When Prohibition Became Deadly

On Christmas Eve 1926, a terrified man ran into Bellevue Hospital’s emergency room in New York City. He was obviously disturbed, flushed and sweating with fear. He didn’t give his name, but he insisted to the nurses on duty that Santa Claus was running after him, trying to kill him with a baseball bat.

The medical staff assumed the man was mentally ill, so they did not recognize the fact that his hallucinations were caused by alcohol. So, the man died before anything could be done to help him.

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One incident like this would have been strange enough, but over the course of the next three days over 80 people were treated for alcohol poisoning. At least 31 people more people died from it.

By this time, Prohibition (the ban on the sale and purchase of all alcoholic beverages in the United States) was in full swing. Medical personnel were used to treating people made sick from alcohol, as people during that era would sometimes make their own accidentally deadly liquor in bathtubs and hidden stills. To make matters worse, people usually binge drank this tainted alcohol in order to get rid of the evidence.

This stream of liquor-related deaths wasn’t caused by somebody’s bathtub gin, though. It was the result of U.S. government policy.

After Prohibition became law, federal authorities were able to put a significant dent in alcohol smuggling from outside the country. But what they couldn’t stop were organized crime syndicates redistilling industrial alcohol (found in paints and fuel) so that people could drink it.

The government of Calvin Coolidge decided to do something to eradicate this practice at the end of 1926. The federal government began requiring manufacturers of industrial alcohol to make their products even more dangerous, so that could not be redistilled and made drinkable.

Among the chemicals now added to industrial alcohol were kerosene, formaldehyde, acetone, and methyl alcohol. Unfortunately, those Christmas partygoers were not aware that their holiday booze was now nothing more than deadly poison. They assumed it had been made safe by redistilling to remove any toxic chemicals.

The New York City medical examiner, Charles Norris, spoke out against the government’s poisoning of citizens. He put out warnings stating that all the liquor in New York was toxic. He also made sure every death from alcohol poisoning was publicized.

Despite Norris’ efforts, people continued to die, especially poor people who could not afford real smuggled whiskey from Canada. In 1926 alone, 400 people died in New York City. In 1927, the death toll from toxic liquor reached 700. Even more were sickened or permanently disabled from the poison.

Even with the outcry from medical personnel and the general public, the government did not end its purposeful poisoning of alcohol until Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Once it was possible to drink liquor legally again, the government’s deadly actions were quickly forgotten. Sadly, roughly 10,000 Americans were killed by drinking the toxic alcohol during government’s seven-year crusade to make alcohol more dangerous.

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