- David Gutierrez
In a dark but little-known chapter of U.S. history, the federal government ordered the poisoning of alcohol supplies to deter and punish those who sought to flout Prohibition-era bans.
Starting in 1906, the United States began requiring manufacturers of industrial ethanol to put the chemical through a process to distinguish it from the identical substance found in alcoholic beverages. After the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol was banned by the 18th Amendment and the government cracked down on smuggling operations, bootleggers turned to chemistry to keep their customers supplied. A simple process was used to extract toxic chemicals from the industrial alcohol used in paints, solvents, fuels and medicine, and this relatively clean alcohol was then used to make beverages. By the mid-1920s, an estimated 60 million gallons of industrial alcohol were being stolen per year.
In response, the administration of President Calvin Coolidge ordered industry to add higher levels of more difficult-to-remove poisons to their alcohol, including acetone, benzene, cadmium, camphor, carbolic acid, chloroform, ether, formaldehyde, gasoline, iodine, kerosene, methyl alcohol, mercury salts, nicotine, quinine and zinc. Shortly after the institution of this campaign, 31 people were poisoned to death over the course of the Christmas holiday in New York City alone. Historians estimate that a total of 10,000 people were killed by the program before Prohibition ended in 1933.