Who knew? I certainly didn’t realize that it was official government policy during the Roaring Twenties to poison alcohol so as to deter illegal drinking.
Of course I knew that thousands of people died or were blinded by poisoned alcohol–that’s fairly common knowledge. It was, I thought, nearly all due to illegally made “bathtub gin” and liquor made in makeshift stills, where people would incorporate all kinds of poisonous ingredients to give their brew extra kick. Or sometimes they didn’t realize how tainted their product was. (Examples included kerosene, carbolic acid, mercury, and carbolic acid; sometimes the alcohol was actually industrial alcohol.) This is all true, but it was only a part of the story.
According to Deborah Blum, “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. They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States, products regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits. The idea was to scare people into giving up illicit drinking. Instead, by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people.”
Shocked? So was I.
I’ll be incorporating some of this in my third novel in the Roaring Twenties series. My bootlegger character schemes to sidestep government prohibition by selling legal alcohol for medicinal purposes and then abusing the loophole. I’ll work in something about this purposeful poisoning.
For more of Blum’s findings, see http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2010/02/the_chemists_war.single.html
Another good link is: http://blogs.plos.org/speakeasyscience/2010/12/31/at-the-prohibition-bar/