How the United States government killed 10,000 Americans during Prohibition

How the United States government killed 10,000 Americans during Prohibition

In the 1920s, hospital staff had quickly become accustomed to drunkards being carried in paralysed, blinded or on their way to death. The Prohibition saw endless glasses of so-called “whisky” or “gin” bring many an American to their knees - and not in a drunken, fun-loving sort of manner. But by the middle of the decade, things were different. This time, it wasn’t the dodgy smuggled liquor that was poisoning Americans. It was the United States government.

The 18th Amendment of the United States Constitution came into effect on Saturday 17 January 1920. One minute after midnight on this day America became an arid desert as far as booze was concerned. After months of campaigning, activists had been granted their wish and the production, transport and sale of alcohol was forbidden by law. However, this was never likely to be the case in reality. The United States government were fooling themselves if they really thought that their people would listen to them on this one.

The nation’s gangsters rubbed their hands together in glee as they imagined the millions they would soon be making. They were right. If you were American, you were gagging for a drink, no matter what your social standing or employment and you weren’t opposed to having a hand in dodgy dealings to get it.

Within no time at all, illegal drinking dens had flourished and smugglers were using everything from "false floorboards in automobiles, second gas tanks, hidden compartments, even false-bottomed shopping baskets and suitcases, not to mention camouflaged flasks and hot water bottles” to sneak alcohol into the city. The demand for alcohol was so elevated that when Michigan state police raided one Detroit bar, they even stumbled upon the local congressman, the local sheriff and the city's mayor all enjoying a drink together.

But were the United States government happy that everyone - even their elected officers who they paid to maintain the law- was defying their law? Needless to say, no. Rather than be beaten at their own game, the government decided that they would make the public pay the price for their sins and poison the alcohol out there.

It wasn't the first time that President Coolidge’s government decided to use chemistry as a tool of implementation; already the the 60 million gallons of industrial alcohol that was stolen and put out was contaminated with bitter-tasting compounds and poisonous methyl alcohol in order to make the drink so disgusting that it was undrinkable.

But, always one step ahead, bootleggers had been willing to pay their chemists a much higher price in order to return them to a drinkable state, enabling the flurry of illegal consumption. So this time, rather than making the alcohol purely undrinkable, to teach the public a lesson the government ordered manufacturers to make it deadly.

In what one senator called “legalized murder”, the federal officials ordered that manufacturers began to double how poisonous the alcohol being sent out was. By the mid-1920s, the typical new formula was ”4 parts methanol (wood alcohol), 2.25 parts pyridine bases, 0.5 parts benzene to 100 parts ethyl alcohol”. A lethal concoction.

It didn’t take long for the effects to show. In 1926, 1,200 partygoers were poisoned by the government’s alcohol; 400 died. The following year, deaths climbed to 700, including 41 people who died on New Year’s Day in New York's Bellevue Hospital after a rowdy farewell to 1926.

As more and more people staggered into hospitals suffering from lethal poisoning, it became clear that by spiking drinks, the government weren’t stopping the American people from drinking. Instead, they were just killing them. Horrifyingly, by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program is estimated to have killed at least 10,000 people.

So did the United States government own up to what they had chosen to do to their own people? Absolutely. They had no problem whatsoever with admitting the ins and outs of their program and instead offered chilling responses to complaints.

"The Government is under no obligation to furnish the people with alcohol that is drinkable when the Constitution prohibits it," said attorney and Prohibition advocate Wayne B. Wheeler in 1926. "The person who drinks this industrial alcohol is a deliberate suicide... To root out a bad habit costs many lives and long years of effort…"

Yet, despite their actions technically being completely legal, not everyone was accepting of the government’s vicious attempts to turn off the tap on drinking. Health officials were downright outraged.

"The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol," New York City medical examiner Charles Norris said at a press conference. "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.”

Norris’ department quickly issued warnings to citizens, detailing the dangers in the alcohol circulating around the city that read: "Practically all the liquor that is sold in New York today is toxic.” The public health official publicized every single death by alcohol poisoning, as well as assigning his toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, to analyse confiscated whiskey for poisons.

Furthermore, he was outraged at the government for their program’s disproportionate effect on American citizens living in poverty, pointing out that while the rich could afford the best - and most well-protected - whiskey available, the poor were dying at a rapid rate.

Regardless, the United States government remained stoic in their response to the outrage over the federal poisoning program. The public were likely to be well aware of the damage that guzzling a gin or whiskey could do, so they were killing themselves as far as they were concerned.

Later that year, Seymour M. Lowman, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in charge of Prohibition, even informed American citizens that the people on the fringes of society who drank were "dying off fast from poison 'hooch'" and that if the result was a sober America, "a good job will have been done.”

Prohibition ended on December 5 1933 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an amendment to the Volstead Act permitting the sale and consumption of beer with no more than 3.2 per cent alcohol content. The Great Depression was in full swing and it was decided that the abolishment of alcohol was doing more harm than good, not to mention as President himself put it, "I think we could all do with a beer.”

Unsurprisingly, the government were never punished for poisoning 10,000 Americans. Although, should they have been made to pay, just like they made the American people pay simply for fancying a drink?

At the end of the day, it comes down to whether you pin the blame on the half-witted Americans who kept on drinking when they knew alcohol was being poisoned, or on the depraved United States government that gleefully decided to teach its people a lesson they'd never forget. A tough choice indeed.