Thursday, May 17, 2018

Prohibition Federal Chemists Used Poison to Prevent Consumption of Industrial Alcohol

     Here is an open case where if you can’t stop people from drinking alcohol by law, just poison
them.  Prohibition has many stories where the government of the time did some really despicable things to enforce prohibition.

     On January 15, 1922, The New York Times reported that 35-year-old Robert Doyle, a veteran of World War One, was found blinded and afraid in his rooming house on West 23rd Street.  A doctor conveyed Doyle to the hospital, where he died six hours later. The paper also reported the death of another local man-he had brought alcohol home from his workplace to add to his coffee. The problem was that America was in Prohibition, and he had worked at a furniture-polishing company. Both men had drunk a fatal dose of wood, or methyl, alcohol.        These deaths were part of an epidemic of alcohol poisonings that swept the country after the United States made the manufacture and sale of alcohol illegal in 1919.  

     An illicit alcohol industry boomed, and despite increased border security, alcohol flowed in from Mexico and Canada. But some bootleggers, eager to cash in on black market prices, wanted to sell alcohol made closer to home. The government could ban the brewing of beer, but not the production of industrial alcohol, which was used to make everything from perfume to paint.  Bootleggers redistilled industrial alcohol to make it drinkable, the federal government responded by requiring manufacturers to add in increasing amounts of poison.     Doyle was an early casualty of the resulting showdown between federal chemists, who tried to make the country's industrial alcohol deadly to drink, and speakeasies' and bootleggers' chemists, who tried to remove the poisons. The Times article describing Doyle's death noted that an unnamed but "prominent" local club had employed a chemist to double-check that patrons' booze was safe to drink. The problem, reported the anonymous writer, was that much of the liquor flowing into speakeasies hadn't been brewed abroad, but was in fact "denatured" industrial alcohol. 

     There is a lot more to what was going on in those day.  You can read more at