War On Drugs 3.1
January 13, 2018
War On Drugs 3.3
January 25, 2018
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Part two of third series. The Eighteenth Amendment is passed. And then repealed. Thousands of people die along the way.


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Theme music: Holy Deep by The Passion HiFi

Show Notes:

  • A lot of the public resentment against alcohol was also a form of racism and white nationalism.
  • The immigrant men who came to the country, particularly the Germans, Irish and Italians, tended to frequent saloons that catered to their particular nationality.
  • In a backlash to the emerging reality of a changing American demographic, many prohibitionists subscribed to the doctrine of nativism, in which they endorsed the notion that America was made great as a result of its white Anglo-Saxon ancestry.
  • The 1914 Congressional record states — Liquor traffic is “responsible for 25% of the poverty, 37% of the pauperism, 45.8% of child misery, 25% of insanity, 19.5% of divorces, and 50% of the crime. These are grave charges, and their truth has not been denied.”
  • In March 1917, the 65th Congress convened, in which the dries – prohibitionists – outnumbered the wets – anti-prohibitionists – by 140 to 64 in the Democratic Party and 138 to 62 among Republicans.
  • With America’s declaration of war against Germany in April, German Americans, a major force against prohibition, were sidelined and their protests subsequently ignored.
  • In addition, a new justification for prohibition arose: prohibiting the production of alcoholic beverages would allow more resources—especially grain that would otherwise be used to make alcohol—to be devoted to the war effort. While wartime prohibition was a spark for the movement, World War I ended before nationwide Prohibition was enacted.
  • A resolution calling for a Constitutional amendment, the 18th Amendment, to accomplish nationwide Prohibition was introduced in Congress and passed by both houses in December 1917.
  • It called the production, transport, and sale of alcohol (though not the consumption or private possession) illegal.
  • By January 16, 1919, the Amendment had been ratified by 36 of the 48 states, making it law, despite being vetoed by Woodrow Wilson.
  • Eventually, only two states—Connecticut and Rhode Island—opted out of ratifying it.
  • On October 28, 1919, Congress passed enabling legislation, known as the Volstead Act, to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment when it went into effect in 1920.
  • Prohibition began on January 16, 1920, when the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect.
  • A total of 1,520 Federal Prohibition agents (police) were tasked with enforcement.
  • Winston Churchill believed that Prohibition was “an affront to the whole history of mankind”
  • Of course, in the months between the passing of the legislation and its enactment, rich people were able to hoard massive quantities of it and stock it in their cellars.
  • They bought the inventories of liquor retailers and wholesalers, emptying out their warehouses, saloons, and club storerooms.
  • President Woodrow Wilson moved his own supply of alcoholic beverages to his Washington residence after his term of office ended.
  • His successor, Warren G. Harding, relocated his own large supply into the White House after inauguration
  • The poor, on the other hand, were fucked.
  • They couldn’t afford to stock up.
  • But they, like the rich, still wanted to drink.
  • This of course lead to the development of a black market.
  • And bootleggers like the Five Points Gang in NY.
  • Five Points was started by Paul Kelly, born as Paolo Antonio Vaccarelli, an Italian American.
  • Over the years, Kelly recruited youths who later became prominent criminals, such as Johnny Torrio, Al Capone and Lucky Luciano.
  • Capone moved to Chicago with Torrio and ended up the boss of the Chicago Outfit at 26.
  • And he ran as massive bootlegging operation including breweries and importing whiskey from Canda.
  • He said “I am just a businessman, giving the people what they want”; and, “All I do is satisfy a public demand.”
  • He based himself in in Cicero, Illinois.
  • Good ol’ Cicero.
  • We can’t let him go.
  • Cui bono.
  • And the authorities had never counted on such a huge illegal operation to supply booze to the poor.
  • They hadn’t built up a big enough policing force to deal with it.
  • people continued to drink—and in large quantities.
  • Alcoholism rates soared during the 1920s; insurance companies charted the increase at more than 300 more percent.
  • Speakeasies promptly opened for business.
  • By the decade’s end, some 30,000 existed in New York City alone.
  • Rigorous enforcement had managed to slow the smuggling of alcohol from Canada and other countries.
  • But crime syndicates responded by stealing massive quantities of industrial alcohol—used in paints and solvents, fuels and medical supplies—and redistilling it to make it potable.
  • Industrial alcohol is basically grain alcohol with some unpleasant chemicals mixed in to render it undrinkable.
  • The U.S. government started requiring this “denaturing” process in 1906 for manufacturers who wanted to avoid the taxes levied on potable spirits.
  • The U.S. Treasury Department, charged with overseeing alcohol enforcement, estimated that by the mid-1920s, some 60 million gallons of industrial alcohol were stolen annually to supply the country’s drinkers.
  • In response, in 1926, President Calvin Coolidge’s government decided to turn to chemistry as an enforcement tool.
  • Some 70 denaturing formulas existed by the 1920s.
  • Most simply added poisonous methyl alcohol into the mix.
  • Others used bitter-tasting compounds that were less lethal, designed to make the alcohol taste so awful that it became undrinkable.
  • To sell the stolen industrial alcohol, the liquor syndicates employed chemists to “renature” the products, returning them to a drinkable state.
  • The bootleggers paid their chemists a lot more than the government did, and they excelled at their job.
  • Stolen and redistilled alcohol became the primary source of liquor in the country.
  • So federal officials ordered manufacturers to make their products far more deadly.
  • By mid-1927, the new denaturing formulas included some notable poisons—kerosene and brucine (a plant alkaloid closely related to strychnine), gasoline, benzene, cadmium, iodine, zinc, mercury salts, nicotine, ether, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, carbolic acid, quinine, and acetone.
  • The Treasury Department also demanded more methyl alcohol be added—up to 10 percent of total product.
  • It was the last that proved most deadly.
  • The results were immediate, starting with a horrific holiday body count in the closing days of 1926.
  • Public health officials responded with shock.
  • “The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol,” New York City medical examiner Charles Norris said at a hastily organized press conference.
  • “[Y]et it continues its poisoning processes, 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, although it cannot be held legally responsible.”
  • His department issued warnings to citizens, detailing the dangers in whiskey circulating in the city: “[P]ractically all the liquor that is sold in New York today is toxic,” read one 1928 alert.
  • He publicized every death by alcohol poisoning.
  • He assigned his toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, to analyze confiscated whiskey for poisons—that long list of toxic materials I cited came in part from studies done by the New York City medical examiner’s office.
  • Norris also condemned the federal program for its disproportionate effect on the country’s poorest residents.
  • Wealthy people, he pointed out, could afford the best whiskey available.
  • Most of those sickened and dying were those “who cannot afford expensive protection and deal in low grade stuff.”
  • And the numbers were not trivial.
  • In 1926, in New York City, 1,200 were sickened by poisonous alcohol; 400 died.
  • The following year, deaths climbed to 700.
  • These numbers were repeated in cities around the country as public-health officials nationwide joined in the angry clamor.
  • Furious anti-Prohibition legislators pushed for a halt in the use of lethal chemistry.
  • “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,” proclaimed Sen. James Reed of Missouri.
  • So Prohibition was a massive failure.
  • The public viewed Prohibition laws as “arbitrary and unnecessary”, and therefore were willing to break the law.
  • Unpopular, unsuccessful, and most importantly, it deprived the economy of the tax revenue from alcohol.
  • When the Great Depression hit in 1929, the country suddenly needed every dime it could bring in.
  • FDR campaigned in 1932 on ending Prohibition.
  • When he became Pres in 1933, the 18th Amendment was repealed.
  • The only time an Amendment has been repealed.
  • So why can’t you do that with the Second?
  • Anyway – the Prohibition experiment was over.

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