The Triple Helix @ UChicago

Winter 2016

"Pick Your Poision: The Prohibition Era" by Irena Feng


On the night of January 16, 1920, a somber mood swept across America as the nation prepared for Prohibition, which banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol.[1] These changes had little impact on individuals who had collections of alcohol; however, those who were not as fortunate had to settle for the new drink that took the place of legal swill: wood alcohol.

Wood Alcohol

As its name suggests, wood alcohol was first synthesized from wood via destructive distillation: slabs of wood were heated to vaporize all liquids; the vapors were then condensed, distilled, and collected.[2] In history, wood alcohol (also known as methyl alcohol) was widely used, such as in embalming by the Egyptians. Today, wood alcohol appears in solvents (dissolving agents), fuels, cleaning fluids, and a variety of household items.[3] Notably, wood alcohol is also used to denature grain alcohol, turning drinkable alcohol into toxic industrial product. 

Wood alcohol is the perverse cousin of grain alcohol (also known as ethyl alcohol), the substance that provides the intoxication accompanying traditional alcohols such as beer, wine, or liquor.[3] Compared to grain alcohol, wood alcohol is much more simple in structure, comprising of a single carbon atom surrounded by three hydrogens and the hydroxyl group characteristic of all alcohols.[4] However, while grain and wood alcohol may be indistinguishable from each other in taste and smell, wood alcohol is lethal even in minute doses.[2]

Succumbing to Poison

While our livers neatly dispatch of grain alcohol by turning it into harmless products such as water and carbon dioxide, they struggle with wood alcohol. The process of breaking down wood alcohol forms formaldehyde and formic acid, which are toxic to the body.[5] Formaldehyde is known as an irritant and exhibits neurotoxic effects against the nervous system.[6] Formic acid is most recognized as part of bee sting venom, inhibiting cytochrome oxidase complex in mitochondrial respiration, which produces energy for the body.[7] The amount of each in wood alcohol poisoning is enough to cause abnormally high levels of acid in the body, which could lead to coma or death.[8] 

The poisoning process unfolds in two stages: first, the affected individual experiences a shorter intoxication period than expected while the wood alcohol diffuses through the body; then, severe dizziness ensues as the newly formed toxins begin to wreak havoc on the internal organs. Physical signs of poisoning include sudden weakness, severe stomach pain and vomiting, and blindness.[9] 

The most sensitive areas to this poisoning are the eyes, brain, and lungs since blood flow to those regions is higher, and therefore they are subject to a higher influx of poisonous products. In the eyes, the optic nerve and retina are very sensitive to formic acid salts; autopsies done on victims of wood alcohol poisoning show swelling and bloodiness in the optic nerve area, resulting in sudden blindness.[10] In the brain, the parietal cortex (the visual processing center) is also damaged, often with shrunken or destroyed neurons.[6] Nor are the lungs exempt from this chaos: because the lungs work in a high metabolic state with oxygen intake, formaldehyde and formic acid concentrate there, inflaming lung tissue[8,9] and possibly leading to the victim’s death.

Illegal Options Aplenty

With the law banning the manufacturing and distribution of the innocuous grain alcohol, illegal saloons, known as speakeasies, turned to other sources of alcohol to satisfy thirsty customers.[11] Luckily, alcohol still existed aplenty as industrial product. Many attempted to take denatured solutions and re-distill them into non-toxic alcohol, typically with little success. 

A new generation of cocktails appeared as bartenders tried to mask the wood alcohol in their drinks, adding fruit juices and more to popularize the drink. In the poorer speakeasies, however, cocktails couldn’t be as fancy. One particularly famous drink from New York’s Hell’s Kitchen was called “Smoke”; simply a cloudy concoction of water and fuel alcohol, it was incredibly cheap and deadly.[9] 

While Smoke poisoned drinkers with wood alcohol, other drinks had different methods. Ginger Jake, for example, caused paralysis and loss of limb control after a night out drinking. As later discovered, Ginger Jake was synthesized by taking a tonic and adding plasticizer[9] (used to keep plastic from becoming brittle) to induce intoxication. This lethal combination forms organophosphates, neurotoxins that eventually shred nerve cells in the spinal cord.[12]

Government-Sanctioned Poision

The original intention of Prohibition was to eliminate alcohol in a wave of religious revivalism, as many political leaders viewed alcohol as a threat to familial and marital relations. With the rapid rise of speakeasies and their methods of distilling industrial product, the government scrambled to find new ways to discourage drinkers. Since toxic liquor couldn’t dissuade drinkers, the government’s plan of action was to increase the toxicity of their next target: industrial alcohol.[13] 

Re-distillation of industrial alcohol was usually fairly unsuccessful, with substantial amounts of wood alcohol remaining in each drink. However, this lethality did not deter people from drinking. The government responded by requiring more added chemicals in industrial alcohol, which made it more difficult to distill, attempting to force liquor syndicates to give up. Common additives included benzene, kerosene, gasoline, formaldehyde, petroleum products, ether, or simply more wood alcohol.[9,13] 

The Chemist’s War became a hallmark of Prohibition, with government chemists working against the distillers producing semi-drinkable alcohol, doing little to stopper the drinking throughout the nation. According to medical reports, deaths from acute and chronic alcoholism in New York City alone tripled from 2714 deaths in 1921, to 6602 in 1924.[14] Having failed to build a less corrupt society, the federal government eventually ended Prohibition.[15]

The End

     The night before the official annulment of Prohibition, December 6, 1933 rolled around with much more festivity than fourteen years earlier. When Prohibition was officially repealed, retail stores and high-class hotels alike rolled out the now-legal wines and cocktails in celebration. Poisonous wood alcohol faded from society and once again yielded to its milder cousin, grain alcohol. To this day, despite being the less toxic of the two, grain alcohol is more widely consumed and thus remains the better killer.


[1] Staff. 2009. “Prohibition.” Accessed 18 February 2016. 
[2] Solomons, T.W. Graham, Craig B. Fryhle, and Scott A. Snyder. 2014. “Important Alcohols and Ethers.” In Organic Chemistry, 11th ed., 503. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 
[3] “Alcohol.” 2016. Accessed February 10. 
[4] Vale, Allister. 2007. “Methanol.” Medicine 35 (12): 633–34. Accessed 10 February 2016. doi:10.1016/j.mpmed.2007.09.014. 
[5] Heller, Jacob L. 2015. “Methanol Poisoning.” MedlinePlus. U.S. National Library of Medicine. 
[6] Songur, Ahmet, Oguz Aslan Ozen, and Mustafa Sarsilmaz. 2010. “The Toxic Effect of Formaldehyde on the Nervous System.” In Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 203:105–18. Springer New York. Accessed 18 February 2016. 
[7] Liesivuori, Jyrki, and Heikki Savolainea. 1991. “Methanol and Formic Acid Toxicity: Biochemical Mechanisms.” Pharmocology & Toxicology 69 (3): 157–63. Accessed 18 February 2016. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0773.1991.tb01290.x. 
[8] “Formic Acid [MAK Value Documentation, 2003].” 2012. In The MAK Collection for Occupational Health and Safety, 19:170–80. Accessed 18 February 2016. 
[9] Blum, Deborah. 2010. The Poisoner’s Handbook. Penguin Books. 
[10] Mittal, BV, AP Desai, and KR Khade. 1991. “Methyl Alcohol Poisoning: An Autopsy Study of 28 Cases.” Journal of Postgraduate Medicine 37 (1): 9–13. Accessed 10 February 2016. 
[11] Reitman, Ben L. 1919. “Green Giraffe Haunts Jag on Wood Alcohol.” Chicago Tribune, December 29. 
[12] Abou-Donia, Mohamed B. 2003. “Organophosphorus Ester-Induced Chronic Neurotoxicity.” Archives of Environmental Health 58 (8): 484–97. ISSN:0003-9896. 
[13] Blum, Deborah. 2010. “The Chemist’s War.” Slate. 19 February 2010. Accessed 10 February 2016. 
[14] “Dr. Norris’s Poison Liquor Report.” 1927. The Literary Digest, February 14. Accessed 25 February 2016. 
[15] “Prohibition: America’s Failed ‘Noble Experiment.’” 2012. CBS News. June 12. Accessed 10 February 2016.

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