Did The Government Really Poison Alcohol During Prohibition?

When you think of Prohibition, you probably think of old stereotypes from movies and TV — gangsters with thick Brooklyn and Chicago accents firing off machine guns at police officers while driving Model Ts full of bootleg moonshine to hot jazz music. What you probably don't think about is the United States government lacing that same bootleg liquor with poison to kill anyone who drinks it.

It's no secret that law enforcement grew rapidly in the 1900s, and even more so during the 1920s with the developments of what would become the modern-day FBI. According to PBS, many Americans feared that the formation of a federal police force would soon lead to a corrupt, heavy-handed secret police force, and with national scandals like the Teapot Dome and rumors of fascism in Europe, these fears only grew. Although such fears were understandable, the Bureau of Investigation needed to increase its manpower in order to combat the rise of organized crime during the Prohibition years. When J. Edgar Hoover stepped up to the position of Director in 1924 (via the Federal Bureau of Investigation's timeline), there needed to be a massive overhaul of the organization. During the years of bootleg liquor-running, mafia hits, gangster families, and notorious outlaws of legend, the FBI adopted new scientific and technological practices, such as fingerprinting and its crime lab, until it became a powerful defender of the law staffed by veteran "G-men."

But would the government stoop so low as to kill its own citizens with poisoned liquor?

Snopes claims the story is mixed

As the story goes, the U.S. government added lethal chemicals into liquor in order to kill anyone who drank it. This would not only scare people into giving up drinking, but also give the government more power to control the selling of illegal alcohol. So widespread was this insidious practice that it was rumored that 10,000 people died from consuming tainted alcohol. Is such a claim true or an infamous urban legend?

According to Snopes, the story is false — at least, a part of it is. While Snopes claims that the government never purposefully sold tainted alcohol to its people, there was actually some encouragement to do so. The addition of adding lethal chemicals to alcohol was not meant to kill anyone (unless they drank it willingly, of course) but instead to make the alcohol undrinkable, thus destroying the supply of a gangster's stash. The claim that 10,000 people died from alcohol poisoning may be true, but this was mainly due to people consuming poorly-distilled alcohol sold by amateur brewers.

Slate, however, isn't so lenient with the government. They report that such a claim is similar to the United States government spraying Mexican marijuana fields with herbicide in the 1970s, implying that the government may not have been too afraid to use a similar tactic on its own people. 

While the FBI refutes that it had ever been involved in purposefully poisoning American citizens, it seems there are some who still carry doubt.