Gimme That Old Time Poisonin'

shutterstock_35269411It's not often that an article about chemistry reaches the "most popular" articles list on Slate. Perhaps the last one was a much-talked-about Slate article about the UCLA/Sheri Sangji case. Unlike the Sangji article, this story from Friday was about something I'd never heard of before- during Prohibition, the U.S. government ordered the adulteration of industrial alcohol in order to thwart bootleggers and stop people from drinking. As author Deborah Blum explains, that didn't go so well. Poisoned holiday revelers died by the dozens in the nation's hospitals. And outraged public health officials and anti-Prohibition legislators had harsh words for the government's ethically dubious chemistry dabblings. Since most liquor syndicates were simply taking denatured industrial alcohol, which has additives put in to make it undrinkable, and distilling it to remove said additives, the feds decided to make that distillation a bit more complicated. From Blum's article:
By mid-1927, the new denaturing formulas included some notable poisons—kerosene and brucine (a plant alkaloid closely related to strychnine), gasoline, benzene, cadmium, iodine, zinc, mercury salts, nicotine, ether, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, carbolic acid, quinine, and acetone. The Treasury Department also demanded more methyl alcohol be added—up to 10 percent of total product. It was the last that proved most deadly.
A couple of chemistry thoughts went through my head as I read Blum's piece: How easy is it to separate methanol and ethanol? I pulled out my CRC Handbook, checking to see whether there was an azeotrope- there was none to be found. I also dug up this brochure. Anybody out there know how this works? The strychnine mention recalled a lecture on poisons I attended several years ago. The professor who gave the lecture told the crowd that the lecture was a favorite of undergrads. I could see why. He started off dramatic, pacing the front of the room with a white coffee mug filled with water and a small, non-lethal (he assured us) dose of strychnine. Then he had us dip a finger in the mug and taste it. I am not making this up. Whatever was in that mug was bitter almost to the point of gagging. The professor explained that at a lethal dose of strychnine, the bitterness would be overwhelming, so it wasn't a perfect poison, as poisons go. The stuff probably was strychnine- The Merck Index writes that a solution containing as little as 1 part strychnine to 700,000 parts of water will still taste bitter. Brucine, the alkaloid mentioned above, is a little less bitter than strychnine (the threshold for tasting bitterness in the tetrahydrate is 1:220,000, again per the Merck Index). But I'm guessing that for the poor souls drinking that bootlegged swill, bitterness was the least of their problems. Image: Shutterstock

Author: Carmen Drahl

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  1. Carmen, this is a great post.

  2. The separation of methanol from ethanol is quite difficult if you do not have a high efficiency column. I imagine that few people in the twenties and thirties had any thing more sophisticated that a simple bulb to bulb apparatus.

  3. Thanks CJ- while I was writing this up I had some fun over at the Sigma-Aldrich website, checking to see exactly what percentages of methanol, etc they use to denature ethanol.

    This one’s got 5% MeOH, 5% isopropyl alcohol, but if you go down the list of products the denaturants vary- they include toluene, 2-butanone, and more. Now I’m wondering how different 5% and 10% MeOH really are, or at least what the original percentage of MeOH in industrial ethanol was, prior to the feds’ upping it to ten.

  4. I don’t know the original ratio of MeOH to EtOH, but considering the treatment for MeOH poisoning is an IV drip of EtOH I’m sure if you backtrack from a toxicology/medicine report about MeOH poisoning you could figure out the optimal ratio and assume that the MeOH concentration was at or below that.

    It must’ve sucked to be a college student during prohibition. Knowing you have that end of the week bender (mid-week at a Playboy-rated party school) to look forward to makes the drudgery of the regular week more bearable.

  5. Thanks for the link, David. Seems like her new book is sticking to the classic/Jazz Age poisons- but it’d be great to see some more awesome natural product poisons get a nod in there. Palytoxin’s a favorite of mine.

  6. Strychnine was a recreational drug in the first part of the Twentieth Century.

    In HG Wells’ THE INVISIBLE MAN the title character uses it.

    It was a performance enhancer, like speed.

  7. @OpC- Thanks for the HG Wells reference. Yet another book I’ve yet to read.
    From the Project Gutenberg e-book:
    “After a time I crawled home, took some food and a strong dose of
    strychnine, and went to sleep in my clothes on my unmade bed.
    Strychnine is a grand tonic, Kemp, to take the flabbiness out of
    a man.”

    “It’s the devil,” said Kemp. “It’s the palaeolithic in a bottle.”

    “I awoke vastly invigorated and rather irritable. You know?”

    “I know the stuff.”