Not to put too fine a spin on it, but, there’s a lot of jargon for illegal alcohol during Prohibition: hooch, horse liniment, coffin varnish, gigglewater (no, JK Rowling did not invent this term), brown plaid, busthead, moonshine, panther piss, skee, rot gut, white lightening… Well, you get the picture.
One thing they have in common, though, is their danger.
I don’t mean danger to the bootleggers, although there was that. No, I’m talking about the risk people took just drinking bootleg liquor. One slang term for illegal alcohol during that time pretty much sums up that danger: strike-me-dead.
Although there aren’t firm statistics about “deaths by hooch”, Edward Behr, in his book Prohibition: Thirteen Years that Changed America, cites a report by the 1930 Prohibition Bureau for a small county in Kansas, in which they noted over 15,000 victims of adulterated liquor. 15,000! In one month! In one tiny county!
Adulterated liquor, it turns out, is denatured alcohol, which was both legal and tax exempt during Prohibition. The denaturing agent, methanol, was highly toxic—so lethal, Behr points out, that three glasses of this tainted hooch could kill you—and yet there were no provisions set forth in the Volstead Act to label this alcohol as poisonous.
We don’t think about this aspect of Prohibition much in our 21st Century romanticized version of the era. Instead, it’s all Gatsby-esque speakeasies, flapper dresses, and gangsters wearing fancy pinstriped suits and fedoras. But the truth is, if you were lucky, the alcohol you drank was simply diluted, while the majority of readily available liquor during this era was pure grain [denatured] alcohol to which coloring and flavoring were added.
You literally took your life in your hands each time you picked up a drink.
I’m wondering what Harold is going to make of this? He is, after all, basically a good guy, caught up in circumstances beyond his control.
But that doesn’t absolve us of responsibility, now, does it?
Behr, Edward. Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America, Arcade Publishing, New York, 2013, pp. 221–222.