On Christmas Eve, 1926 a man stumbled into the emergency room of a New York City hospital telling the nurses that Santa Claus was chasing him with a baseball bat. There was no Santa Claus, the man was hallucinating, but he died before the hospital staff could help him. His death was ruled as the result of alcohol poisoning. By Christmas night that year, over 60 people died of alcohol poisoning in that same hospital and another 23 in the two days following Christmas and 89 were hospitalized. The patients were hallucinating, vomiting, and blinded. This was during the era of prohibition and doctors were used to seeing alcohol poisoning due to people drinking bootlegged whiskies and gin. The liquor was often distilled in containers that tainted the liquor with metals and other impurities. However, this was a large amount of deaths even for the prohibition.
When the 18th amendment was ratified, it banned the manufacturing, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages within the United States. Prohibition started in grassroot campaigns all over the country that were concerned with America’s moral decay after World War I. Prohibition failed to stop many Americans from drinking, they just had to change where they got their booze from. Gangs and mobs quickly grew into empires that were built on bootlegging and operating speakeasies.
Most of the illegal liquor was made using a small still to ferment the mash, which was made from corn sugar, fruit, beets, or potato peels which made around 200-proof alcohol. Glycerin and juniper oil was added to take some of the edge off the taste. The alcohol still needed to be watered down, but most bottles were too big to fit under the kitchen sink, so many used their bathtub and the alcohol began to be called “bathtub gin.” It still tasted awful, so speakeasy bartenders would mix it bitters, soda, juice, and or fruit to try to mask the taste. Grocery and hardware stores would sell whatever you needed to create your own home distillery from small gallon stills, to bottles, malt syrup, corn sugar, hops, yeast and bottle cappers. Americans were also brewing a lot of their own beer, about 700 million gallons a year. There were those that were also smuggling in liquor across the Canadian border and importing it from Great Britain and Mexico. These small operation stills could easily produce alcohol that was tainted with metal or other impurities that made people sick after drinking it.
However, the deaths and hospitalizations that occurred during Christmas 1926 seemed much more sinister than your run-of-the-mill bathtub gin alcohol poisoning. Charles Norris, the chief medical examiner of New York City, was suspicious that the United States government had something to do with these deaths and issued a public statement that read:
“The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol. It knows what the 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. 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.”
The next day, the federal government responded to Norris’s public statement by having the Treasury Department announce that denatured alcohol would become more poisonous. Denatured alcohol is industrial grain alcohol that has been made to be undrinkable by adding certain chemicals that would add a terrible smell, taste, or adverse side effects. These industrial alcohols were meant to be used in cleaning products, paints, cosmetics, gasoline, and scientific research purposes.
With bootleggers making liquor all across the country in their basements, attics, barns, wherever, the Prohibition bureau had a hard time enforcing prohibition. Between 1921 and 1925, the bureau seized around 700,000 stills across the country, but that didn’t even begin to put a dent in the illegal alcohol industry. It was estimated that alcoholism increased more than 300 percent during prohibition. With most of the alcohol being consumed in the United States coming from stolen industrial alcohol, the federal government required that manufacturers denature the alcohol or pay liquor taxes.
However, bootleggers were able to hire scientists that figured out how to neutralize the denaturing additives and make the alcohol safe to drink. Formula 39b was a denaturing additive in perfume and cosmetics that was not very dangerous and was easily renatured by the bootlegger’s chemists. However, heavy-duty industrial denaturing additives like methyl alcohol were harder to remove. However, the bootlegger’s chemists claimed to have found a process that caused the methyl alcohol to precipitate to the bottom of the alcohol’s container and then be filtered out. The resulting alcohol was still more poisonous that regular alcohol, but not enough to make you drop dead where you were standing.
Advocates for prohibition were becoming increasingly agitated that the bootleggers were able to get by their denaturing hurdles and evade law enforcement. So it was decided that alcohol should be made so poisonous that it wouldn’t be worth it for the bootlegger’s chemists to find a way to make it safe. Up to 10% of the total product could be a denaturing agent. And if alcohol was extremely poisonous, then even the worst alcoholic would have to give it up. Federal chemists began to add much higher doses of methyl alcohol to the industrial alcohol along with benzene, kerosene, and brucine (which is a plant alkaloid that is similar to strychnine). By the year 1926, federal chemists had developed ten new formulas to add to industrial grain alcohol that would poison drinkers bad enough to deter all drinking of alcohol, or they thought. Bootlegging chemists were able to renature some of the formulas, except for formulas one and five that contained methyl or wood alcohol.
If ingested, wood alcohol can cause nerve damage, blindness, and or death. Bootleggers still had their chemists try to remove the additive, but they were never able to get it all removed, especially in alcohols with higher concentrations. Alcohol with trace amounts of wood alcohol in it began to be known as “rotgut” liquor and began severely poisoning thousands of speakeasy customers.
Pathologists and chemists working in the New York City medical examiner’s office saw the government’s purposeful poisoning of its citizens as an act of betrayal. They met with the New York press to get articles printed on the lives taken by the poisoned alcohol in order to create outrage. Because the more elite and expensive speakeasies could afford higher quality alcohol from the black market, it was often the poor that were given the tainted alcohol to drink. The medical examiner’s office didn’t want these lives to be seen as less important and forgotten. New York newspapers ran articles with statistics that claimed 1,200 New York City citizens had been either severely sickened or blinded or both by drinking industrial alcohol and another 400 had died from drinking it. More people were dying from poisoned alcohol than those that died from alcohol poisoning before prohibition.
The mayor of New York City, Jimmy Walker, was livid and said “If I had a club I would hit on the head myself any man who sold poison liquor and I would not wait for a policeman.” He wanted a report that accurately portrayed how many deaths had been caused by poisoned alcohol. When the report came out in February, it was found that in one hospital, 716 people had been treated for hallucinations, blindness, and paralysis all due to poisoned alcohol. 61 of those patients died. The report predicted that 700 New York City residents would be dead from poisoned alcohol at the end of 1927.
The poisoned alcohol was analyzed and found to contain not only wood alcohol, but formaldehyde, chloroform, acetone, carbolic acid, among other additives. After reading the report, many were quick to denounce prohibition as a failure, killing more people than it saved. The New York World newspaper read “The Eighteenth is the only amendment which carries the death penalty.” The Evening World newspaper portrayed the federal government as a mass poisoner and said that no administration had been more successful in “undermining the health of its own people.”
U.S. Senator James Reed from Missouri said “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.”
As people kept dying from poisoned alcohol, the deaths did little to stop people from drinking. Many believed that the prohibition government was over-exaggerating the risks that came with imbibing and continued to risk it. However, it only took a quarter cup of wood alcohol to be lethal for an adult man. The initial drink of poisoned alcohol and non-poisoned alcohol seemed very similar at first. However, the poisoned alcohol would bring on a hangover within an hour or two of drinking. Then the drinker’s vision would start to blur due to formic acid salts causing the retina and optic nerve area to swell. The wood alcohol also causes the parietal cortex of the brain, which is responsible for processing vision, to swell as well. The drinker would then get a headache, start to feel dizzy, become very uncoordinated, and then the need to sleep which is when the coma and paralysis can hit.
Anti-prohibition legislators introduced a bill that would halt the increased poisoning of industrial alcohol, however it failed due to prohibition legislators arguing that no one would be dead if people only obeyed the law.
The report that had been published earlier in the year had been right, and around 700 New York Citizens died in 1927 from alcohol poisoning. However, the poisoning of alcohol just stopped being talked about in newspapers and among legislators in Washington D.C. Despite the vocal acknowledgement of the poisoning, support for prohibition began to decrease at the end of the 1920’s. When the Great Depression hit in 1932, liquor was one of the few industries that still provided jobs and money. That year Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for president and part of his platform was to repeal prohibition. FDR easily won the presidential election over President Herbert Hoover and in February of 1933, Congress adopted a resolution to propose the 21st amendment to the constitution which repealed the 18th. The 21st amendment was ratified in December of 1933 after Utah provided the 36th final needed vote for ratification. Some states continued to enforce their own prohibitions, but all prohibitions had been repealed by 1966.
Some reports estimate that at least 10,000 people were killed from drinking poisoned alcohol with some reports estimating around 50,000 died. I couldn’t find estimates on how many became permanently blind or handicapped after drinking the tainted alcohol.
“The Chemist’s War” by Deborah Blum
“The US Government Once Poisoned Alcohol To Get People To Stop Drinking” by German Lopez
“The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York