This piece is part of a series of essays on alcohol history. You can see more here.
The collective pop cultural image of alcoholic Prohibition during the height of the Roaring Twenties tends to be one of ecstatic joy and rule-breaking excess, as fashionable flappers flaunted the law, danced the Charleston and lived their lives to the fullest in defiance of the U.S. government. That’s the romantic image of the period we cling to—the Great Depression hadn’t yet arrived, and despite booze being technically prohibited, a new bar culture was being born among young adults via the exciting rise of the speakeasy, with its steady supply of smuggled hooch. In a society that was collectively thumbing its nose at the law, what was the worst that could happen to you if you chose to go along for the ride?
Well, horrible, debilitating injury or death, for one. This was a prospect that was a much bigger risk than is typically depicted in histories of the era, and the danger wasn’t from gangster bullets or federal agents—it was from the booze itself. The unregulated nature of Prohibition-era spirits gave rise to an incredibly dangerous, often outright poisonous array of intoxicants, which ultimately resulted in the poisoning deaths of thousands of U.S. citizens. And it wasn’t just the bootleggers and home-distillers who were to blame, either—the U.S. government also played its own part as well.
It was one of the most vicious killers of the 1920s, and its name is methanol.
Ah, but whose drink is the poison one?
To start with, we should note that all the alcohol we drink is in fact ethanol—the product of fermentation of simple sugars by yeast, which can then be distilled to increase its strength and purity. Methanol, on the other hand, is a more simple form of alcohol, but one that is quite toxic to humans in relatively small doses. Thankfully, methanol doesn’t occur in normal fermentation or distillation, except in extremely small trace amounts that are safe to consume.
Methanol was once more widely known as “wood alcohol,” because it was originally produced via the destructive distillation of wood. Believe it or not, in mankind’s persistent desire to have access to alcoholic spirits, we have occasionally fallen on rather desperate times and turned to unorthodox sources of booze production, when we had no access to ingredients such as sugars or malted grains. In the 1700s and 1800s, this led to attempts to produce alcoholic spirits from sugars trapped in wood, which was reduced to sawdust and heated to extract fermentable sugars. The distilled spirit from wood, unfortunately, was high in methanol, leading to misguided recipes in tomes like 1825’s Five Thousand Receipts in All the Useful and Domestic Arts containing instructions on how to essentially make homemade methanol poison in the guise of liquor. This no doubt led to deaths at the time, though the confirmation of methanol’s toxicity by 1856 likely curbed the incidences of people creating their own poisonous wood alcohol for home consumption.
In terms of methanol’s effect on the body, it attacks by being converted into formaldehyde and eventually formic acid, causing both cellular hypoxia and metabolic acidosis. It’s also famous for attacking the optic nerve, resulting in blindness—when we say “blind drunk,” we’re not talking about an expression, but rather a condition that was often brought about by this very poison. As little as 10 ml of pure methanol can potentially cause permanent blindness, while a lethal dose can be as little as 30 ml. This would be less dangerous if methanol was easily detected, but unfortunately, its taste and smell is almost indistinguishable from ethanol.
A “violent poison” indeed.
So how do people end up drinking methanol? Well, the main way is via consuming denatured alcohol, which is a blanket term for all sorts of industrial alcohols not intended for human consumption. Many industries require strong alcohol solutions for manufacturing, and denatured alcohol is also used as a solvent and fuel for products such as burners and camping stoves. In order to discourage the drinking of this alcohol, world governments turned to denaturing—the addition of “bad-tasting, foul-smelling or nauseating” substances to discourage its consumption. And that discouragement also extends all the way to straight-up poisons, in the form of methanol.
Unfortunately, though, there will always be a segment of any given society that is desperate for intoxication—even desperate enough to consume denatured alcohol. These alcohols, not intended for anyone to ever consume, are more widely referred to as “surrogate alcohol,” and include everything from rubbing alcohol and antifreeze to disinfectants or Sterno heat canisters, all of which may contain methanol. Culturally, this type of consumption is depicted as the last, desperate act of degenerate alcoholics and the destitute, but it continues to be a common incident even in modern U.S. society. In fact, the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported there were still more than 1,700 reported cases of methanol poisoning in the U.S. in 2013 alone. Just this week, the FDA warned against various hand sanitizer brands that contained elevated methanol levels.
You can argue, rather heartlessly, that in these cases the denatured alcohol is being consumed by those who are likely aware of the risk and don’t care, but there have also been many global outbreaks of methanol poisoning over the years where victims thought they were drinking safe, commercially produced wine or spirits. In 1986, an Italian outbreak of poisoning stemming from tainted wine (methanol was added to boost the ABV) hospitalized 90 people, while thousands have reportedly died in India since the 1970s via adulterated moonshine containing methanol.
Which finally brings us back to the U.S.A. and prohibition: The era when methanol ran roughshod over those who dared to defy the law.
Some sensationalist writers have tried to characterize the existence of denatured alcohol in the first place as a plot by the federal government to poison and kill its own citizenry for daring to continue drinking during Prohibition. That’s ascribing straightforward and murderous intent to the government, when the truth in this case is more complicated.
Denaturing was, in fact, common practice for industrial alcohol in the U.S. for more than a decade before the beginning of Prohibition, and had long been the standard for industrial alcohol in Europe. If you’re wondering why it was necessary to make this alcohol impotable and potentially poisonous in the first place, the answer is economics. Simply put, it was part of an agreement between the U.S. government and industrial alcohol manufacturers, who didn’t want to pay the heavy excise taxes on drinkable spirits. In order to prove that their spirits couldn’t possibly be used for those purposes, and make it impossible for industrial distillers to sell their product as drinking liquor, they were required to add noxious chemicals, which eventually included methanol as a deterrent. In exchange, they could avoid paying excise taxes, effectively separating the distilling industry before Prohibition into “drinking alcohol” and “industrial alcohol.”
When the legal “drinking alcohol” industry was shut down by Prohibition, however, the industrial alcohol industry picked up the slack, continuing merrily along to quickly become a major player in the massive United states bootlegging industry. Along with legitimate spirits secretly imported from Canada, the U.K. and the Caribbean, denatured industrial alcohol became the biggest source of spirits in the U.S. by the mid-1920s. And unlike pieces such as the Slate article linked to above would claim, this alcohol wasn’t being “stolen” by bootleggers before being resold. Rather, it was typically being legally purchased in massive quantities by those corporate bootleggers, and then re-distilled via dummy chemical corporations to be made potable.
In Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, author Daniel Okrent describes the subsequent explosion in industrial alcohol manufacture, and the simple method by which it was diverted into liquor bottles:
Between 1920 and 1925, American production of legally manufactured industrial alcohol nearly tripled; by 1930 it had doubled once more. Impartial authorities placed the quantity diverted to the bootleg trade at 60 million gallons in a single year. Diluted to 80 proof, that was the equivalent of 150 million gallons, or 750 million fifths, of drinkable liquor.
The toxic nature of this liquor could likewise be dealt with. Per Okrent:
Some of the seventy-six government-approved denaturants were unpleasant but fairly mild, like soap, menthol crystals or various emetics; others, including formaldehyde, sulphuric acid and iodine, were out-and-out poisonous. But removing the odious additives by redistillation or other procedures was a process any self-respecting chemist could engineer.
The problem is, not all bootleggers were so careful in their operations, and the consequences were deadly. Improper re-distillation could result in poisonous methanol still being left in the final product, while others simply mixed denatured alcohol in alongside legitimate spirits, and then shipped those deadly bottles off to wherever they might end up. A wild west of liquor had been inadvertently created, wherein the law-abiding and federally regulated distillers of high-quality spirits had been shut down, only to be replaced by a network of unscrupulous bootleggers operating without any kind of oversight or penalty to putting out potentially deadly products. The federal government had essentially handed the liquor industry into the hands of men who had no reason to care if they poisoned people, because they had no brands with reputations they needed to protect, nor could they be reported for violating consumer protection laws. All they cared about was laying hands on any source of alcohol, making it more or less potable, sprinkling on some juniper oil, calling it “gin” and getting it onto the street.
The diverted industrial booze was of course destroyed when Prohibition agents (who weren’t crooked) got the chance—which wasn’t often.
By the mid-1920s, shit was hitting the fan, and hospital ERs were routinely stuffed by those who were suffering from poisoning via denatured alcohol. New York City and its more than 30,000 speakeasies served as ground zero to the soaring number of poisonings, as “1,200 were sickened by poisonous alcohol; 400 died” in 1926, and 700 died the following year. A flashpoint was finally reached over the Christmas holiday in 1926, when more than 60 people were poisoned and 23 died over the course of two days. Wayne Wheeler, the political influence-wielding leader of the Anti-Saloon League, which had successfully galvanized support for Prohibition at the end of the 1910s, responded to the deaths with a particularly callous disavowal of empathy, saying the following per Okrent:
“The government is under no obligation to furnish the people with alcohol that is drinkable, when the Constitution prohibits it,” Wheeler said to the press. “The person who drinks this alcohol is a deliberate suicide.”
Suffice to say, the public didn’t take too kindly to that kind of “it’s their own damn fault they’re dead” reasoning, and it fanned the flames of the growing movement to repeal Prohibition. Noted “wet” Sen. James Reed of Missouri gave voice to this growing sentiment when he said the following: “Only one possessing the instincts of a wild beast would desire to kill or make blind the man who takes a drink of liquor, even if he purchased it from one violating the Prohibition statutes.” It became a common refrain of the Repeal supporters: If liquor still exists in the market, and that liquor is likely to contain literal poisons, then wouldn’t it be safer to repeal Prohibition and bring back legal, federally regulated liquor? That was a tough argument to deny; just one of several that eventually led to Prohibition’s repeal in 1933.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to say how many drinkers fell victim to the scourge of methanol poisoning during the 14 years of federal Prohibition in the U.S.A., but there’s no doubt it measured well into the thousands, and possibly into the tens of thousands. Reporting of these cases is unsurprisingly spotty, especially given the obvious reticence of patients to admit to participating in what was, at the time, an illegal activity. Likewise, the anonymity of bootlegging operations, combined with the incredibly widespread graft and corruption of those meant to enforce Prohibition statutes, meant that a blind eye was often being turned to the problem, even as it killed Americans.
So remember that, the next time you see a depiction of a flapper taking a swig from their hip flask or enjoying an immaculate-looking martini—the next drink could well be their last.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident alcohol geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.