Mortal Moonshine: How the Government Poisoned Americans During Prohibition

It was December 26, 1922 when The New York Times reported five dead on Christmas Day from drinking poisoned rum. This was during prohibition, when alcohol was strictly prohibited but people were making moonshine in basements and warehouses. By 1926, 750 New Yorkers were dead and hundreds of thousands were permanently blind or paralyzed due to poisoned alcohol. The death toll continued until prohibition ended in 1933. It’s estimated that from beginning to end of prohibition (1919-1933) 10,000 or more Americans were killed–by a government poisoning program intended to deter people from making and drinking moonshine.

Before 1926, plenty of people died of alcohol poisoning without the help of the government, simply by drinking uncontrolled substances that were sometimes laced with dangerous metals and other impurities. Speakeasies, or illegal bars, were a booming business despite the relatively small number of casualties and the 18th Amendment, which banned the sale, manufacturing and transportation of alcohol. It’s been estimated that there were 33,000 speakeasies in New York City alone! 60 million gallons of industrial grade alcohol were stolen and turned into booze.

Essentially, bootleggers of alcohol were using industrial grade alcohol to make liquor, often giving the industrial grade stuff to chemists first who then redistilled it into something potable–drinking alcohol–which was not at all dangerous for consumption. Frustrated that they couldn’t contain all the illegal drinking (and stealing), the U.S government ordered the poisoning of all industrial grade alcohol in the country to ensure that no one could turn it into whiskey or gin.

Charles Norris, then chief examiner of New York City, called the prohibiton-era government poisoning program, “”our national experiment in extermination.”

After it became law to poison the industrial grade alcohol, manufacturers were ordered to add poisonous methyl alcohol into the mix. And not just a little bit, but 10% of the total product. That’s when people began to die in catastrophic numbers.

Bravely, it was Norris again who spoke out and against the government poisoning program at a press junket:

“The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol, yet it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison. Knowing this to be true, the United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible.”

Norris tried to warn the public that they were drinking government poisoned alcohol (this was happening in cities other than New York too), and he had his examiners test for the poisonous chemicals in the bodies of the deceased. He condemned the government for the murders but he was virtually powerless to stop what was happening.

Today, not many people know about this dark history in America. But it’s our responsibility to remember. And to share the story with others.