During the Prohibition Era, the federal poisoning program killed at least 10,000 people, according to some estimates. Yet the “chemist’s war of Prohibition” is all but forgotten today. Why?
I was recently invited to speak to a student group about alcohol prohibition. During the course of my talk, I shared with them perhaps the most chilling historical account of America’s failed experiment to ban the sale of alcohol.
The Prohibition Era (1920 -1933), which began with the passage of the Volstead Act, had many problems. Virtually overnight, millions of Americans became criminals for the “crime” of having a drink. Instead of people trading money for a jug of beer or a bottle of gin, they had to make their own or turn to the black market. It resulted in a surge of organized crime and the rise of many of the most notorious gangsters in history, including Al Capone, Dutch Schultz, and Charles “Lucky” Luciano.
“In the absence of Prohibition, we wouldn’t have had the kind of syndicated criminality that occurred. Prohibition was the catalyst,” explains Howard Abadinsky, professor of criminal justice at St. John’s University and the author of the book Organized Crime.
One might think the surge of organized crime—which resulted in a corresponding surge of law enforcement to suppress it—would be the darkest consequence of Prohibition. It was not.
‘Our National Experiment in Extermination’
On Christmas Eve in 1926, a mysterious thing happened.
A man stumbled into New York City’s Bellevue Hospital claiming Santa Claus was chasing him with a baseball bat. He soon died, but another man celebrating Christmas soon followed with similar symptoms. He died as well. And then another.
Hospital staff counted no fewer than 60 people who arrived that night severely ill from alcohol, eight of whom died. Citywide, the total soon reached 23 dead. How this happened is no mystery.
Professor Deborah Blum, a journalist, director of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT, and and author of The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, described it all in a 2010 Slate article. Progressive bureaucrats were intentionally poisoning alcohol to encourage compliance.
“Frustrated that people continued to consume so much alcohol even after it was banned, federal officials had decided to try a different kind of enforcement. They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States, products regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits. The idea was to scare people into giving up illicit drinking. Instead, by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people.”
The “chemist’s war of Prohibition” is all but forgotten today, but it remains one of the darkest and strangest law enforcement programs in US history. Perhaps most shocking is how transparent and callus central planners were about their program. Blum notes that Charles Norris, New York City’s chief medical examiner during the ‘20s, casually noted the poisoning program was “our national experiment in extermination.”
Penetrating ‘the Fog of Lies’
During my talk, I asked students to raise their hand if they had ever heard of the poisoning program. Not one did. (The teacher also told me he had not heard about the program.)
Some students, frankly, looked skeptical. They aren’t the only ones who found the story hard to believe. (I certainly did.) Indeed, enough people have questioned the story’s veracity that USA Today issued a fact-check asserting the poisoning program is no myth.
This invites two important questions: 1) How did this atrocity happen? 2) Why are so few Americans aware of the government’s poisoning program?
I believe the answer to the first question is clear. The federal poisoning program was a result of government straying from its original and true moral purpose. In the classical liberal tradition, government is a necessary evil. The only reason this “social contract” exists at all is for a specific purpose: to protect life, liberty, and property….