JOHANNA MAYER: On Christmas Eve 1926, a man stumbles into Bellevue Hospital in New York City. And he tells them he's being chased by a Santa Claus with a baseball bat. Here's Deborah Blum, a science writer and the author of The Poisoner's Handbook.
DEBORAH BLUM: He comes screaming into the hospital emergency room, obviously intoxicated, looking for help from evil Santa Claus, which was this alcohol-induced hallucination.
JOHANNA MAYER: This guy is a mess. He's totally flushed, completely convinced that Santa is hot on his tail. It seems straightforward. He was drunk. Even though this was nearly seven years into prohibition, people were still very much drinking. Over the next day, more and more drunk patients show up. By the end of Christmas, more than 60, and eight of them died. This was happening across New York, an outbreak of alcohol deaths-- 27 dead just over the holidays.
And yes, drinking too much can make you really sick and kill you. But this rash of cases was different. In almost every autopsy, they found traces of a telltale chemical-- pyramidine. It was evidence that this alcohol had been poisoned, courtesy of the US government. From Science Friday, this is Science Diction. I'm Johanna Mayer. Today, we're talking about alcohol.
On January 17, 1920, America went dry. Well, on paper at least. No more selling, manufacturing, or distributing alcohol, thanks to the 18th Amendment and the National Prohibition Act. A few months earlier, President Woodrow Wilson had tried to block it-- perhaps not surprising, given that he kept a vast wine collection at the White House.
But no luck. Congress overrode him, and the country soon got to business getting rid of its stash. From coast to coast, saloons boarded up. New York City policemen poured barrels of liquor into the sewer. In Chicago, men lined up along a pier and dumped beer into Lake Michigan. In one political cartoon, pallbearers carried a giant bottle of red wine to its grave. Sorry, President Wilson.
Today, we pretty much remember Prohibition as a failed experiment, just an all-around, misguided idea pushed by ideologues, which, for the most part, was true. At the same time, in the years before Prohibition, alcohol was a real problem. It was feeding into domestic violence, liver cirrhosis, crime. But take our alcohol away? That was never going to go smoothly.
The human species loves alcohol. It's a social lubricant, a comfort. It's part of many religious ceremonies. When you drink alcohol, you actually release natural opioids in the reward centers of your brain, which basically makes you feel really good. And we have been indulging in this for a really, really long time. Archaeologists have found evidence of fermented beer from 13,000 years ago. There's even something called the beer before bread theory that humans only figured out how to domesticate grains for food because we were trying to make more beer.
And it goes even further back, possibly since before we were humans. There's even a theory that craving alcohol was an important adaptation for our prehuman ancestors, that the smell helped them track down very ripe, calorie rich fruit. So, at least 13,000 years ago, we stopped waiting around for fruit to ferment and started actively brewing our own alcohol. There was a whole host of names for these concoctions. Herbal wine from China was called chang. A sweet rice or millet based wine was called li.
But none of them were called alcohol. And when that word first showed up, it had nothing to do with drinking. Alcohol comes from the Arabic Al-Kuhl, and it referred to powder. So you know those depictions of ancient Egyptians wearing that super thick eyeliner? That eyeliner was called kohl. In Arabic, the Al prefix is really common. It just means the. So Al-Kuhl, the kohl.
And that powder was super fine, almost like flour. Just a slight breeze, and it got swept away. And eventually, theory goes, the word kohl was extended to mean anything that had this quality of evaporating super easily. Even when the word morphed into our English word, alcohol, in the 1500s, it meant coal and other kinds of powders. It didn't come to mean booze until the 18th century.
So, humans have been drinking alcohol for millennia. And even though, contrary to popular belief, Prohibition did curb that drinking, the US was still very far from dry. Instead of giving up drinking, a lot of people just got sneakier, like a lot sneakier. People had booze and lamps in books, even in their canes. Bootleggers in rural areas came up with this ingenious way of covering their tracks, their literal tracks. They strapped wooden blocks to their shoes so that their footprints would look like cow hooves.
And if you couldn't get your hands on bootleg booze--
DEBORAH BLUM: They would create little backyard stills, and they would put all kinds of things they shouldn't put in those stills. People distilled their furniture.
JOHANNA MAYER: Deborah Blum again.
DEBORAH BLUM: There was actually a case where someone chopped up their kitchen table and put it through the still to make alcohol.
JOHANNA MAYER: So, people are finding all kinds of ways to get around the law. And that led the government to do something unthinkable to stop them. Well, some of them. See, during Prohibition, rich people could get away scot free with Great Gatsby-like parties from their home booze stash, so long as they kept it inside. But if you weren't of the Gatsby ilk, if you were more of the distill your own furniture type, your main source of booze was industrial alcohol.
Prohibition only banned ethanol alcohol for drinking, but we still needed it for other stuff for paints, fuels, for solvents. Industrial alcohol-- all fair game. Just had to make sure people didn't drink it. So the US Treasury Department, because that's the government arm that taxes and regulates the sale of alcohol, came up with a plan. They decided to poison it. They told anyone that manufactured industrial alcohol, you have to add a bunch of contaminants to it to make it undrinkable.
DEBORAH BLUM: And the government chemists would come up with specific formulas of additives. And they were actually numbered. Formula number three has benzene and mercury. And then they send them out, and they say, in order to make industrial alcohol that you can legally sell in the United States, you have to use one of these formulas.
JOHANNA MAYER: This is called denaturing, when you tamper with alcohol to make it undrinkable. It started before Prohibition, and it's actually still common practice today. Rubbing alcohol is denatured, perfume. Manufacturers make it unfit for drinking, which means liquor taxes won't apply. But during Prohibition, denaturing went from a common tax mechanism to a brutal enforcement tool.
See, even though industrial alcohol was denatured, bootleggers were still stealing millions of gallons of it every year. They just renatured it. They even had their own chemists-- wet chemists, they were called. And these wet chemists would take that stolen industrial alcohol, figure out whatever nasty additives were in there, and then get them out so people could drink it again.
DEBORAH BLUM: And it'll be fine. Not fine-- it'll just be not so poisonous that your customer drops dead in the street. They wanted the majority of their customers to survive. And so, the wet chemists work for the bootleggers, and they're busy undoing the government's contamination where the dry chemists are busy trying to figure out how to make alcohol dangerous enough that the wet chemists can't undo their work.
JOHANNA MAYER: On and on, the industrial alcohol kept flowing. And here's where the story gets kind of dicey. In the mid '20s, as Prohibition was wearing on and they seemed to be losing this battle, the government told manufacturers, add more poison. One of those poisons was methanol. All the chemicals being added to industrial alcohol were no joke. Real bad stuff-- kerosene, formaldehyde, chloroform, acetone, but methanol is one of the worst. It can cause blindness. Just a 1/4 cup of pure methanol can kill you. And when it's added to regular ethanol, it is really tough to get it out.
DEBORAH BLUM: So suddenly, the alcohol that you were buying in your speakeasy or on the street was much more poisonous and contained much more methanol. They started seeing this rash of people coming in to the hospitals like Bellevue in New York.
JOHANNA MAYER: At the start of Prohibition, doctors at Bellevue saw maybe a dozen cases of moonshine and methanol poisoning per year. In 1926, they treated more than 700 cases. People argued about what was causing the surge. Was it regular old alcohol killing people? Ethanol is technically a poison, too, after all.
But there were clues suggesting this was something else. Some patients were hallucinating, like the man who saw Santa. Others were going blind. And in autopsies, the city toxicologist kept finding those traces of pyrmidine, one of the standard additives in government formulas. These people had been drinking denatured alcohol. Deborah Blum stumbled onto this government program by accident, just combing through old archives.
DEBORAH BLUM: My very first reaction was, no, this can't be right because I didn't know it, right? Surely, this is part of the standard history of Prohibition, but it just wasn't. And so my first reaction was shock.
JOHANNA MAYER: But the thing is, this was no secret back in the day. That was kind of the point. If people knew that industrial alcohol was poisoned, then no one would drink it, right? The program was hotly debated. Some argued that if the government poisoned alcohol, knowing people will still drink it, they're responsible for their deaths, while others insisted that if people decided to drink the stuff, whatever happened was on them. So all of this was out in the open, written about in newspapers. And people were supposed to know about it, except that message didn't always get through.
If you were the kind of person who read newspapers regularly, then yeah, you probably knew about this. But if you weren't, totally possible you wouldn't have known. And even if you did, you might not understand just how harmful this denatured alcohol was, and so maybe you'd drink some illegal alcohol and survive and come back for more. Not every batch killed people. You might even think the government was bluffing, just trying to scare you into not drinking.
Whether you blamed the government or the people drinking, one thing was clear. People were going to keep drinking. And many of them were going to die. Thanks to this program, about 10,000 people wound up dead. Some estimates put it as high as 50,000. Those numbers are a pretty damning indictment of a program supposedly meant to improve health and well-being.
DEBORAH BLUM: They had effectively managed to kill people, but they hadn't managed to do anything effective with Prohibition.
JOHANNA MAYER: And so, the government just quietly dropped the program. By 1929, the government wasn't enforcing the worst of these formulas anymore.
DEBORAH BLUM: In the end, they just gave it up because it was unsuccessful. It was like a whimper, rather than a bang, I think.
JOHANNA MAYER: You could say the same thing about Prohibition as a whole. In December 1933, Prohibition was repealed. And you would think there'd be some big Bacchanalian revelry on the day it lifted. And there are some fun pictures of people perched on bar stools, grinning, holding up their drinks. But on the whole, pretty tame. It's partly because Prohibition didn't end all at once. The repeal just ended federal prohibition. Some states chose to stay dry a lot longer, as late as the 1960s. And partly, it's because people never really stopped drinking, even if it killed them.
It's been a long, hard winter. Here in New York, it seems like every day is cold and windy. Old, dirty snow on the ground. So the other day, I met up with my friend Jenny for to-go cocktails.
Hi. Shall we go in?
JOHANNA MAYER: Because that's the thing now-- one of the few highlights in an otherwise very bleak year. And lucky for us, our local spot had hot drinks.
SPEAKER: Hey, guys.
JOHANNA MAYER: Hello, how are you?
SPEAKER: Doing good.
JOHANNA MAYER: Good. Can I get a Irish hot coffee please?
JENNY: And can I get an Irsh hot coffee and a chorizo burrito with egg?
JOHANNA MAYER: We used to come here to watch Jeopardy during happy hour. Now we come for hot booze in paper cups.
SPEAKER: Is this for here or to-go?
JOHANNA MAYER: To go, please. Yeah.
Not quite ready for indoor dining.
JENNY: I'm so glad they come in the little coffee cups.
JOHANNA MAYER: I love the little coffee cups.
In New York, we're just so much more relaxed about alcohol now. Like, before the pandemic, say you had a bottle of wine at a restaurant, but you didn't finish it, you were allowed to take that bottle home if it was securely resealed and placed in a tamper proof transparent bag, and you had a receipt that proved you consumed it alongside a full meal. Not just a snack, a full meal.
But since COVID, alcohol has been flowing freer than ever. And even when stores and schools and gyms closed, liquor stores stayed open. Part of the reason is that for people who are dependent on alcohol, quitting cold turkey can be dangerous. But also, Americans these days are drinking more now than we were just before Prohibition. And the government is just singing a different tune about it. Exactly 100 years after the US banned alcohol, many states deemed it essential.
Because, yes, drinking can be deeply harmful and deadly, but it's also something that's been ingrained in our lives since the beginning, tickling the little reward centers of our brain, not only during tough times, but in times of joy, confusion, boredom, celebration, from 13,000 year old fermented beer to the giant vessel of wine at Plato's Symposium to Irish coffees in Greek coffee cups during a pandemic.
Excuse me. Thank you. There we go. Got it?
JOHANNA MAYER: Wow, I'm glad they're getting good business.
JOHANNA MAYER: This episode of Science Diction was produced by me, Johanna Mayer, and Elah Feder. Elah is our editor and senior producer. Daniel Peterschmidt composed all our music and mastered this episode. Chris Wood contributed sound design. Special thanks to Stephen Guth for help with alcohol etymology and to Kat Eschner.
We had fact checking by Robin Palmer. Thanks to Sassy Spidey, Abby Doodah, and all the other kind reviews on Apple Podcasts. We love you, too. Nadia Oertelt is our chief content officer. Her new Nadia-O brand of pasta sauce tastes kind of off. But she said not to worry. She just has to work out a few kinks.
DEBORAH BLUM: And it'll be fine. Not fine-- it'll just be not so poisonous that your customer drops dead in the street.
JOHANNA MAYER: See you next week.