On January 15, 1922, THE New York Times reported that 35-year-old Robert Doyle, a veteran of World War One, was found blinded and afraid in his rooming house on West 23rd Street. A doctor conveyed Doyle to the hospital, where he died six hours later. The paper also reported the death of another local man—he had brought alcohol home from his workplace to add to his coffee. The problem was that America was in the midst of Prohibition, and he had worked at a furniture-polishing company. Both men had drunk a fatal dose of wood, or methyl, alcohol.
These deaths were part of an epidemic of alcohol poisonings that swept the country after the United States made the manufacture and sale of alcohol illegal in 1919. An illicit alcohol industry boomed, and despite increased border security, alcohol flowed in from Mexico and Canada. But some bootleggers, eager to cash in on black market prices, wanted to sell alcohol made closer to home. The government could ban the brewing of beer, but not the production of industrial alcohol, which was used to make everything from perfume to paint. So when bootleggers redistilled industrial alcohol to make it drinkable, the federal government responded by requiring manufacturers to add in increasing amounts of poison.