America's Greatest Poisoner

by VorJack

My wife picked up Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook recently. I started reading over her shoulder a bit – you know, just to know what my coffee was going to taste like. It’s largely the story of Charles Norris, the first real coroner and toxicologist working for New York city in the twenties, so naturally it deals with Prohibition.

We’ve talked about Prohibition before, and I’d known that people did all sorts of crazy and deadly things to get drunk. What I wasn’t fully aware of was just how crazy and deadly the US Government made it.

Stealing a Drink

Pullquote: My opinion, based on actual experience of the medical examiner’s staff and myself, is that there is actually no Prohibition. All the people who drank before Prohibition are drinking now – provided they are still alive.
Charles Norris

Even during Prohibition, a huge amount of alcohol was being manufactured. However, most of this is classified as “industrial alcohol,” or ethanol used for commercial or industrial purposes. This is the stuff in cleaning products and beauty supplies as well as the stuff used in chemical factories. By law, this alcohol has to be “denatured,” which means some addition chemical has been added to make it taste ghastly or even make it mildly toxic.

There were two problems with this. The first was that organized crime – and even disorganized criminals – seemed to be able to steal this stuff in tremendous quantities at will. The other problem was that “denatured” alcohol could be “renatured,” particularly since criminal organizations could afford to hire top-notch chemists to do the job.

There’s a career path for you science majors that your guidance counselor never told you about: mafia chemist.

So while there were a number of different ways to denature alcohol, most were quickly defeated. It must have been like the 20s equivalent of cracking copy protection. But one very simple method remained difficult to remedy: the addition of methyl alcohol. Problem was, the stuff was deceptively poisonous.

Pick Your Poison

Pullquote: [A speakeasy patron was] “in the same category as the man who walks into a drug store, buys a bottle of carbolic acid with a label on it marked ‘poisonous,’ and drinks the contents
Wayne Wheeler, Anti-Saloon League of America

So the Government had a problem. Sixty million gallons of industrial alcohol was being stolen every year, and presumably most of it was being consumed. Their attempts to make it unpotable were all failing, except for one that made it toxic. So, the Government doubled down: they made the stuff even more toxic. They added other nasty chemicals, but mainly they upped the amount of methyl alcohol.

Methyl alcohol (AKA wood alcohol) is ethyl alcohol’s (AKA grain alcohol) meaner, uglier cousin. It’s much more toxic: a quarter cup of pure methyl alcohol is enough to kill most adults. They share some of the same effects when drunk, including the initial buzz and the later hang over. However, with wood alcohol the buzz is shorter and the hang over worse.

Maybe the worst aspect is the fact that methyl alcohol takes longer for the body to get rid of. Left on it’s own in the body, it naturally breaks down into two toxic chemicals: formaldehyde and formic acid. So a person could drink methyl alcohol, survive the immediate problems, yet still get very ill hours later as the resulting chemicals damaged the organs. For example, it’s the formic acid which attacks the sensitive tissues in the eyes, causing the characteristic blindness that wood alcohol is famous for.

Dying for a Drink

Pullquote: 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.
Charles Norris

And here’s the WTF moment – they did this, expecting it to stop people from drinking, even though people were already drinking methyl alcohol by itself. Mixed with water, it forms a cloudy drink that was dubbed “smoke.” A few people were dying every day in the poorer parts of New York from drinking “smoke.”

So what, if anything, this would accomplish isn’t clear to me. What it did do was kill lots of people. Blum reports that over 700 people in NYC died from poison booze the year after the new formulas were introduced.

Many politician fought against the poisoning, but more fought to continue it. It was, after all, the drinker’s choice to buy the illegal alcohol. And so it continued, until the end of prohibition. Deborah Blum calls the US Government the biggest mass-poisoner in the 1920s.

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