By Christopher McCollum
It is apparently old news that the United States government poisoned alcohol during prohibition in a bid to stop drinking altogether, but I had not heard of it until reading an article on Slate a couple days ago.
During the 1920′s, at the height of prohibition and the underground world of Speakeasies, some 60 million gallons of industrial alcohol were being stolen each year and re-distilled back into drinkable alcohol. The government had a problem with this, and president Coolidge’s administration decided that drastic measures must be taken to preserve the sanctity of American life. Obviously, the logical decision was to poison industrial alcohol, so that whenever anyone imbibed in it, they would get incredibly sick and possibly die. Some 10,000 people died from these efforts, and possibly many more. Newspapers in Chicago decried the act, calling it barbarous, while the Omaha Bee in Nebraska defended it.
Despite critics vehemently arguing against this tactic, from politicians to medical experts, the government persisted in tainting alcohol supplies until the end of prohibition. Socially speaking, it seemed that the upper class imbibers were not being affected nearly as much by the poison–which included kerosene, gasoline, camphor, formaldehyde, methyl alcohol, carbolic acid and who knows how many others–because they could afford more expensive, smuggled liquor. The primary victim of this insane plot were the poor and lower middle class who were the famous consumers of bathtub gin.
New York City medical examiners knew something was wrong during the Christmas season of 1926, when some 60 violently ill people were admitted to hospitals, of which 23 died. The explanation was chalked up not to alcohol poisoning as they were very accustomed to seeing, but to just plain poisoning. The source was a mystery until word began getting out that it was actually a government mandated operation to solve the drinking problem; During the years of prohibition it is estimated that alcoholism rose by 300%.
The obvious moral question (with an obvious answer, I feel), focuses around the government’s knowledge that this drinking was going on: Knowing that people are using industrial alcohol to consume, is it okay to poison that supply and essentially engage in mass murder in order to stop it?
While it may have been illegal to produce and transport alcohol, it was not illegal to consume it, as many people erroneously believe. Even if it was illegal to consume, does that justify a death sentence?
This was an egregious violation of civil rights and human rights, and I can only hope that sentiments such as these have ceased to exist in this advanced society that we live in.
Here’s hoping, and my drink tonight will be in honor of those victims of an unwarranted, deadly prohibition crackdown.