The little-told story of how the U.S. government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition with deadly consequences
Aiming to discourage illegal drinking during Prohibition, the U.S. government spiked alcohol with deadly poisons that may have killed 10,000 or more Americans. Accidental alcohol poisoning from so-called bathtub gin was relatively common during Prohibition, but the problem was exacerbated by the government’s policy of adding poison to industrial alcohol to prevent its diversion. The “chemist’s war of Prohibition” — called a “national experiment in extermination” by New York City’s chief medical officer at the time, Charles Norris — began after law enforcement succeeded in slowing illegal alcohol shipments from abroad and criminal mobs began seeking alcohol from industrial sources to redistill. Since 1906, the government had mandated that industrial alcohol be denatured — chemicals were added to render it (supposedly) undrinkable. When chemists employed by bootleggers were able to get around this, however, the government decided to add more deadly poisons to the mix, including kerosene, gasoline, benzene, and acetone. The amount of toxic methyl alcohol also was increased to 10 percent. As drinkers started dying, public outcry over the program mounted. Health agencies issued warnings, and lawmakers pushed to end the program. “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,” said Sen. James Reed of Missouri. The policy quietly ended before Prohibition did in 1933.