As the 'Roaring '20s' roared on, alcoholism dramatically increased. Prohibition was instituted with ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution on January 16, 1919, which prohibited the "...manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States..." Congress passed the 'Volstead Act' on October 28, 1919, to enforce the law, but most large cities were uninterested in enforcing the legislation, leaving an understaffed federal service to go after bootleggers.
Although alcohol consumption did decline as a whole, there was a rise in alcohol consumption in many cities along with significant increases in organized crime related to its production and distribution. Speakeasies were everywhere.
Frustrated that people continued to consume so much alcohol even after it was banned, federal officials had decided to try a different kind of enforcement...by poisoning the watering hole. They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States.
Most liquor in the 1920s was made from industrial alcohol, used in paints, solvents, and fuel. Bootleggers stole about 60 million gallons a year, redistilling the swill to make it drinkable. To drive rumrunners away, the Treasury Department started poisoning industrial hooch with methyl alcohol. But bootleggers kept stealing it, and people started getting sick.
'chemist's war of Prohibition' remains one of the strangest and most deadly decisions in American law-enforcement history.
During Prohibition, the official sense of higher purpose kept the poisoning program in place. As the Chicago Tribune editorialized in 1927: "Normally, no American government would engage in such business. It is only in the curious fanaticism of Prohibition that any means, however barbarous, are considered justified." Others, however, accused lawmakers opposed to the poisoning plan of being in cahoots with criminals and argued that bootleggers and their law-breaking alcoholic customers deserved no sympathy.
In 1926, in New York City, 1,200 were sickened by poisonous alcohol; 400 died. The following year, deaths climbed to 700. These numbers were repeated in cities around the country as public-health officials nationwide joined in the angry clamor. Furious anti-Prohibition legislators pushed for a halt in the use of lethal chemistry.
Officially, the special denaturing program ended only once the 18th Amendment was repealed in December 1933. But the chemist's war itself faded away before then. Slowly, government officials quit talking about it. And when Prohibition ended and good grain whiskey reappeared, it was almost as if the poisonous measures taken to enforce it had never quite happened. The federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people.
NOTE: May I suggest you read The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York...very interesting concoction of public and private use of poisons. Ken Burns: Prohibition was an excellent documentary. Go to the website and search for your local PBS station's next presentation...Lon
The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition
Ken Burns: Prohibition [Blu-ray]
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