A JSS member recently brought up a news item that I just recently got a chance to check out. It may not be Admiral Ackbar for Ole Miss, but it’s a good one.
Ah, prohibition. What horrible thing haven’t already been said about it?
Who knows? I’m here to provide yet another tale of terror from the days of bootleggers, moonshiners, and the old nemesis, the still-smashing gubmet revenuer .
That’s because Deborah Blum has written a book, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. And in the book, there’s quite the tale of a man named Chuck Norris. No, not that Chuck Norris. A different, equally bad-assed Chuck Norris. Charles Norris.
One of the issues at play in Prohibition was that, as a society, we need alcohol. I’m not speaking (strictly) of drinkable alcohol, either. Alcohol is a handy industrial solvent, cleaner, antifreeze, and fuel. You can use it in Gel electrophoresis, but they didn’t exactly have that back then.
Ethyl alcohol, ethanol, the stuff that gets you drunk, works wonderfully in a lot of other roles. But, to prevent it from being drinkable, the traditional method of making your alcohol tax (and Prohibition) exempt is to add methyl alcohol, something on the order of one percent. This process is called denaturing. I should note that this is not what you chemists and biologists think of as “denaturing,” the chemical structure of the ethanol does not change in any way, it only has the nasty-tasting wood alcohol (aka methyl alcohol) added to it.
Of course, the olde pyroxylic spirit is toxic. At first, you get the nice feelings of drunkeness and euphoria. Followed by blindness, coma, and death, if you get enough of the stuff. It metabolizes nastily in the liver, pumping you full of formic acid, among other things. Yes, formic acid, the stuff that bees and ants use to lay down the pain. Wicked fun, eh?
So these crafty bootleggers were stealing, and then re-naturing the denatured alcohol; distilling the stuff back to a purer, drinkable form. Sometimes it went poorly, and people died, but hey, organized crime shed some tears, I’m sure.
Vexed by people continuing to drink, the government made the kind of decision that keeps conspiracy theorists going. Make it more poisonous.
More methyl alcohol. A tiny bit and you’re fine. A little bit and you’re hallucinating and blind. A tiny bit more, and that’s it for you. And they added up to ten percent of the stuff.
Suddenly, dead partygoers started showing up in New York. (Well, more than usual). The local medical examiner, one Charles Norris, held press conferences warning the public, decrying the government actions, and performing toxicology on stolen alcohol that the police confiscated. The laundry list of toxins government scientists added (fun using that anti-vaxxer phrase) reads like what Mike Adams thinks are in vaccines: Gasoline. Benzene. Cadmium. Iodine. Zinc. Mercury salts. Nicotine. Ether. Camphor. Chloroform. Carbolic Acid.
And it’s not like people didn’t know. Even Senators found out. . “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,” – Sen. James Reed of Missouri.
Eventually, the alcohol poisoning program ended, before prohibition, and has remained silent for many years.
But murderous bureaucracy wasn’t the only enemy of Charles Norris. Here you can see him go after chiropractors, telling stories that seem to be straight off of Whats the Harm. In one, a boy with appendicitis is chiro-manipulated in a manner that causes the abscess to fatally burst. Norris describes the treatment as “punching him and roughly handling the spine.” In another, an aneurysm is set off by the pressures of manipulating the neck.
The New York times article is well worth reading simply for the 1922 language. I felt like I was reading a pulp magazine, with breathless exultation, exciting, terse editing, and none of the tedious PR-corporate syntax that permeates all of modern journalism – what Neil Stephenson calls “Bullshytt” in his book Anathema.
Also interesting to note is that Norris is seen in the article backing off of Christian Scientists who have given up treating “cancer and infectious disease,” a change since the time of Mark Twain. These things are like weighted pendulums, and we find ourselves learning the only learned lesson of history: That people do not learn from history.