Wild Beasts and Alcohol

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Writing for Slate, Deborah Blum recounts the "little-told" story of the Federal government's Prohibition-era alcohol poisoning campaign, which, by some estimates, resulted in the deaths of over ten thousand people.

[T]he numbers were not trivial. In 1926, in New York City, 1,200 were sickened by poisonous alcohol; 400 died. The following year, deaths climbed to 700. These numbers were repeated in cities around the country as public-health officials nationwide joined in the angry clamor. Furious anti-Prohibition legislators pushed for a halt in the use of lethal chemistry. "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," proclaimed Sen. James Reed of Missouri.
The instincts of a wild beast -- or, more accurately, moral sensibilities that demand meddlesome enforcement of arbitrary rules, human life and any thought about the proper purpose of morality or role of government be damned. I was very disappointed to learn that these atrocities started under Calvin Coolidge, whom I had admired.

As appalling as that is, there's more to this article than meets the eye, but appreciating it requires one to question the propriety of taxation. Blum notes more than once that bootleg liquor, produced to avoid taxes, often results in poisoning.  This is because crooked businessmen get into the act of producing liquor, and their incompetence or negligence frequently results in products containing dangerous impurities.
Poisonous alcohol still kills--16 people died just this month after drinking lethal booze in Indonesia, where bootleggers make their own brews to avoid steep taxes--but that's due to unscrupulous businessmen rather than government order.
I think Blum, like anyone accustomed to the government taxing everything, lets the government off the hook too easily here.

Certainly, these deaths were not directly a result of government policies, but these policies did make it possible for such people to be in business at all in the first place. Not only is taxation wrong because it violates property rights, it can also endanger the lives of those who try to avoid it. As James Reed might have put it (but only for the rare individual who is aware of the evil of taxation), "Only one possessing the instincts of a wild beast would desire to present a man who simply wants a drink the following 'choices': robbery or risk of poisoning."

The atrocity of taxation is not as dramatic as that of a deliberate poisoning program, but it is no more a proper role of the government.

-- CAV


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, I see you've been following up on Ms. Blum the Poison Lady's work. Ha! I'll have to track down some of her writings myself. I'll add though that the poisoning of alcohol was ordered by "the Treasury Department," but from how high up it started I haven't been able to find (from the Secretary? Head of the Prohibition Office? Or lower), nor how much if any Coolidge knew about it.

And an amusing note...with odious overtones. As you doubtless know, prohibition had an exemption for religious and medical purposes. One result was that wine for Jewish services was freely available from most rabbis. In an entertaining historical novel, Carter Beats the Devil, a minor character is a rabbi of a temple registered with a congregation of 2000 or more in a county with only about 200 Jews (I forget the exact figure), and of course he spends a lot of time in a speakeasy located, I think it was, under or across the street from the police station.

And an amusing news squib about that little sideshow of American history can be found here. I'm very fond of the picture of the wine-dealing rabbi--almost provokes a chorus of one of the, shall we say, more ecumenical versions of "That Old-Time Religion" (the versions with Aphrodite in a nighty, not the brainless original version).

But of course that exemption played into the hands of rags like Henry Ford's Dearborn Independent that seized on the phenomenon of Jewish profiteering under Prohibition as here--and that's a useful reminder that Prohibition had strong religious and racial overtones, and in fact the KKK was in general hardcore in favor of Prohibition.

Vigilis said...

More dismaying than the basic revelation of government directed poisoning is Blum's telling the horrific story without naming specific individuals ("federal officials had decided to try a different kind of enforcement...") and their departments or agencies.

Sure, Gus, Silent Calvin (another lawyer) topped the administration at the time, but journalists still accord presidents hefty immunity from the atrocities of their petty-minded bureaucracies.

Objectiveman said...

In India illicit liquor is even a bigger killer. In Bengal's biggest illicit liquor tragedy 172 people had died and 200 were affected last year. Only the big tragedies are reported. Many people die unreported as in India police is not keen to register cases and most people anyway avoid going to them.

One of the top officials conceded that a tragedy of such enormity could not have happened without the connivance between the local police and illegal liquor traders.

The prohibitive taxes drive people to the cheaper booze and subsequently to their death. The state earns a little bit from the taxes but for the servants of the state it is the hooch which is a major money-spinner in form of the bribes. When it is so lucrative then what is a few thousand dead people anyway.

Rajesh Dhawan


Gus Van Horn said...


Good point regarding whether Coolidge might have known about the policy of deliberate poisoning.


As I have mentioned before, I don't find the fact that someone is/was an attorney to have much explanatory value vis-a-vis his own philosophy and the cultural context in which he acts.


Thanks for bringing me up to speed regarding the situation in India, as well as for making the point that such government schemes also breed corruption.


Steve D. said...

I remember reading about this, years ago, being shocked and then realizing that I shouldn't be shocked but I still was. It gives you pause to wonder how some people can sleep at night and the human ability to rationalize away even the most horrific of policies.

Isn’t this the sort of stuff we executed Nazis for? That fact that it was done during peace time rather than war makes it worse not better.

I agree with Vigilis that it is even more dismaying that it is impossible for Blum or anyone else to identify and therefore impossible for us bring to justice those involved.

Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, some tied-up ends for you. First, here's a recent version of one of many satirical versions of "Old-Time Religion," with lyrics included; the stanza I was referring to goes,

We will pray to Aphrodite
She's beautiful but flighty
In her silken see-through nighty
She's good enough for me.

That version restricts itself to Roman religion, which is a nice touch; the famous version by Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie (or, as I like to call'em, Commie and Pinkie) is a comparative religion major's dream. (All a bit of light, gentle humor. If you want stronger stuff, there's always "Superstitious", which has the virtue of including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Native American animism. My atheist Pakistani friends loved it when I sent them the link, I might add.)

The novel I mentioned is this one, of which you have a copy coming your way, by the way. (It's not the great novel of American letters by any means, but it is high-quality light summer reading.) The way the novel put it, Rabbi Golod was registered under the Volstead Act as having a congregation of 15,000, while in the whole region around San Francisco there were only 2,000 Jews--and he was only one of nine rabbis around the bay with congregations over five thousand.

And I was able to read a bit of David Okrent's Last Call, an excellent history of Prohibition. The part I read mentioned that when Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury, made to get rid of the toxic poisons added to industrial alcohol until a non-toxic but odious-tasting replacement could be found (so, in other words, the precursor to the program of adding it to drinking alcohol), he was actually stopped by public protests by Wayne Wheeler's Anti-Saloon Leagues.

The funny yet sad background to all this is that Mellon was strongly opposed by the ASL as Treasury Secretary since he owned a distillery and was against Prohibition--yet Harding appointed him Treasury Secretary anyway, which put him in charge of much of the Prohibition enforcement machinery. The ASL in return secured the provision that there would be none of the usual job protections of civil servants for Prohibition agents, just to make sure it would be as easy as possible to root out any agent not entirely devoted to the dry cause in the name of preventing corruption. The ASL had a great deal of unofficial influence in Prohibition enforcement as a result, and it wouldn't surprise me upon reading further to learn that poisoning bootleg liquor was a harebrained, immoral scheme hatched by some underling devoted to the great dry cause.

Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, I wrote, "Prohibition had strong religious and racial overtones, and in fact the KKK was in general hardcore in favor of Prohibition." In short, there was a strong religious divide, with the evangelical Protestants strongly in favor of it and other religious groups generally opposed to it--such as Episcopalians, Catholics, and German Lutherans. The latter two groups provoked ethnic and patriotic reactions, of course.

As for the Klan, the second rise of the Klan (which had gone into abeyance in the 1870s rather like the early stages of syphillis) was directly tied to Prohibition--it was organized in 1915 to help enforce Prohibition, a fact not many people remember, and which helps explain the fact that is often just stated without background (since it helps lefties go on anti-capitalist slander sprees), that the Klan was enormously popular in the 1920s.

And it also helps explain the fact that the most powerful branch of the KKK in the 1920s was the Indiana branch, not the national center in Atlanta. Of course, the Indiana Klan was a sick and twisted circus freakshow with many grotesque and hilarious excrescences, but it was still politically powerful. Indiana had already adopted statewide Prohibition in 1917 and was strongly Protestantly nativist, and when a down-on-his-luck Houston salesman named C.D. Stephenson moved to Indiana, he realized the Klan could be a very useful train for him to ride to the Presidency. (Somehow the idea of a sleazy failed Texas salesman taking over the Hoosier Klan to become President fits my sense of humor like a glove.)

Throughout the mid-1920s he got state politics under his control, and under his leadership the Klan was strongly anti-Catholic (since there weren't that many Blacks to terrorize in Happy Hoosierland); they boosted membership to over 30% of the white male population and set up Klan auxiliaries for the wives, and they had communications networks that could carry information across the state in less than a day. They also elected a governor and some congressmen, and by the time Stephenson had been arrested for a particularly disgusting kidnapping and rape (the woman was able to get help by swallowing poison; the doctor reported it to the police and she was able to give a full affidavit against Stephenson before she died), he was planning a run for the US Senate as a stepping stone to the White House.

One of the revealing bits of dunderheaded silliness Stephenson used to gain support and adulation (remembered from a chapter I read in a history of the KKK) was the time he announced that the Pope himself was so threatened by the Hoosier Klan that he was coming in person to Indianapolis to fight them. A legion of loyal Hoosier Klansmen figured out which train the Pope would have to take and boarded it at, I think, Elkhart. There was only one man on the train, a traveling lingerie salesman, and after giving him a very hard time they decided he couldn't be the Pope because, as one of them put it, even the Pope wouldn't carry that much women's underwear. Stephenson then publicly praised their derring-do for scaring the Pope away.

Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, one more thing: The Prohibition Party still exists; it prides itself as the oldest third party in American politics. Its (paltry and amateurish) website can be found here, and their 2004 platform begins, "We, the delegates to the Prohibition National Convention, assembled in Arvada, Colorado, June 12, 2003, recognize Almighty God as the Source of all just government and declare our faith in the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ," and continues with a typical small-government program nominally committed to free enterprise and property rights but in favor of regulation to prevent monopolies, state rather than federal financing of education, and all the other statist half-measures that paved the way for the big government they decry. And of course no free market is to be allowed in intoxicants.

It amuses me to read that their 2012 National Convention was held at Holiday Inn Express in Cullman, Alabama, which ranks right down there with the 1980 convention at Motel Birmingham of Birmingham, Alabama. I guess they weren't invited back to the 1976 site, the Beth Eden Baptist Church Bldg of Wheat Ridge, Colorado, probably because of their uproarious and disruptive all-night partying. Heh. (It also amuses me to see how many of their national conventions were held in Indiana.)

And on a last humorous note, I once heard a Czech folksong about a great tragedy: While the fire department was trying and failing to save the village beer hall, the brewery burned down.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for expressing your agreement with Vigilis's lament regarding the impossibility of pursuing justice here. That's a good point that I missed in haste yesterday.


(1) Love the improved lyrics to that brain-dead old song.

(2) That's a great point about the revival of the Klan, and one I was unaware of.


Anonymous said...

Hi Gus,

I'd heard that this incident was one of the things used to spur the revival of the Klan in the old South.

c. andrew

Gus Van Horn said...


It's interesting to see opposition to "Yankee capitalism" cited along with anti-semitism as part of the animus that gave the revival some momentum.