Instant Death in the Twenties

imagesWhat brought near instant death in the Roaring Twenties? Methyl alcohol, better known as wood alcohol. Not a new invention, it had been used back in the days of ancient Egypt to embalm the deceased–the wealthy deceased, that is. Anyone can make it with wood and a heat source, and the result is clear as water. But with the advent of Prohibition and the difficulty in getting hold of decent spirits, wood alcohol began to make its way into the lower-class speakeasies. 

images-1According to Deborah Blum in Poisoner’s Handbook, two tablespoons could kill a child, a quarter cup could kill a man, or at the very least, blind him. So why, or why, would anyone drink this? Either because they didn’t know it was wood alcohol (it took a couple of hours to act) or because they were so drunk already, they didn’t care. The gallows humor of the day was that, after a night in a New York speakeasy, you called your friends to see if they were still alive. 

Wood alcohol became more of a problem later in the Twenties, especially in New York, the “wettest” city in America. And what was the second wettest city? My guess would have been Detroit or maybe Chicago. Nope. It’s that bastion of political hypocrisy, Washington D.C. 

I’m half-way through writing the 4th in the Roaring Twenties series–no title yet, although I’m keeping track of ideas–and have just killed off a minor character with wood alcohol. In this case, it’s murder. She was forced to drink it. In real life, while murder and suicide were not unusual, accidental death by wood alcohol was far more likely. 

Published in: on February 15, 2014 at 8:17 am  Comments (3)  
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  2. Very interesting about Washington! In “The Bobbed haired Bandit” Stephen Duncombe and Andrew Mattson reprint the NY Daily news “Hands of Death” for 1923. Topping the meter, 884 Automobile deaths, Moonshine second at 271, and guns 270.

    Incidentally, I thought of “The Impersonator” when I was reading Fred Astaire’s “Steps in Time” this week and he mentioned playing the opposite shift to Jack Benney in Chicago in 1917. I’m looking forward to Jessie’s next story! 🙂

    • Thanks for the tip–I’ll have to get that book, Bobbed Haired Bandit. And that’s a coincidence, you mentioned Fred Astaire. In #3 (due out in Sept. 2015) I have a small part for Fred and Adele Astaire. They played in vaudeville in the teens, as you have noted, but by 1925 when my story takes place, were quite successful on stage in New York and London.

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