01 Apr A Prohibition Conspiracy Theory That Might Actually be True?
If you’re the government tasked with enforcing Prohibition but you can’t find a rational way to make people stop drinking illegal liquor, what do you do? Turn a blind eye to the problem? Take a payout from the Chicago gangster scene and at least profit off your ineptitude? How about poison the lawbreakers?
It’s 1920-something and banning alcohol has only made the masses want it more. There’s been no decline in the rise of flapper-popularity, jazz is still roaring in the speakeasies in Chicago, and nothing about the city has gotten more moral since Prohibition became the law of the land. The government also no longer issues liquor licenses or regulates the contents of spirits. Industrial alcohol, formerly only used in paint thinners, perfume, and ink is being stolen straight from the manufacturer to be used in making cheap liquor for thirsty souls. Government’s response, as well-reasoned and tempered as any government response, is to give tax breaks to manufacturers of industrial alcohol for adding what essentially amounts to poison to the product.
During one week around Christmas in 1926, almost one hundred people died (or were killed by the Calvin Coolidge administration) from drinking industrial alcohol. Routine alcohol poisoning had simply become a side-effect of the Prohibition era drinking culture. No one knew with certainty what was in the cocktail and there are some reports that bourbon was nothing more than industrial alcohol “flavored” with dead rats and rotten meat. (Bottoms up!) No one really knew the alcohol content of what they were drinking until they woke up in the morning with a killer hangover. But thanks to the government’s ingenuity, some people just didn’t wake up.
So was it myth or fact that the US government unilaterally tried to dissuade people from drinking by killing a few to scare the rest? In 1927, the Chicago Tribune jumped into the fray by reporting that normally the U.S. government wouldn’t do such a thing, but “It is only in the curious fanaticism of Prohibition that any means, however, barbarous are considered justified.”
Although the government had chemists on the payroll, they simply couldn’t outspend the gangsters and the gangsters weren’t going to stand by and watch their loyal customers die off. They simply made the chemists an offer they couldn’t refuse. Chemists suddenly turned traitor on the government and stopped poisoning the liquor. There’s no way to know with any certainty, though, how many people died as a result of the government’s poison-additives and how many died from other, less officially-sanctioned cases of alcohol poisoning. One estimate suggests that as many as 10,000 people were poisoned during Prohibition.
And of course, the entire experiment was a great success and Americans stopped drinking forever! Nah, we just drink better now without government sanctioned poisoning or dead rats! Cheers!
Written by Amy Williams