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Poisoning People During Prohibition: A Disturbing Parable

This may well be the most disturbing story about our Nation’s Prohibition ever told, and one that’s certainly been kept fairly secret. While doing research on her book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, author Deborah Blum discovered that anti-alcohol factions of the U.S. government became so fanatical that they poisoned illegal alcohol either directly or indirectly, possibly killing, or more correctly murdering, as many as 10,000 U.S. citizens! Let that sink in. The whole sordid tale can be found on Slate, entitled The Chemist’s War: The little-told story of how the U.S. government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition with deadly consequences. I’d encourage you to read the entire article, but here are the nuts and bolts.

The government added chemical substances to alcohol used for other purposes, like paint thinner, and unscrupulous bootlegger’s were stealing industrial alcohol and then converting it to something that could be consumed. So the government, knowing full well that it would end up being drunk by people, started spiking it with chemicals that were very, very harmful, ones that the bootlegger’s chemists couldn’t deal with and the result was thousands of deaths. Why would our government do that? Here, Blum cites the frustration of lawmakers to stop people drinking along with prohibitionists who were surprised by our “country’s defiant response to the new laws [which] shocked those who sincerely (and naively) believed that the amendment would usher in a new era of upright behavior.”

During Prohibition, however, an official sense of higher purpose kept the poisoning program in place. As the Chicago Tribune editorialized 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.” Others, however, accused lawmakers opposed to the poisoning plan of being in cahoots with criminals and argued that bootleggers and their law-breaking alcoholic customers deserved no sympathy. “Must Uncle Sam guarantee safety first for souses?” asked Nebraska’s Omaha Bee.

Only a handful of people in fact spoke out against this practice. One was Charles Norris, chief medical examiner for New York City, who referred to the program as “our national experiment in extermination.”

“The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol,” New York City medical examiner Charles Norris said at a hastily organized press conference. “[Y]et 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.”

Frankly, I don’t see why they couldn’t be held legally responsible since they were in effect knowingly poisoning people, especially after the first deaths occurred. That they didn’t stop it then says quite a lot about how determined they were. It often appears to me that modern day prohibitionists take an ends-justify-the-means approach to further their agenda and will employ just about any tactic, despite its consequences or ethical disconnect. It would appear that’s nothing new after all. The fact that more people don’t know about this dark chapter of our history of prohibition makes it easier for today’s anti-alcohol supporters to continue their quest for another national alcohol ban. Let’s hope we can all learn from this mistake of history and aren’t doomed to repeat it.

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