The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution went into effect in 1919, and early the next year, Prohibition became the law of the land when the Volstead Act became law. The sale, manufacture, or transportation of alcohol became unlawful. It would remain illegal until 1933, when the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th. During the interim period, however, alcohol-related illnesses and deaths were rather common. These maladies were the byproduct of speakeasies and moonshine, each of which were cloaked from the law, and therefore, placed the injured out of the reach of legal remedy.
But there was another cause of alcohol-related death during Prohibition: poisoning by the U.S. government.
With alcohol illegal, Prohibition created a huge opportunity for organized crime to enter the market. The lucrative business of bootlegging created an economic foundation for Al Capone (pictured above) and his gang in Chicago as well as other notorious criminals. And because the sale of all alcohol was illegal, it made good business sense for criminals to focus on hard liquor, which could be made from (legal) industrial ethyl alcohol, and therefore had a large profit margin. The problem: industrial alcohol was basically grain alcohol mixed with a solvent or two, making it undrinkable. So the bootleggers hired chemists to fix that — and the chemists succeeded.
The Department of the Treasury, which was charged with enforcement of the Volstead Act, had a solution — more poison. The bootleggers were unable to make the alcohol entirely safe for drinking, but of course, the bootleggers were murderous criminals — and sold the liquor anyway. The Treasury’s plan failed to stem the tide of alcohol flowing in the streets, but did sadly manage to claim the lives of as many as 10,000 people.
Bonus fact: Prohibition turned many citizens into everyday criminals, many by way of homemade wine. Grocers could sell grape concentrate, an item which in and of itself lacked any alcohol. However, if treated in a certain way, grape concentrate would ferment, turning into wine. In order to “avoid” this outcome, many grape concentrate packages were labeled with a warning — outlining exactly what “not” to do in order to ensure that your grape concentrate did not ferment.
From the Archives: Wine and Cheese with the Queen: More illegal drinking. For very, very different reasons.