
Author: Deborah Blum
Note: Deborah Blum is a professor of science journalism at the 
University of Wisconsin and author of The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder 
and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.


The Little-Told Story of How the U.S. Government Poisoned Alcohol 
During Prohibition With Deadly Consequences.

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.

Before hospital staff realized how sick he was--the alcohol-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 season.

Doctors were accustomed to alcohol poisoning by then, the routine of 
life in the Prohibition era. 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. government.

Frustrated that people continued to consume so much alcohol even 
after it was banned, federal officials had decided to try a different 
kind of enforcement. 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 people.

Although mostly forgotten today, the "chemist's war of Prohibition" 
remains one of the strangest and most deadly decisions in American 
law-enforcement history. As one of its most outspoken opponents, 
Charles Norris, the chief medical examiner of New York City during 
the 1920s, liked to say, it was "our national experiment in 
extermination." Poisonous alcohol still kills--16 people died just 
this month after drinking lethal booze in Indonesia, where 
bootleggers make their own brews to avoid steep taxes--but that's due 
to unscrupulous businessmen rather than government order.

I learned of the federal poisoning program while researching my new 
book, The Poisoner's Handbook, which is set in jazz-age New York. My 
first reaction was that I must have gotten it wrong. "I never heard 
that the government poisoned people during Prohibition, did you?" I 
kept saying to friends, family members, colleagues.

I did, however, remember the U.S. government's controversial decision 
in the 1970s to spray 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. Although Paraquat wasn't really all that toxic, the 
outcry forced the government to drop the plan. Still, the incident 
created an unsurprising lack of trust in government motives, which 
reveals itself in the occasional rumors circulating today that 
federal agencies, such as the CIA, mix poison into the illegal drug supply.

During Prohibition, however, an official sense of higher purpose kept 
the poisoning program in place. As the Chicago Tribune editorialized 
in 1927: "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." Others, 
however, accused lawmakers opposed to the poisoning plan of being in 
cahoots with criminals and argued that bootleggers and their 
law-breaking alcoholic customers deserved no sympathy. "Must Uncle 
Sam guarantee safety first for souses?" asked Nebraska's Omaha Bee.

The saga began with ratification of the 18th Amendment, which banned 
the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcoholic beverages in 
the United States.* High-minded crusaders and anti-alcohol 
organizations had helped push the amendment through in 1919, playing 
on fears of moral decay in a country just emerging from war. The 
Volstead Act, spelling out the rules for enforcement, passed shortly 
later, and Prohibition itself went into effect on Jan. 1, 1920.

But people continued to drink--and in large quantities. Alcoholism 
rates soared during the 1920s; insurance companies charted the 
increase at more than 300 more percent. Speakeasies promptly opened 
for business. By the decade's end, some 30,000 existed in New York 
City alone. Street gangs grew into bootlegging empires built on 
smuggling, stealing, and manufacturing illegal alcohol. The country's 
defiant response to the new laws shocked those who sincerely (and 
naively) believed that the amendment would usher in a new era of 
upright behavior.

Rigorous enforcement had managed to slow the smuggling of alcohol 
from Canada and other countries. But crime syndicates responded by 
stealing massive quantities of industrial alcohol--used in paints and 
solvents, fuels and medical supplies--and redistilling it to make it potable.

Well, sort of. 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. 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 results were immediate, starting with that horrific holiday body 
count in the closing days of 1926. Public health officials responded 
with shock. "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, although 
it cannot be held legally responsible."

His 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. He 
publicized every death by alcohol poisoning. He assigned his 
toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, to analyze confiscated whiskey for 
poisons--that long list of toxic materials I cited came in part from 
studies done by the New York City medical examiner's office.

Norris also condemned the federal program for its disproportionate 
effect on the country's poorest residents. Wealthy people, he 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."

And the numbers were not trivial. In 1926, in New York City, 1,200 
were sickened by poisonous alcohol; 400 died. 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," proclaimed Sen. James Reed of Missouri.

Officially, the special denaturing program ended only once the 18th 
Amendment was repealed in December 1933. But the chemist's war itself 
faded away before then. Slowly, government officials quit talking 
about it. And 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.

* Correction, Feb. 22, 2010: The article originally and incorrectly 
said that the 18th Amendment banned the sale and consumption of 
alcohol. It banned the manufacture, sale, or transportation of 
alcohol, not consumption.
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