The Deadly War of Prohibition

Issue #50

America’s experiment with the prohibition of alcohol lasted from 1920-1932. If it proved anything, it was that criminalization could not bring an end to the consumption of alcohol, but instead would push the entire industry underground. Once the trade was hidden from official supervision, the ability to regulate it for health and safety disappeared, too. The United States federal government exacerbated this public health crisis by adding chemicals to grain alcohol, ensuring that those who broke the law would pay with their health and, potentially, their lives.


As the United States entered the twentieth century, the nation faced a rapidly expanding and changing economic and social environment. The explosive growth of cities was transforming the nation from one of rural farming communities to urban centers of business and manufacturing, a trend which worried Protestant evangelicals and other Americans, notably women’s groups, at the time. 

With a terror of social decay, many of those groups formed temperance leagues, decrying the influence of alcohol on the moral and physical health of the nation. Manufacturers supported temperance, as well, claiming it contributed to inefficiency and danger on the job (most of the danger in manufacturing at the time was actually caused by increased production and longer working hours, as well as the dangerous design and working conditions in the factories).

Shortly after entering World War I in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson enacted a temporary wartime prohibition on alcohol production, ostensibly to preserve grain stores as a food resource. That same year the United States Congress passed the 18th Amendment banning the sale, transportation, and manufacturing of alcoholic beverages and within a year the amendment had been ratified by the required 3/4 of the states. In 1920 the 18th Amendment went into effect, with guidelines for enforcement authored by Representative Andrew Volstead of Minnesota, resulting in an array of laws prohibiting alcohol known as the Volstead Act. 

Initially, prohibition seemed to work. Alcohol consumption appeared to drop off and arrests for bad behavior associated with alcohol diminished, too. But within the first year, especially in urban areas, it became clear that Americans were still drinking. They were just finding ways to procure alcohol in extralegal ways. Bootlegging--the manufacture and sale of alcohol through illegal means--exploded. With alcohol production criminalized, bootleggers had to find sub-rosa sources for the alcohol at the base of the drinks. Where they had once relied on safe food sources such as grains, they now turned to industrially produced alcohol, the kind used in manufacturing of chemicals and solvents. 

On New Year’s Eve, 1926, emergency rooms in New York City began seeing an influx of party-minded citizens experiencing hallucinations and painful physical symptoms. By this point, midway through the decade of Prohibition, hospitals were practiced at recognizing alcohol poisoning. But this wave was different and much more severe. At Bellevue Hospital alone, 41 people died of alcohol poisoning related to drinking on New Year’s Eve. By the end of that year there were 1200 casualties from extreme alcohol poisoning in New York City and 400 deaths. The next year there were 700. Other cities around the country reported similar rates of the mysterious cases. It had always been possible to be poisoned by overconsumption of alcohol, whether legal or bootlegged, but this was different. A medical examiner in New York City named Charles Norris soon discovered the source of the poisoning: the federal government. 

Frustrated by the continued, now-illegal consumption of alcohol, the United States government began adding an array of poisonous and sometimes bitter-tasting chemicals to industrial alcohol in a process known as denaturing, the intent being to make alcohol undrinkable. These chemicals included many chemicals known to be dangerous and even deadly to humans: kerosene, gasoline, cadmium, formaldehyde, carbolic acid, acetone, and methyl alcohol, among others. 

As soon as Prohibition went into effect the production, distribution, and sale of alcohol, all previously profitable areas of the mainstream economy, were taken over by criminals and expanding crime syndicates. Prohibition was an incredible opportunity for new crime organizations such as the Mafia to gain money and power that would form the basis for a century of major crime. These groups stole vast quantities of industrial alcohol--alcohol which had already been poisoned by the federal government. The bootleggers added various additional compounds to make the stuff drinkable, resulting in mass poisonings.

The government efforts were an open secret and Norris was the first public health official to publicly condemn them. “The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol,” Norris wrote in a public statement around New Year’s Eve 1926. “It knows what the bootleggers are doing with it and yet it continues its poisoning process, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison. Knowing this to be true, the United States Government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes.” This did not stop the practice. 

Americans were in the midst of the Roaring Twenties. Despite (or because of?) Prohibition, few decades were ever so closely associated with binge drinking and excessive partying. Illegal bars, known as speakeasies, were widespread, with some sources reporting over 30,000 such drinking establishments in New York City alone by the end of the decade. Chicago mob boss Al Capone reportedly earned $60 million per year from bootlegging-- about $820 million per year in today’s currency. And Americans continued dying from the poisons. 

Senator James Reed of Missouri, among others, was outraged. “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,” he railed. 

President Herbert Hoover called Prohibition "the great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far reaching in purpose." But when Franklin Delano Roosevelt campaigned against him for the presidency in 1932, his platform of Prohibition repeal helped him win. Prohibition was finally repealed in December 1932 by the passage of the 21st Amendment. Remarkably, the government’s policy of adding poisonous compounds to grain alcohol were also in place until then. By the end of Prohibition, officials estimated that over 10,000 Americans were killed by poison at the hands of the federal government.


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Organization is Key to Successful Research

We all want to learn more about our ancestors.  What you may not realize is that being organized on your quest for ancestral knowledge may increase both the efficiency and accuracy of your research, which in turn may aid in knocking down a brick wall or two.  Who doesn’t love that idea?  Here are a few tips to keep the research process moving smoothly

Identify what is documented and known - Genealogical research entails working from what is known to the unknown. 

Craft a succinct research question - Each phase of research should be geared towards answering a specific, succinct singular question.  For instance, if you wish to learn who the parents of your great-grandfather James Williams were, you might craft a research question such as, “Who were the parents of James Williams, born ca. 1890 in Washington County, Virginia.”

Create a research plan - Determine a strategy and create a targeted, logical research plan, specifying sources of information which may lead you to the answer of your research question. Remember research plans are based on what is known at a given time and may evolve as sources reveal new information. What is important is that you do not deviate from the plan without first assessing and evaluating new details, before making any modifications to the plan, which leads us to...

Avoid rabbit holes - Don’t be distracted by potential clues related to other family members or which may reveal information not pertinent to the research question.  Do, however, note those for future research.

Record everything, both positive and negative - There are numerous ways to record the details of research, with a research log being the most versatile.  Whatever your recording method, make sure that you maintain the details of every single source searched for and/or reviewed, making succinct notes about the findings and conclusions drawn, whether positive or negative.

Cite all sources - Each and every source should be cited, including specific details on how you viewed the source, as well the information for the original source.

Spelling variants - Note all spelling variations for the given and surnames on all of your searches, so that you may ensure thoroughness and also not duplicate research in the future.

Formulate hypotheses - As details obtained from sources are compiled, contrasted and conclusions derived, begin creating a hypothesis and update the research plan to locate records which may either support or refute the hypothesis.

Note final thoughts and next steps when ending a research session - Making yourself a note about where research stopped and your thoughts regarding potential next steps keeps you from wasting valuable research time in the next session, as there is no need to retrace your prior research steps.  In addition, those sometimes fleeting thoughts, such as that of a potential relationship or record,  will not be lost to time. This takes minimal effort and allows you to begin your next research session exactly where you left off.

And remember, slow and steady wins the race!  Sound methodology, following a logical path, along with meticulous analysis, is the key to genealogical success.  Haphazard, disorganized research may lead to inaccurate results or unwarranted brick walls.  Good luck in your continued quest for ancestral knowledge!

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Helpful Resource

Don’t let the organization stop with how you record your research!  Learn more about Organizing Your Genealogy Materials in this article.


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Sources….Duh!!

Matthew Brown, USA Today (https://www.usatoday.com/ : accessed 7 October 2021), “Fact check: It's true, U.S. government poisoned some alcohol during Prohibition.”

NCBI (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/ : accessed 7 October 2021), “Poison’s legacy.” 

Time (http://content.time.com/ : accessed 7 October 2021), “Top 10 Prohibition Tails.”

Library of Congress,Prints & Photographs Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 7 October 2021), digital image from original b&w photograph, “[New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach, right, watching agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of prohibition],” ca. 1921, Digital ID: LC-USZ62-123257. 

Library of Congress,Prints & Photographs Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 7 October 2021), digital image from original b&w photograph, “[Interior of a crowded bar moments before midnight, June 30, 1919, when wartime prohibition went into effect New York City],” 30 June 1919, Digital ID: cph.3c23253. 

Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Family tree of Sir John Hayes.jpg: 7 October 2021), digital image, 1912, “File:Family tree of Sir John Hayes.jpg;” image uploaded by user Pratishkhedekar.


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