The government does a lot to try to keep us safe. They test our medications, keep stores from selling tainted food, and require that everyone know coffee might actually be hot. But sometimes this well-meaning safety first attitude can go way too far and the prohibition of the 1920’s most would agree was one of those times. However not many know just how far the American government went just to keep illegal booze from touching the public’s lips.
During prohibition it was common for gangs to hire people who claimed to know what they were doing to take industrial alcohols used for cleaning, as a solvent, or even as an antifreeze into something that was supposed to be safe to drink. The government had manufactures add bad flavors and a small amount of methanol to their products since the turn of the century keeping people way from non-taxed booze. The process of doing this is called denaturing and to some degree it happens still today. The hope being that the awful taste and headaches in the morning would keep away any brave boozehounds. This was all good until the mentioned “chemists” got to work. Suddenly America was awash with converted alcohol and the government decided they had to stop it. Their solution was to just add more methanol and sometimes kerosene and even chemicals used in embalming. These new industrial alcohols were practically impossible to ever make safe.
While the intent was to make people dubious about drinking any alcohol, the actual effect was that no one could tell what was usually safe moonshine and what was made from cheaper tainted industrial stuff. The results were tragically fatal. In just the Christmas Eve of 1926 sixty people were severely poisoned and 31 were killed by methanol in just New York City alone. By 1928 an alert was made by the New York health department that practically all the alcohol in New York City was toxic. The final results of poisoning are unknown but some estimate as many as 10,000 were killed and many more were blinded or paralyzed by the effects of methanol toxicity.
The scary thing was this was all done with the public’s knowledge. A few officials and politicians tried to stop the madness. Senator James Reed gave a scathing condemnation stating “Only one possessing the instincts of a wild beast would desire to kill or make blind the man who takes a drink of liquor, even if he purchased it from one violating the Prohibition statutes”. The Chicago Tribune made an appeal to reason when they wrote in 1927 “Normally, no American government would engage in such business. … It is only in the curious fanaticism of Prohibition that any means, however barbarous, are considered justified.” And senator Edward Edwards called it “legalized murder”. Unfortunately it all fell on death ears, many thought that it was frankly a way of getting rid of society’s degenerates. The Anti Saloon League even argued that more would have died had alcohol been legal. Unfortunately for many the practice of denaturing alcohol with lethal amounts of methanol was not stopped till prohibition was over in 1933.
To make matters worse no one was ever even brought up on charges. It’s difficult to fathom that a government would knowingly risk the deaths of thousands of its own people simply to create what they felt was a more moral society. The tragic deaths of these people is a testament that even when government has our best interest at heart poor judgment and fanaticism can be a dangerous mix.