The US Government Poisoned Alcohol During Prohibition

“If you persevere in your rancor, you do nothing but keep feeding yourself on poison.” —Fausto Cercignani

In A Nutshell

In an attempt to stem the tide of illegal alcohol that was being manufactured, sold, and consumed during the middle of the 1920s, the United States’ federal government ordered some pretty drastic steps to be taken. Manufacturers of the various types of industrial alcohol that were often used to distill into drinks were ordered to add deadly chemicals—including mercury, zinc, and gasoline—to their alcohol in the hopes that a good poisoning would discourage people from drinking. It didn’t, and it’s estimated that the move killed up to 10,000 people and made countless others extremely ill.

The Whole Bushel

Prohibition was one of the greatest failed experiments in United States history. Attempts at cleaning up the streets and making life better, cleaner, and safer in every house in America by removing the temptations of alcohol was met with nothing less than outright rebellion. Bootleggers were making a fortune in distilling and selling alcohol, speakeasies were the places to be, and organized crime was making sure that the people were getting what they wanted.

Lawmakers had their hands full cracking down on those that broke the rules during Prohibition, and federal officials were realizing that their methods absolutely weren’t working. On the opposite side of the fence from the men and women that were heading off down back alleys and through secret doors to partake at their local speakeasy every night were the members of the Temperance movement, and their views on the matter of alcohol were pretty drastic.

According to one suggestion made by the movement, the government should oversee the poisoning of alcoholic beverages sold illegally. It might mean countless deaths, they said, but it was better than the way things were going.

And that’s what the government decided to do.

On Christmas Eve 1926, more than 60 people were admitted to New York City’s Bellevue Hospital alone, suffering from some pretty intense hallucinations. Over the next few days, 23 people were dead—and that was just in the city.

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Alcohol poisoning wasn’t anything particularly new, especially since those people that wanted alcohol were making whatever they could out of whatever they could get. Law enforcement and federal officials knew that bootlegging empires were being built on buying industrial alcohol and re-distilling it into something that was at least marginally palatable. By the middle of the 1920s, Prohibition was in full swing, there were 30,000 speakeasies operating in New York City alone, and there were about 60 million gallons of industrial-grade alcohol that had been turning up missing—run through distillers and ending up on the rocks.

On orders from the federal government, manufacturers began adding all kinds of chemicals to their industrial alcohol products. From kerosene and gasoline to chloroform, zinc, mercury, and methyl alcohol, the industrial alcohols manufactured were now anywhere up to 10 percent deadly poisons.

It’s not known how many people died from the addition of these absolutely deadly, poisonous chemicals, but some put estimates in the range of 10,000. In 1926 in New York City alone, there were around 400 deaths attributed to the government’s poisoning, with another 1,200 people taken gravely ill. There were deaths across the country, reported in Washington, D.C., New Jersey, and Toledo. In some places, it was originally thought that there was some sort of serial killer prowling the speakeasies and poisoning the drinks . . . but he was never caught.

Alcohol distilled from whatever people could get their hands on—from poison ivy to wood chips to sawdust—was deadly enough, but the deaths skyrocketed with assistance from the government. Prohibition ended in 1933, but the government’s practice of poisoning alcohol had ended before that.

Show Me The Proof

Slate: The Chemist’s War
Public Library of Science: At the Prohibition Bar
Alcohol Problems and Solutions: Prohibition: The Noble Experiment

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