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.

  • cnocspeireag

    I remember the days in the UK when opiate addicts were prescribed legal, but not escalating doses of pharmaceutical grade drugs. We had no serious drug problem.
    Egged on by the US, the Western world was foolish enough to stop this sensible practice.
    As so many US politicians know, it’s hard to become rich by being honest and easy and lucrative to make the world safe for organised crime.

  • mikespeir

    I’m having trouble working up much sympathy.

    • Yabo

      Yeah I’m not sure what the deal is exactly. So the shit was dangerous to you and you kept drinking it. So it was made more dangerous so your common sense would kick in and still you drank it. How is that the US’s fault exactly?

      • Elemenope

        The government intentionally killed people who tried merely to drink what they wanted to drink, and when that didn’t work, they tried harder to kill people.

        And you’re not seeing the problem?

        • mikespeir

          Here are the problems I’m seeing.

          1. It was illegal to drink. Maybe it was a bad law, but it was still the law. Notice, we’re talking alcohol here. We’re not talking about water being forbidden. If water had been forbidden, then there would have been moral justification for disobeying the law. But alcohol? Nah!

          2. It was illegal to steal. This alcohol was being stolen. The government wasn’t stealing it. The government wasn’t selling it as a consumable beverage.

          3. Industrial chemicals were what were being stolen. They were not manufactured to be sold as beverages. Those who stole them–again, not the government–and sold them as beverages safe to drink were first thieves and ultimately responsible for people’s deaths, colluding, of course, with the victims themselves.

          No, I’m not very sympathetic.

          • Brian M

            My God Americans are OBEDIENT Land of the free, indeed.

            I bet you would advocate automatic controls that cause cars to shut off mid block if you exceed the speed limit? I’m sure you are equally cold-blooded if some kid jaywalking (Oh nos, against the law) was killed jaywalking.

            • mikespeir

              That doesn’t follow from what I said. You would lose that bet. What I advocate is obeying the law unless there is a moral reason for disobeying it.

            • Olaf

              So killing people is normal because they broke the law?
              So maybe we should put some pipe bombs near traffic signs in case someone breaks the law and drives in the wrong way?

              How many children did die back then because they found this bottle and wanted to impress their friends?

          • Elemenope

            1. It was illegal to drink. Maybe it was a bad law, but it was still the law. Notice, we’re talking alcohol here. We’re not talking about water being forbidden. If water had been forbidden, then there would have been moral justification for disobeying the law. But alcohol? Nah!

            Why not? If a law is illegitimate for reasons of conscience or liberty, why must it be so serious as “water” to consider disobeying?

            2. It was illegal to steal. This alcohol was being stolen. The government wasn’t stealing it. The government wasn’t selling it as a consumable beverage.

            It was incentivized to steal because it could not be obtained any other way. The government through its policies (such as the Volstead Act) created the black market out of whole cloth. They *knew* people would steal it, and they knew people would drink it. Knowing that, they poisoned it knowing that it would kill people. That’s murder.

            3. Industrial chemicals were what were being stolen. They were not manufactured to be sold as beverages. Those who stole them–again, not the government–and sold them as beverages safe to drink were first thieves and ultimately responsible for people’s deaths, colluding, of course, with the victims themselves.

            Nobody is saying that the thieves don’t also share responsibility for the deaths.

            It comes down to this: would you feel it appropriate for a person convicted of stealing industrial alcohol to face the death penalty? Would you feel it appropriate for a person who was a “user” of industrial alcohol to face the death penalty? If not (and I seriously hope your answer is no), then it is absolutely illegitimate for the government, no matter how “justified” you believe the government’s acts to make alcohol illegal may be, to knowingly and intentionally cause people to die who engage in the proscribed activity. If you wouldn’t kill people with due process of law, you sure as hell shouldn’t without due process of law.

            • MScott

              Exactly. It’s just a back-door death penalty with no due process. The tolerance some folks seem to have for this is pretty shocking.

              Plus add in the likely hypocrisy that the difference between the people victimized by this and the politicians who implemented this is that politicians had the money and connections to get clean booze smuggled in from Canada or Europe. There’s definite shades of this being targeted at people probably perceived as undesirables, on top of everything else.

            • mikespeir

              Why not? If a law is illegitimate for reasons of conscience or liberty, why must it be so serious as “water” to consider disobeying?

              There’s nothing out there that somebody can’t claim is a violation of their conscience or liberty. Liberties aren’t absolute. To keep societies intact, we simply may not have absolute freedoms. Again, if there were some legitimate moral imperative (in the semantic, not the Kantian sense)–in other words, if it could be demonstrated that drinking alcohol was necessary for life and that not drinking it would be injurious to life–then a case could be made for defying this law.

              It was incentivized to steal because it could not be obtained any other way. The government through its policies (such as the Volstead Act) created the black market out of whole cloth. They *knew* people would steal it, and they knew people would drink it. Knowing that, they poisoned it knowing that it would kill people. That’s murder.

              Again, alcohol for drinking isn’t necessary. It didn’t need to be obtained in any way, legal or otherwise. The government knows any law it enacts will be violated by somebody. That doesn’t oblige it to make violating the law easier or more palatable. Now, I’ll agree that in retrospect making the alcohol more poisonous wasn’t a good idea. On the other hand, you need to demonstrate that the government’s intention in adding wood alcohol was indeed to kill people rather than just to discourage alcohol consumption if you want your charge of murder to be taken seriously.

              It comes down to this: would you feel it appropriate for a person convicted of stealing industrial alcohol to face the death penalty? Would you feel it appropriate for a person who was a “user” of industrial alcohol to face the death penalty? If not (and I seriously hope your answer is no), then it is absolutely illegitimate for the government, no matter how “justified” you believe the government’s acts to make alcohol illegal may be, to knowingly and intentionally cause people to die who engage in the proscribed activity. If you wouldn’t kill people with due process of law, you sure as hell shouldn’t without due process of law.

              I won’t get into the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the death penalty here. I’ll simply reiterate that you need to prove that the government intended for people to die rather that simply to discourage alcohol consumption. If you can, you have a good case for murder. There’s a big difference between a misguided policy and one contrived with evil intent.

              The bottom line? Would it have been a problem if people had obeyed the law? I say no. I also say they had no good reason to break the law. It’s unfortunate the way things worked out. In retrospect, the government probably should have taken measures that were less potentially injurious. But the ultimate blame rests on those who did what they knew they shouldn’t be doing.

            • Bill

              “To keep societies intact, we simply may not have absolute freedoms. Again, if there were some legitimate moral imperative (in the semantic, not the Kantian sense)–in other words, if it could be demonstrated that drinking alcohol was necessary for life and that not drinking it would be injurious to life–then a case could be made for defying this law.”

              Regardless of whether we can have absolute freedoms or not, the punishment for violation of any law should be appropriate. Death sems a bit harsh for theft and illegal consumption of alcohol.

            • Elemenope

              I will respond to your points shortly (have to go to work :| ). In the meantime, here is an article that may put my position into context, and why I don’t flinch from calling it murder, both intentional and cruel.

            • mikespeir

              The government was not punishing anyone. That wasn’t the object of denaturing alcohol. And, one more time (I hope), nobody made anybody drink the stuff. In fact, it was forbidden to drink the stuff. So, if they did drink the stuff, where does the lion’s share of the blame fall?

            • Olaf

              mikespeir, if you child comes with a bottle of alcohol because he is curious how it tastes something that is illegal. And he.she dies because of it?

              Or do you think that children do not smoke have no alcohol and do not do stuff that could put then in serious trouble behind your back?

              If the government puts poison in the alcohol and they see people die and keep on doing it, then it is mass murder.

              Banning alcohol is the stupidest thing ever!

            • mikespeir

              I won’t argue that point, Olaf, because I’m not sure I don’t agree with some of it. Maybe banning alcohol was stupid. Maybe taxing it is.

              However, I will point out that there’s some difference between what a child does in ignorance and what an adult does knowingly. (Or, at least, what the adult should either suspect or have the capacity to find out.) There are reasons we’ll hold adults culpable in crimes and not children.

            • Elemenope

              Death should never be the enforced consequence of an error of judgment. (Or an addiction.) Sure, if a person dies because of their own stupidity, they bear some responsibility. But it is absolutely, hideously unethical for another person (never mind government) to set it up so that a person who makes a bad judgment die for an error that would not normally kill.

          • Nelly

            it seems with that logic; Those who were addicted to alcohol before it was outlawed and didn’t quite right then or had a family history of addiction and didn’t cave to the drive are better off dead

            • Nelly

              I meant DID cave to the drive

              and I can’t spell quit either……sorry

            • mikespeir

              Or, they could give the stuff up. Not easy, I realize, but it’s been proven possible time and time again.

      • Meanie

        Well, how would you feel if you found out the US government was intentionally adding a chemical to all street drugs, including marijuana, and that hundreds or thousands of people were dying from these drugs? Bear in mind, it would not just be the hard core addicts dying. It could also be your 19 year old child who was experimenting for the first time.

        • Meanie

          I should have said instantly dying, to differentiate between the slow death that some street drugs invariably bring. And really, imagine it just as marijuana, which is considered by most medical professionals to be no worse (and perhaps even more benign) than alcohol.

        • Yabo

          Ok, I understand what you guys are saying now about the government adding the extra to it.

          The sympathy isn’t there, though.

        • wintermute

          You mean like when they sprayed tens of thousands of acres of Mexico with Paraquat, a fungicide that did little damage to the marijuana plants being grown, but killed lots of dope smokers, both within and without America?

        • mikespeir

          Not the same thing, is it? You’re talking about the government intentionally poisoning drugs with the explicit goal of making people sick. The government mandated denaturing (and does to this day, by the way) as a way to distinguish taxable alcohol from non-taxable alcohol. Of course, during Prohibition no alcohol was supposed to be consumed, but the object was the same. Alcohol was needed for industrial applications. (Unlike marijuana, etc.) But it had to be rendered unfit for drinking–not so that people would get sick when they drank it, but so they wouldn’t drink it at all. Seems to me that’s rather different sort of thing.

  • http://blog.nicholascloud.com ncloud

    Waiting for the cyanide in my Big Macs…

  • Brian M

    ncloud: if you eat a Big Mac, you deserve to die horribly.

    • Elemenope

      I like big macs. When I was a kid, I didn’t like the pickles, but now I like those too.

      Mmm…special sauce…

  • claidheamh mor

    Excellent article. Thank you.

    I have mixed feelings. Yes, it’s illegal to steal — I have no problem with someone putting spikes on top of their fence that would injure someone who climbed it — but I find myself sympathetic. It goes beyond enforcing the law. There’s something Puritanical and vicious to drinkers in it. And drinking was illegal because the government made a law against it: something Puritanical and vicious (and ludicrously unrealistic) in that. Much better to have laws against operating vehicles and working while intoxicated.

    • Brian M

      Now that I think about it, maybe the steering column should shoot flames into your face if you exceed the speed limit! After all, there are signs telling you not to speed, there is no real addcition or need to speed, and it is the law! :)

  • http://cranialhyperossification.blogspot.com GDad

    The guy’s name was Chuck Norris. Heh.

  • Ty

    Hey, the government should add arsenic to heroin. That’d teach ‘em.

    • Daniel Florien

      And if the gov wants to make other painkillers illegal, all they have to do is add toxins. Then people would stop using them, even if they don’t!

      • Atticus

        Know how to solve childhood obesity? Uranium in fattening foods. Radiation poisoning is a wonderful way to shed pounds.

        • Elemenope

          Nuka Cola….mmmmm….

          • Siberia

            Better yet, Nuka-Cola Quantum!
            Omnomnom!

            • Atticus

              The only soda that’s not only addictive, but capable of being turned into handy grenades.

            • Daniel Florien

              It’s refreshing and not refreshing at the same time!

            • Ty

              Oh, the nerd level of this site makes me feel warm and fuzzy, like a soft winter blanket.

              Which is nice, so I won’t get numbskull after I sleep.

            • Yabo

              Blue flamed grenades too!

              Prettah colors…

  • Robb

    We need to blame the American Government for everything that is the answer

    • Elemenope

      Um.

    • Ty

      So who gets the blame for the government putting poison into substances it knows people will ingest.

      Cuba?

      • Elemenope

        Damn commies!

        • Custador

          Corrupting our precious bodily fluids!

          • Elemenope

            Flouridation of water, Mandrake…

            • Atticus

              Get us out of the UN ect ect!

    • wintermute

      No, we just need to blame the US government for things the US government does.

      Is that so wrong?

  • VidLord

    Someone with the right connections could easily wipe out a large percentage of a cities drug addicts by adding lethal poison to the crack/heroin then selling it at a wide discount. This actually happened before…can’t remember where but I think 30-40 crack addicts died in one week.


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