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When the Government Deliberately Poisoned Its Citizens

As the 1928 Presidential Election played out, the United States was turbulently embroiled in Prohibition. Though support for the act was rapidly waning, Republican presidential nominee Herbert Hoover still endorsed it as an "experiment noble in purpose."

Ironically, at that same time, chemists employed by the federal government were conducting experiments of a more disquieting nature. Enforcement of Prohibition was not going well at all. Citizens across the nation openly flouted the law, notorious crime syndicates ran rampant, and alcoholism rates were soaring. The Federal Government was aware that much of the available spirits originated from stolen industrial alcohol -- used, for example, in household cleaners, perfume, and cosmetics. Sixty million gallons were stolen each year to supply the nation's drinkers! So by 1926, government chemists concocted ten poisonous "denaturing formulas" to be added to the alcohols. These contained ominous chemicals like gasoline, benzene, cadmium, nicotine, ether, formaldehyde, chloroform, and acetone. Prohibition advocates and officials believed that if they made the alcohol undrinkable, imbibers would be forced to abandon their immoral habits. The government defended this effort as "law enforcement." In truth, it was mass poisoning.

640px-Orange_County_Sheriff's_deputies_dumping_illegal_booze,_Santa_Ana,_3-31-1932.jpgIn 1927, the pioneering forensic scientist Alexander Gettler, a toxicologist for the City of New York, reported that in the previous year 1,200 New Yorkers had been sickened or blinded by the government's poisoned alcohol, and another 400 had died. Even before these perturbing statistics came to light, Gettler's boss, the now legendary medical examiner Charles Norris, was already incensed with the Federal Government's actions:

"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


Most of the denaturing formulas' deadly power came not from the myriad additives, but from the simple supplementation of more alcohol. That's because the type utilized here was methanol, sharply dissimilar to the more benign ethanol that we're accustomed to today. If ingested, as little as 10 mL of methanol can result in blindness through the destruction of the optic nerve. About 100 mL is lethal.

The perniciousness of methanol arises from how it's broken down by the body. While the liver's enzymes quickly convert ethanol into acetaldehyde and then acetyl -- the latter of which can be used by the body for energy -- methanol, when broken down, turns into formaldehyde and formic acid, two substances quite unkind to living human tissue. Formic acid actually exists naturally in bee and ant venom.

Gettler and Norris weren't the only people infuriated with Washington's abhorrent poisoning policy. Newspapers across the nation decried the government as a mass poisoner and "an accessory to murder." The collective rage was fueled by a glaring fact: the policy primarily affected the poor. While common citizens literally drank themselves to death on cheap, toxic liquors in backroom speakeasies, the wealthy enjoyed quality cocktails and spirits derived from ethanol, served at colorful parties and luxurious gatherings. 

Herbert Hoover, who, as you might recall, labeled prohibition as a "noble experiment," was in the latter classification. In fact, when serving as the Secretary of Commerce, he would regularly stop by the Belgian Embassy -- technically on foreign soil and thus exempt from Prohibition -- and enjoy some of their fine spirits. They were imported, naturally.

Author's Note:
This piece was inspired and primarily sourced from Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook, which is one of the finest works of historical journalism and nonfiction storytelling that I have read.
Check it out!

(Image: Dumping Alcohol from Orange County Archives via Wikimedia Commons)