Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Prohibition Hijinks and NPR's Memory Hole

When I came downstairs today my wife had on the Diane Rehm Show which incredibly featured a rebroadcast of the program with Bill Bryson from Sepember 30, 2013 talking about his book One Summer: America. 1927. It was near the end of the show and I said, "Listen--you've got to hear this. This is where he talks about the government poisoning people during Prohibition." What I discovered was that they had re-edited the show to remove the last part of the interview (including the mention of Wayne B. Wheeler and the poisoning of the alcohol supply) entirely.

The original show archive seems to not have been edited (yet) and is available for download at this link. Here is the end portion of the transcript of the original:

REHM 11:54:35

Indeed. I've got to ask you about one more thing, and that's prohibition and the role the U.S. government played in, in fact, apparently poisoning some people.

BRYSON 11:54:50

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, if there was a single thing that just totally astonished me, it was the discovery that the American government was randomly but intensely poisoning its own citizens in prohibition -- during prohibition as a way of trying to make everybody behave.

REHM 11:55:05


BRYSON 11:55:05

Well, it was -- they would put strychnine or mercury or some other serious toxic substance in industrial alcohol. Because what was happening was they hadn't really thought this through at the beginning but when they made prohibition, they forgot that you still need a lot of industrial alcohol for making things like paint thinners and nail varnish and all that stuff. So millions and millions of gallons of alcohol was still being legally produced and it wasn't very hard to divert that and kind of doctor it up and make into sort of bootleg gin or whatever.

BRYSON 11:55:34

So as a way of discouraging people from doing that, the government in its wisdom would pour in all of these things that would actually blind or maim or even kill people. And that was still -- some of it was still getting diverted.

REHM 11:55:47

Who had charge of doing that? Who made that decision?

BRYSON 11:55:49

Well, if there was one human being who was responsible for this it was a guy named Wayne B. Wheeler who was a mousy little man who ran the anti-saloon league. And he was so vehemently against drinking. I mean, he really believed that it was at the root of all evil, that he and his followers insisted that instead of just putting detergents or soap or something else that would make industrial alcohol unpalatable but wouldn't actually kill you, they insisted, no no. These people should be killed. It's against the law. It's the law of the land. And if they decide to drink alcohol and they don't know what the source of it is, they're committing suicide.

REHM 11:56:25

How many people died?

BRYSON 11:56:27

Well, they don't know. The numbers are all over the place. It could be...

REHM 11:56:29

Thirteen thousand or thirty thousand, whatever.

BRYSON 11:56:32

Yeah, I mean, some sources will say, you know -- because it just wasn't always -- a lot of it was kept secret, you know, or the people -- it was caused -- some other cause. So -- but what is certain is that that the government was, you know, poisoning people. And what's really interesting is the people like Al Capone -- the reason -- part of the reason -- big part of the reason that they thrived was because their drink was safe. You know, you could count on stuff you were getting from Al Capone.

REHM 11:56:57

And on that note we'll end our discussion sadly because there's lots more in this book. Bill Bryson, so good to see you.


Anonymous said...


drizzz said...

Wow! Wonder what they're up to now? Thank you for posting this!