Americas,  ER,  United States

Chuck Norris and Prohibition

Dr. Charles Norris- Photo Credit- PBS American Experience
Dr. Charles Norris- Photo Credit- PBS American Experience

No Virginia, I do not mean Chuck Norris the martial arts expert.  I am referring to Dr. Charles Norris of Hoboken, NJ who grew up to be New York City’s first medical examiner.  Working with toxicologist Dr. Alexander Gettler, the two revolutionized the science of forensic pathology.  You can thank them for every CSI show on television today.

The two of them worked for the state of New York at the height of prohibition.  Coroners in New York was a government job like everything else and handed out like a political appointment.  Many were corrupt and charged fees to turn over a body or sold causes of death on the death certificate.  Norris was Ivy League educated with training in Europe.  He and Dr. Gettler worked tirelessly to elevate the scientific procedure of toxicology and forensic pathology with innovative lab techniques and methodical documentation despite public perception and lack of funds.  They began to notice a disturbing trend.  People were dropping dead of poisoning and all signs were pointing the poison being in the alcohol.  On Christmas Eve of 1926,more than  60 people came to the hospital with alcohol induced hallucinations and sickness.  8 of them died.

But it was prohibition?  How were these people getting alcohol.  Well, speak easies and illegal hootch were everywhere.  The rich got the good stuff, smuggled in from Europe and Canada.  The poor got the homemade stuff, which was not always safe.  The problem was they would take industrial alcohol and put it in home stills to make drinkable alcohol.  There could be tainting from impurities, but this outbreak was far more widespread.  What was found was this was all courtesy of the US government.  To keep people from making their own alcohol, industrial alcohol had a denaturing process added.  Most of the time it was adding poisonous methyl alcohol.  In 1927, the government required that 10% methyl alcohol had to be added to any industrial alcohol as well as a variety of poisons including 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.  This did not stop bootleggers from stealing large quantities of industrial alcohol to turn into product.  Because of the high percentage of methyl alcohol, the bootlegger’s chemists could not get it all out.  The bootleggers didn’t care and began selling the tainted product.  Hence the rising body count.  

Destroying alcohol in accordance with Prohibition Photo Credit- Google Images
Destroying alcohol in accordance with Prohibition Photo Credit- Google Images

Medical Examiner Norris had a first row seat to the carnage and was outraged.  He called a press conference and said, “The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol.  [Y]et it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison. Knowing this to be true, the United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible.”    He became an outspoken opponent of prohibition because of its effects on the poorest members of society.  They were the one suffering as they did not have access to the finer imported liquor, which was made safely.

His department offered warnings to the public about the dangers of bootleg liquor.  One bulletin in 1928 said, “[P]ractically all the liquor that is sold in New York today is toxic.”  Norris made sure to publicize every death due to alcohol poisoning and had his Dr. Gettler analyze any whiskey confiscated for poisons and published the results.  Deaths continued to rise throughout prohibition due to alcohol poisoning- 400 in 1926 and 700 in 1927- and countless more were ill.  The public was outraged.

Then once the 18th amendment was repealed, the outrage died away.  We forgot the the government tried to poison us to keep us moral, and the work of the good Dr. Norris, who died in 1935.  For more on Dr. Norris, please refer to the following post



Sources available on request