Learn about Life in the 1920s

Health Problems Caused by Bootleg Liquor and Wine in 1926

Stealthy poisons are to be found in at least 92 percent of illegal liquor-What they do to the human body-An impartial investigation into the medical and chemical aspects of prohibition.

A NEW chemical warfare is ravaging the bodies of millions of Americans, threatening the general health of the nation. To combat it seems a task more difficult than protecting an army against military poison gases. It challenges doctors and public health officials more than infant mortality, more than ordinary epidemics, more than keeping our milk, our drinking water and our food supplies free of pollution. I refer to the tremendous problem presented by the fact that millions of apparently intelligent Americans are daily poisoning themselves by drinking the deadly chemical concoctions which have been developed as substitutes for the conventional alcoholic beverages taken away by Prohibition.

It is as if they had resolved on a gigantic dance of death in the full of the moon; as if, by crazy incantations to sociability, they had hypnotized themselves into believing that cyanide of potassium, for instance, is a wholesome drink.

Cyanide of potassium, any chemical textbook will tell you, is a deadly poison -one of the most violent. A few drops will kill a man -will kill a horse. And yet, only the other day, in an enlightened Massachusetts city where a great electrical industry uses many barrels of industrial alcohol, I was offered a drink by a gay young man, a chemist. "It's perfectly good gin," he assured me. "We make it!"

"But tell him how we make it," his equally buoyant roommate broke in.

"This is how: Some of the alcohol used in the plant contains a small quantity of cyanide of potassium. Somebody discovered that, if you shake this alcohol with skim milk, the cyanide combines with the milk and settles to the bottom. Then we siphon off the top."

I shook my head, and declined the drink. Their method sounded about as conducive to safety as crossing your fingers when you're falling out of an airplane; about as reasonable as melting the solidified alcohol used for heat and pouring it through a silk handkerchief to purify it-a system of obtaining "potable" alcohol that was popular in a certain western state that I visited last winter.

And the next day, in the same enlightened state, in another city where is a plant making imitation ivory toilet articles, I was offered another drink. My host explained: "Our bootlegger gets his alcohol from the plant. It is perfectly good alcohol except that it is denatured with a little menthol. Some local people have drunk too much of it and got digestive trouble. But a little won't hurt you."

I DUG into my pocket for a leaflet every long-lifer needs to carry in his bill fold these days. The Government Printing Office in Washington charges five cents for it. It is called "Appendix to Regulations No. 61, Formulae for Completely and Specially Denatured Alcohol." In it are set down forty-seven formulae with which manufacturers of industrial alcohol must comply in order to make the alcohol they sell undrinkable. Formula No. 1 specifies that industrial alcohol to be used for any of more than a hundred manufacturing purposes, including the manufacture of imitation ivory, must be denatured by the addition to every 100 gallons "of five gallons approved wood alcohol." Quite different from "a little menthol"!

Somebody had lied. But lies about hooch constitute the new communicable disease.

Poisonous substances such as wood alcohol, however, tell no lies when we drink them! Wood alcohol keeps its promises, does exactly what it is expected to do when taken into our bodies-how quickly is merely a matter of conditions and how tough is the body. "In general," says Dr. Frank P. Underhill, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Yale, "the fatal dose varies between one and two ounces."

Our public hospitals, private sanitariums and doctors every day are treating men and women prostrated or blinded by wood alcohol, or suffering from the cumulative effect of small quantities used over a period of time. For wood alcohol isn't burned promptly by the body to carbon dioxide and water, as grain alcohol is.

WITH methyl (wood) alcohol poisoning," says Dr. Underhill, "the stage of excitement characteristic of ethyl (grain) alcohol is usually absent. Instead, the most outstanding feature is depression and weakness There is headache, nausea, vomiting, violent abdominal pains, muscular incoordination, weak, rapid pulse, dyspnoea, cyanosis, restlessness, non-sensitive, dilated pupils, low temperature, cold, moist skin, sometimes delirium, generally coma, infrequently convulsions, and death from respiratory failure. Total blindness may be sudden."

Since nowadays the typical man knows more about his body-and less about his drink-than the typical physician knew fifty years ago, it is worth adding that methyl and ethyl alcohol are only part of the alcohol family.

There is also amyl alcohol seven kinds -any of them five times more poisonous than ethyl or grain alcohol. But the most popular nowadays is commonly known as fusel oil.

Fusel oil is formed in fermentation. Unless you know more about chemistry than chemists, and more about quantity production of liquor than distillers, the only way you can rid new liquor of fusel oil is to age it, as long as twenty years, in charred barrels. And our modern hooch isn't aged. It isn't made in distilleries, under government supervision. It isn't, except in rare instances, made under the direction of chemists. It is made mostly by ignorant, irresponsible people from ensilage fermented for cattle; from solidified fuel alcohol; from derivatives of soap connived in a city factory. It is made in swamps and mountain fastnesses where stagnant water is used in the mash, where the mash is exposed to bacteria, where mice, rats and other animals, drowned, have been found in the mash. Lye has been used to hasten fermentation; pomanganate of potash, a deadly poison, " ages " the product. Creosote is used to give it a "bead." It is made in dingy cellars, tenements, attics, garages, homes, in laundry and bath tubs, in stills devised from auto parts, and other old metal. And the results are known from hospitals and sanitariums, from doctors, from insurance company reports, and from other authoritative sources! Government officials estimate that 600,000,000 gallons of industrial alcohol denatured with the many poisonous substances indicated in the booklet. I mentioned above are re-natured annually by bootleggers three and one half billions of dollars' worth of hooch at five dollars a quart!

As much hooch again probably is being made "from the ground up," that is, by distillation. About forty million dollars' worth, the Department or commerce estimates is being smuggled across our 17,500 miles of border line. All of this latter, except an occasional bottle is made synthetically in Canada or on Rum Row ships, or, if genuine, is diluted "cut" before it is put on the market.

THE result is that government chemists in twenty two division laboratories in as many parts of the country, engaged continuously with nothing except the analysis of seized liquor, have found that, among 100 specimens of hooch, from ninety two to 100 not only sire not up to the old-time standard of whiskey, but are actually rank poison!

In other words, wherever you drink in the United States these days, your chances of obtaining "real stuff " are never better than eight in a hundred! Recently I talked with a bio-chemist in a great university who has given years to studying the effect of poisons on our bodies. "It is too bad," he told me, "that people generally know so little about chemistry. Everyone ought to learn that you can't make good liquor in a day. It's a dreadful tragedy in knockabout farce, this idea that you can run denatured alcohol through a still just once and get pure alcohol.

"AS A matter of fact, you can't, even by the most precise fractional distillation, obtain pure alcohol the first time. There is overlapping. Distillation begins before the boiling point is reached, and the boiling point of the many denaturants varies. Grain alcohol, for instance, boils at seventy-eight degrees centigrade-and I doubt if most bootleggers know what 'centigrade' means. But the amyl alcohols, including fusel oil, an oily liquid that mixes in all proportions with alcohol, ether and benzene, come over between one hundred and one hundred thirty-seven degrees. And, on the ' other hand, to go no further, the acid aldehydes come over at around twenty degrees, early in the game, along with some of the other aldehydes, which means that these poisons are not removed, or even reduced necessarily, by distillation. They are merely removed from one container to another.

"In distilleries, where they had the finest equipment, the greatest care was taken to get rid of such poisonous substances as the aldehydes and fusel oil. Hence the heads and tails-the first and last parts of the distillate-were thrown away. Our manufacturing bootleggers, who use all kinds of crude equipment can't possibly know and apply the niceties. Besides, they're after quantity.

"BUT even though some may use the whole range of distillation, most of the hooch on the market is a devil's brew like nothing ever seen in a laboratory. It's poison! It might be less injurious if it were aged. But when you consider that it was always a disputed question among medical men and physiologists as to whether the best product of the old distilleries, scientifically made and properly aged, actually was 'fit to drink,' what can you say about the present-day hooch?"

I asked an attending physician at a great hospital in Boston, "What can you say about the present-day hooch-what's it doing to our bodies?"

"In the old days," he answered. "alcoholic poisoning was alcoholic poisoning. Whiskey was whiskey, wine was wine, beer was beer, alcohol was alcohol. So we had an alcoholic ward, logically. We find now in the medical wards symptoms that are, yet aren't alcoholic. We're having to revise our knowledge of symptoms. Diagnosis has become a fine art."

I WENT to a practicing physician in Philadelphia with the same question, " What is the present-day hooch doing to our bodies?"

"Without question," he said, "many poisonous substances heretofore used to end life are now being drunk cheerfully by millions of Americans. It's past me! In every second home to which I go, people are making things to drink which they call whiskey, wine or beer.

"Wine making is an ancient art we Americans don't understand. I am told that the casks used should be sulphured. I am told that no metal should be brought into contact with the wine. I doubt if these precautions are observed. Many people here are making beer which I understand is like making cheese. If it spoils right, you get beer; if it spoils wrong, you get something else. I imagine that it usually spoils wrong, because of the way it's made. Breweries used to be almost surgically clean. They had to be, or the beer spoiled wrong. It was a matter of good business. Special cultured yeasts no longer obtainable by the public were used. Wild yeasts are injurious. I can only guess how many families are consuming bacteria we doctors wouldn't recognize under a microscope!"

An industrial chemist in New York City, who makes tests for bootleggers, said, "I am not often called in to test beer, though it is estimated that thirty million small barrels a year, about half as much as was made in pre-Volstead days, are now being made. But in what I have tested, I have found acid-forming and other bacteria such as is present in spoiled food. In some instances I have found a pathogenic or disease-breeding condition."

I had learned from railroad figures that shipments of grapes from California had increased 500 percent in five years; that the total from California, not to count shipments from other states and consumption locally in many parts of the country, aggregated 74,834 cars in 1925. So I asked the chemist about wine. "MANY people are making wine," he said. "Much of it is made in foreign settlements where whole families crush the grapes-generally with their feet! Usually it is aged for a few months, and kept for family use, because there isn't the market demand for it that exists for hooch. Hooch is the main interest of a lot of chemists. By the way, I asked one bootlegger why he bothered to hire a chemist. 'It's good business,' he told me. `A dead customer never buys the stuff!'"

He added: "Most of them don't care a hang, can't or won't understand what the stuff they're marketing does to a drinker's body. Why, one of the most prosperous bootleggers I know landed in the alcoholic ward of Bellevue Hospital not long ago!"

I WENT, in my quest to find out what the new hooch and its new chemistry does to the human body, to Bellevue. There the busiest ambulances in the world assemble all manner of emergency cases from five of the boroughs of New York City. The alcoholic wards for both women and men are smaller, I found, than they used to be, partly because many of the patients brought in now are unconscious, and may have fractured skulls, or be suffering from any of a large new number of weird kinds of poisoning, and are sent immediately for treatment in the medical wards rather than in the alcoholic ward.

There are fewer cases of delirium tremens in Bellevue now than there used to be; fewer suffering from prolonged convulsions and wrist drop. There are fewer "repeaters "-old-timers returning again and again. There are fewer real old soaks of the kind that were associated with the three-cent whiskey that was like modern hooch, though not so destructive, I am told. The new stuff has eliminated the old soaks. They couldn't stand it! Only a few weeks back a porter at Bellevue went to a "speak-easy" for an afternoon drink. At seven he was brought in. An hour or so later he was dead.

There is a great increase, however, in the proportion of cases suffering from coma and from hallucinosis-obsession with the idea that armies, or relatives, or fiends of various sorts, are trying to kill them. In contrast with the cases in the old days, they die promptly or they clear up promptly. And why? "Because," one of the Bellevue physicians told me, "it took a long period of drinking in the old days to land a man here. He had to be saturated. It took weeks or months perhaps to get him saturated. And it took as long to get him cleared up. With present-day hooch, though, he can't get saturated. He collapses-maybe dies-long before he reaches that point.

"I account for the hallucinosis and our greater turnover by the presence in much of the modern hooch of ether and other volatile substances added to drinks to give them a 'kick.' "

Ether mixes readily with alcohol, and when so mixed the body tolerates it to some extent; but when it is taken raw an ounce is sufficient to cause death. Ether taken in drinks has caused death at Bellevue. So has benzene, a coal-tar product not to be confused with benzine, a petroleum product with which you clean your clothes. So have fusel oil, wood alcohol, formaldehyde, di-ethyl pythalate, and pyridine, all of which are used as denaturants.

BUT they are only a few of the denaturants used. Moreover, federal government requirements stipulate that in many instances two or more shall be used in combination. Thus, to every 100 gallons of alcohol to be used in photographic work, the manufacturer must add "sixty-five pounds sulphuric ether, three pounds cadium iodide, and three pounds ammonium iodide." Among still others used are acetaldehyde and soap, chloroform and shellac, acetic and tannic acid, acetone, camphor and nitro-benzene, which is used in the preparation of explosives and in the making of inks, shoe dyes and suicides. Add also aniline, a coal-tar product used in dyes; phenol or carbolic acid; pyrrol and ipecac, the emetic. Add sulphuric acid, various essential oils, quinine, ammonia, nicotine, iodine, mythlene blue, methyl salicylate, and brucine, first cousin of strychnine.

Various of this second string of denaturants, singly or in combination, are known to have caused death at Bellevue, and no doubt elsewhere. In many doubtful instances they are presumed to have had part in causing death. And in instances almost innumerable they are presumed to have contributed illness. The fact is that the symptoms arising from use of these substances in combination and in alcohol are so varied and so new in kind that nothing short of an autopsy by an expert tells the tale.

In other words, if we drink hooch, our bodies are likely to deceive us and our doctors as well.

But dead men tell no lies.

So I went to a man who knows more about dead drinkers, I am told, than anyone else in America.

ALEXANDER O. GETTLER is the toxicologist in charge of the Medical Examiner's Office in New York City. He is an authority on poisons and often called on to testify throughout the East. He is also associate professor of chemistry in New York University and is in charge of the chemical analyses made in Bellevue and Allied Hospitals.

He estimated, though the count has not carefully been made and in the confused state of diagnosis could not at best be considered final, that during 1925 there were 500 deaths-almost ten every week -directly or indirectly due to hooch, in Bellevue. Many of these, he said, occurred in the medical wards. And in addition, he stated, there have been hundreds of cases showing the cumulative as well as immediate effects of drink, including not a few showing signs of metal poisoning presumably caused by contact of alcohol and its current compounds with metals such as tin and lead.

"PROHIBITION has brought about conditions that amount to an entirely new problem," he told me. "In many instances it is impossible, short of a chemical and microscopic examination of brains and other organs, to say specifically that death came from this or that poisonous substance taken internally in drink. We can't explain most of our alcoholic deaths without autopsies. Most of them do not show conclusive signs of one poisonous substance or another. Death usually results from congestion, or, to put it in popular language, from the failure of one or more organs to function. The effect may have been immediate. It may not.

"And so far as we know there has been no scientific analysis anywhere in the United States of the physiological effects of hooch in its variety of forms. Recently, however, federal authorities have become interested, have sent representatives here, and we have been encouraged to undertake systematic analyses with a view to testing out theories we have.

"Our main theory is that there is residue from denaturants that the Government requires manufacturers to put in industrial alcohol to make it undrinkable. "This, though, is only one phase of the problem as we see it from our office. "There are two major classifications of modern whiskey. One kind is that made from industrial alcohol duly cooked and doctored with caramel and bead oils such as creosote and glycerine, along with perhaps some rye extract or Scotch extract or whatever else it needs, even a little real whiskey. The other kind is the moonshine stuff which contains free acids and aldehydes and differs in other ways from the synthetic liquors.

"Formerly, of course, all whiskey, except the `third rail' variety, was aged in charred barrels, with the result that various substances which are not desired combine with one another in what we call esterification. Not much is known about the esters except that they are less poisonous than the substances from which they are formed, and that they have a smooth taste. In freshly made whiskey there is, of course, no opportunity for poisonous substances to neutralize one another.

"OUR theory is that poisonous substances, like those taken internally day after day by habitual drinkers of modern booze, keep on gradually affecting the various organs and nerve centers until they are reflected in illness of one kind or another and finally produce death."

Another Bellevue official, an ardent "dry," by the way, and a student of alcoholic and mental cases, added:

"In New York State the Hospital Commission reports that insanity from use of alcohol has trebled in five years. I doubt the accuracy of these figures, because the symptoms from use of the stuff drunk these days are different. A better check, and still not a conclusive one, is that of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Reporting for seventeen million industrial policy holders, it says that though the death rate in general was slightly lower in 1925 than in 1924, there was an increase in the rate for influenza and pneumonia, which is frequently aggravated by alcohol; a marked increase in diabetes and cirrhosis of the liver; and, as between 1920 and 1925, an increase of nearly five hundred percent in the deaths reported-how accurately no one knows -from alcoholism."

AS A fact, no one really can say past all question what the new hooch, the new chemistry, the new chemical warfare on our bodies, is doing to us altogether.

But this we know:

Nothing whatever that we take into our bodies-not even the air we breathe-is without its effect; that there is not one chance in ninety of prohibition hooch being up to the brag; not one sound argument-except slow suicide--for its use.




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