National Affairs: No Beverage

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PROHIBITION No Beverage Poisoning is a grim, sordid phase of Prohibition. The most rabid anti-salooner would find it hard to vilify a lawbreaker who went shrieking to death with poison scourging his entrails. Last week an epidemic of poison liquor deaths struck Manhattan. John Becak, wagon driver for the Morgue, said he never had such a busy week. During three days 33 persons succumbed. Most of the deaths were caused by wood alcohol. Most of them occurred on the lower east side waterfront. The city police arrested purveyors of a decoction known as "smoke" which sells at 5¢ or 10¢^per glass. "Smoke" is usually composed of pure alcohol and coloring matter. What had happened was a sudden, general substitution of wood alcohol for pure alcohol.— Mayor James John Walker said the vendors of wood alcohol were guilty of homicide, that it was up to the District Attorney's office to act. Everyone expected the intervention and assistance of Federal forces, lately so loudly active in Manhattan. But no one expected what actually happened. The Federals announced that the government could do absolutely nothing. The statement of the Federal Grand Jury read as follows: "Inasmuch as wood alcohol is not a beverage, but a recognized poison (analogous to prussic acid or iodine) and its use and sale are not regulated by any of the Federal laws, we respectfully report that in those particular instances the subject matter is for the consideration of the State authorities rather than the Federal authorities. The State laws regulate the sale of poisons and provide for punishment for their improper use and sale."

—The chemical names for wood alcohol and grain ("pure") alcohol are methyl and ethyl respectively. Beverages, being luxuries, are scarcely ever duty-free. But industrialists demand a duty-free alcohol for commercial purposes. Wood alcohol was devised to meet this need. It is simply denaturized "pure" alcohol. Denaturization means the addition of a substance which renders the original unwholesome. The wood-spirit and other substances used in the making of wood alcohol are poisonous. Hearty drinkers of wood alcohol are killed by paralysis of the nervous system.