At Christmas-time in the year 1926, New York City’s Bellevue Hospital was suddenly inundated with over 60 partygoers and others apparently suffering with alcohol-induced hallucinations. One such patient kept telling nurses that Santa Claus was chasing him with a baseball bat. He died, along with seven others, before Christmas Day was over. The situation got worse over the next couple of days as festive celebrations accounted for another 23 deaths in the city.
Alcohol poisoning was not uncommon during the Prohibition era. Bootleg whisky was often inadvertently contaminated with metals and impurities, so doctors were quite familiar with the consequent sickness and related symptoms. But this was different. This was poisoning by order of the U.S Government!
An estimated 60 million gallons of denatured industrial alcohol was stolen annually in the 1920s by bootleggers who “renatured” it and sold it as drinkable alcohol. President Coolidge’s government grew increasingly frustrated by the moonshiners and the burgeoning culture of illicit drinking, so federal officials decided to deter such criminality by adding a contaminant called Formula No. 5 to the nation’s supply of industrial alcohol. With this cocktail of chemicals, chemists acting on behalf of the government believed they had hit on a formula that the bootleggers would struggle to make safe.
They were right. According to some estimates, over 10,000 people lost their lives directly as a result of this action before Prohibition ended in 1933. Many others were blinded. New York’s chief medical examiner Charles Norris described it as a “national experiment in extermination”. “The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol,” he stated. “Yet 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.”