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.
In 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 poisoningMost 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.
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