dark but little-known chapter of U.S. history, the federal government ordered
the poisoning of alcohol supplies to deter and punish those who sought to
flout Prohibition-era bans.
in 1906, the United States began requiring manufacturers of industrial ethanol
to put the chemical through a process to distinguish it from the identical
substance found in alcoholic beverages. After the manufacture, sale and
transportation of alcohol was banned by the 18th Amendment and the government
cracked down on smuggling operations, bootleggers turned to chemistry to
keep their customers supplied. A simple process was used to extract toxic
chemicals from the industrial alcohol used in paints, solvents, fuels and
medicine, and this relatively clean alcohol was then used to make beverages.
By the mid-1920s, an estimated 60 million gallons of industrial alcohol
were being stolen per year.
the administration of President Calvin Coolidge ordered industry to add
higher levels of more difficult-to-remove poisons to their alcohol, including
acetone, benzene, cadmium, camphor, carbolic acid, chloroform, ether, formaldehyde,
gasoline, iodine, kerosene, methyl alcohol, mercury salts, nicotine, quinine
and zinc. Shortly after the institution of this campaign, 31 people were
poisoned to death over the course of the Christmas holiday in New York City
alone. Historians estimate that a total of 10,000 people were killed by
the program before Prohibition ended in 1933.
program was no secret, as the government hoped that knowledge of it would
deter people from drinking -- although consumption of alcohol was not itself
government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol,"
said New York City medical examiner Charles Norris. "[Y]et 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."
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