Getting a decent drink during Prohibition was hard for everyone—but it was especially difficult for the poor. While wealthier citizens were off quaffing imported liquor from Canada in opulent speakeasies, or sipping wine from their own private cellars, poor working stiffs had to content themselves with a drink from a very different kind of place.
As New York Police Commissioner Grover Walden once said, “all you need is two bottles and a room and you have a speakeasy”—and for most poor drinkers, that was pretty much what they got.1 Found tucked into “the back of paint stores, drugstores, and markets, among the dry goods and the stacked cans,” low-end speakeasies were cramped, dirty, dangerous, and desperate places.2 A New York copper described visiting one of them:
“You get into a room where they are selling this stuff. The doors are barred or locked. You will set around the table with a group of men—4 or 5 or 6, or probably 50. You sit around the table and you have this stuff shelled out to you. It is 50 cents a drink in most places. After the third drink your brain…is immediately a muddle. You can feel that stuff going through your whole system because it is raw…Your stomach begins to turn…Everybody is talking silly and acting foolish and singing songs or anything else.”3
In spite of the atmosphere and the crappy booze, legions of the working poor, desperate for a drink, came to plunk down their hard-earned coins on the bar and pick their poison—sometimes literally. Depending on where you lived, you could grab a nice, tall glass of…
- Smoke (Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, NY): For 10 cents a slug, you could drink a mix of raw alcohol and water—or possibly jellied cooking alcohol squeezed through a rag.
- Yak Yak Burbon (Chicago, IL): A mix of whatever crap is lying around plus a shot of iodine—they sure weren’t lying about the name!
- Soda Pop Moon (Philadelphia, PA): Shelled out in soda pop bottles, its main ingredient was rubbing alcohol.
- Sweet Whiskey (Kansas City, MO): Made with distilled alcohol combined with nitric and sulfuric acid that could destroy your kidneys, this “whiskey” was anything but sweet.
- White Mule (the South): These fruit jars full of clear, straight ethanol took a special trick to drink: keep the jar closed until you were ready, then take a deep breath, open the lid, guzzle it down, and slam the lid back on before it could evaporate.4 Often mixed with ginger ale or grape juice to help it hold together, but it didn’t do much to mask the awful taste…or the feeling of being kicked in the head by a mule after you drank it.
- Jackass Brandy (the South): Supposedly made from peaches and sold at $4 a quart, this brandy packs about as much as it’s sibling, White Mule. The peaches didn’t do much to change the fact that it caused internal bleeding and severe intestinal pain, however.
- Coroner’s Cocktail (Chicago, IL, and other places): If you walked into a druggist and asked real nice, you could get an extra shot of “alcohol” in your milkshake—the kind that could make you hallucinate things like “four-tailed elephants and green giraffes.”5
- Squirrel Whiskey: A “secret” recipe from earlier bootlegging times, this drink was named after the behavior it invoked in whoever imbibed it—namely, by encouraging them to “dig their feet into the sides of a trees and try to run up to the top branches.”6
- Goat Whiskey (Indiana/South Dakota): Another popular “secret” recipe, this “whiskey” was rumored to contain some portion of its namesake.
- Jamaica Jake / Jamaica Ginger (South): So prevalent and nasty it’s worth an entire post all by itself, this potent beverage—90% alcohol and 180% proof!—often left its imbibers with permanent neurological damage in the form of paralysis.
While each of these drinks boast truly awful ingredients, there is one deadly additive not listed here that almost every bootleg drink in America shared throughout the Twenties: a nice, healthy dose of wood alcohol.
Wood alcohol, as the name suggests, is a chemical compound which is created by distilling pure methyl alcohol from heated wood. It had been used since ancient times to embalm corpses, and since then had been a common industrial byproduct, with uses ranging from solvents and varnishes to dyes, fuel, and even antifreeze.7 Known as “the simplest form of alcohol,” wood alcohol—also known as methanol—is “a light, volatile, colorless, flammable liquid with a distinctive odor very similar to that of ethanol (drinking alcohol).”8
Unfortunately for humans, it’s also incredibly deadly. This is because, unlike it’s cousin ethanol, which can be processed by the liver and broken down into other harmless products, methanol actually breaks down into even deadlier compounds. Deborah Blum, in her wonderful book A Poisoner’s Handbook, explains: “As the body’s enzymes break apart the carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen that form the alcohol…[create a]…deadly chemical detritus [that] consists mostly of formaldehyde and formic acid.”9 While methanol is “toxic in its own right…formic acid is at least six times more deadly”—never mind the fact that the formaldehyde is embalming you from the inside out.10 Both formic acid and formaldehyde are irritants that cause severe internal damage by focusing on the lungs, the optic nerve, and the parietal cortex, which the brain uses to control vision.11 It doesn’t take much of the stuff to work its deadly magic, either: Blum says it only takes about ¼ a cup of undiluted methanol to kill a man–or about 8 ounces, according to a 1919 Tribune article on the dangers of wood alcohol consumption.12 A single teaspoon could cause permanent blindness, while a glass of the stuff could kill in a matter of hours.13
And to make matters worse, you couldn’t even tell if you drank it! According to Alexander Gettler, the United State’s first forensic chemist, wood alcohol had a deadly allure for the drinker and the unscrupulous bootlegger alike: it “tastes [just] like ethyl [grain] alcohol and…is considerably cheaper” for both parties involved.14 Bootleggers could easily slip it into their products for an extra “zing” that didn’t cost much, while poor drinkers could get themselves something approximating booze for just “a few cents a glass.”15 Everybody wins, right?
Wood alcohol was a major killer throughout Prohibition, starting as early at 1918 and continuing until 1933. By 1926, around 1,200 people in New York were made ill or blinded by wood alcohol, with 400 more dying outright.16 There were risks in every glass of illegal hooch, however. According to Dr. Charles A. L. Reed, president of the American Medical Association during in the Twenties, “65,000 persons perished in the United States from poisonous and impure liquor in the seven year period between 1920 and 1927”—which is 15,000 more than “the number of American soldiers who died on the battlefields in France” during WWI!17
That was probably a gross underestimation, too, thanks to the way in which wood alcohol kills. It’s either a gradual, slow-acting poison that sneaks up on the victim over time—or it’s a sharp whack upside the head that led to a swift death. Blum describes the experience both ways:
“Drinking [wood alcohol] didn’t feel like swallowing poison. Not at all. It felt like sharing a friendly drink on a corner, in a basement bar, giving the familiar buzz of intoxication. If a drinker cared to notice, the first difference…was in how long the buzz lasted. With methyl alcohol, the period of cheerful inebriation was shorter; the sensation of a hangover could come within an hour or two. If the dose was high enough, a few drinks rapidly led to headache, dizziness, nausea, a staggering lack of coordination, confusion, and finally an overpowering need to sleep…a quarter of a cup…was a direct path to blindness, followed by coma, followed by death.”18
Death wasn’t always so immediate, however. Because the deadlier compounds in methanol—the formic acid and the formaldehyde—didn’t come out until the drink was fully processed by the liver, death could “take up to five days, meaning that the…drinker c[ould] stew in an increasingly lethal cocktail for the better part of a week” before finally dying.19 Early symptoms mimicked inebriation, too, so a person could be admitted to a hospital, get shoved in a corner bed and told to “sleep it off,” only to die a few hours later.
The death toll got so high that doctors, newspapers, and organizations started publicly warning people about the dangers of wood alcohol and encouraged the government to limit its sale. But the deaths didn’t stop there. Taking a gamble on your life, it seems, was all part of the fun of Prohibition. People expected a fair amount of their illegal booze to contain something “special,” especially if they weren’t able to afford the real deal. When Charles Norris, New York’s first medical examiner, had his staff analyze bottles and hip flasks collected at various speakeasies around the city, they found that not only did every single drink contain wood alcohol, but also traces of “gasoline, benzene, cadmium, iodine, zinc, mercury salts, nicotine, ether, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, carbolic acid, quinine, and acetone.”20 You’d sit there with your friend while a server brought you mysterious, off-color drinks, and you’d knock them back one after another no matter what they looked like, so long as they got you good and lit. After a night of hard drinking, “you[‘d] ring up your friend the next morning to find out whether he [was] still alive.”21 People knew they were drinking bad alcohol, but they didn’t seem to care. Instead, they rolled the dice with every glass and took their chances.If you think that people were crazy to drink poisoned hooch, then you’d be in agreement with the United States government at the time. It took a similar stance as Wayne Wheeler, the general counsel of the Anti-Saloon League of America, who declared that those who violated the Volstead and drank bootleg liquor were “in the same category as the man who walks into a drug store, buys a bottle of carbolic acid with a label on it marked ‘poisonous’ and drinks the contents.”22 According to Wheeler, anyone stupid enough to drink poisoned stuff—which was illegal to begin with—must suffer the consequences of their actions…and if that led to their deaths, then so be it. The United States government agreed. In fact, they hastened people’s deaths in 1927 by increasing the amount of poisonous ingredients in denatured industrial alcohol, the source that most bootleggers turned to in order to distill their own products. None of this stopped Prohibition drinkers, however, from taking their chances at illegal booze—and sometimes paying for it with their lives. Drinking in the United States wouldn’t become truly safe again until the Volstead was repealed in 1933 and industry regulations were put back in place.
Sadly, tainted bootleg liquor is still killing people, even today. Twenty people died and many more were seriously injured after consuming tainted bootleg alcohol in the Czech Republic in 2012. The year before that, 169 people died in India from a batch of homemade booze laced with anti-freeze. In 2014 a teenager visiting Bali temporarily lost his eyesight and ability to walk after consuming a drink spiked with methanol at a party. And as recently as February 6th, there was a rash of methanol poisonings from bootleg alcohol in Hanoi, thanks to celebrations for Tet, the lunar New Year. A man lost his eyesight, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, and slipped into a coma. Doctors there say they “always” see these cases rise “before and after the Tet holiday.”23
So, the next time someone offers you a glass of homemade booze from their still out back, you might want to think twice… 😉
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Thirsty for More? Try Deborah Blum’s excellent Slate article on how the government actively poisoned the American people during Prohibition. Her nonfiction work The Poisoner’s Handbook is a terrific read!
Fellow blogger Jazzfeathers has also written a post about the worst drinks of Prohibition on her writing blog, The Old Shelter. You can read it here: http://theoldshelter.com/anything-goes-into-a-prohibition-era-cocktail/
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1. Hill, Jeff. 2004. Prohibition. Detroit: Omnigraphics. 50.←
2. Blum, Deborah. 2010. The poisoner’s handbook: murder and the birth of forensic medicine in Jazz Age New York. New York: Penguin Press. 52.←
3. Hill, 51.←
4. Burns, Eric. 2004. The spirits of America: a social history of alcohol. Philadelphia, Pa: Temple University Press. 220-221.←
5. Reitman, Ben L. “GREEN GIRAFFE HAUNTS JAG ON WOOD ALCOHOL.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Dec 29, 1919. http://search.proquest.com/docview/174530320?accountid=3688. ←
6. Burns, 221.←
7. Blum, 39.←
9. Blum, 40-41.←
11. Blum, 162.←
12. Reitman, Ben L. “GREEN GIRAFFE HAUNTS JAG ON WOOD ALCOHOL.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Dec 29, 1919. http://search.proquest.com/docview/174530320?accountid=3688. ←
13. Blum, 49.←
14. Blum, 40.←
15. Blum, 162.←
16. Blum, 157.←
17. “TOLL OF POISON LIQUOR EXCEEDS U. S. WAR DEATHS.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Dec 26, 1927. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180849712?accountid=3688. ←
18. Blum, 161-162.←
19. Blum, 41.←
20. Blum, 159.←
21. Blum, 52.←
22. Blum, 155.←
23. Ha, Le. 2/6/2015. “Alcohol poisoning on the rise before lunar New Year.” Vietnam Net: Bridge. http://english.vietnamnet.vn/fms/society/122956/alcohol-poisoning-on-the-rise-before-lunar-new-year.html ←
Skull wine glasses taken from Overstock—you can buy them here!
Methanol structure is courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
New Yorker cartoon was found in This Fabulous Century, Vol. III
Wood alcohol warning taken from the Internets