During the 1920s, the gov't poisoned alcohol- They continued to use the deadly additives for seven years

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The history of the "Noble Experiment" of Prohibition begins in the 1920s. In 1926 the government began mandating that poisons be added to industrial alcohol to discourage people from drinking it. On Jan. 17, 1920, the United States went 'dry.' The National Prohibition Act banned all the country's wine, liquor, and beer. As a result, Americans became creative in finding ways to undermine the National Prohibition Act. [i]

Labor unions hold an anti-prohibition meeting in Chicago in the 1920s.Photo byPublic Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Bootleggers began stealing industrial alcohols (used for cleaners, cosmetics, fuels, pharmaceuticals, textiles, etc.) and reselling them as beverages. The outcome was that roughly 60 million gallons were stolen within a year by the mid-1920s. As a result, the Treasury Department ordered manufacturers to poison industrial alcohols with additives intentionally. This would create 'denatured alcohol' and discourage consumption. [ii]

The regulation stated,

Domestic alcohol shall have been mixed with methyl alcohol or other denaturing material or materials, or admixture of the same, suitable to the use for which the alcohol is withdrawn, but which destroys its character as a beverage and renders it unfit for liquid medicinal purposes. [iii]

Watch the video below for more on what it was like to be a Prohibition bootlegger.

Once bootlegging chemists figured out how to renature the alcohol, deadlier poisons such as methanol were added with increased regulations on denatured alcohol. As a result, many who drank bootlegged beverages were paralyzed or killed. [iv]

On Dec. 28, 1926, Dr. Charles Norris, Chief Medical Examiner of NYC, issued a public statement saying,

The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol. It knows what the bootleggers are doing with it and yet it continues its poisoning process, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison. [v]

Even amidst public outcry, the practice of adding poison continued until Prohibition was repealed seven years later. During this period, it is estimated that 100,000 American drinkers were crippled. Research indicates that nearly 10,000 people were killed by drinking denatured alcohol during Prohibition. [vi]

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[i] U.S. Congressional Serial Set, Prohibiting intoxicating beverages, with minority report (1919)

[ii] SOLVCHEM, Alcohols (2022)

[iii] U.S. Congressional Serial Set, Laws pertaining to denaturization of industrial alcohol (1926)

[iv] Dennis Rosen, MD, Poison's legacy (Nov. 9, 2010)

[v] Id.

[vi] Mark Thornton, Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure (Jul. 17, 1991)

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