Coronation Block — wood alcohol drinking binge went on for two days and resulted in the death of 11 men and blinded another

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)

The high cost of legal liquor and the accompanying strict regulations governing its sale by the Manitoba Liquor Control Commission — whether it was beer, wine or distilled spirits — forced many of Winnipeg’s poorer residents to seek alternative methods of slaking their thirst.

“Hence the establishment of stills, large and small in the houses, barns, farm premises and all sorts of out-of-the-way places here ... The liquor they distill varies similarly — from the vilest kind of chain lightning to the double-distilled ‘69  O.P.’ (Winnipeg Tribune, January 2, 1924).

The illegal distillers had ready-made markets on both sides of the international border — albeit, the majority was headed to the U.S. — for whomever was willing to pay and take a chance on the toxicity of their products.

“It is well known there is a big bootleg liquor ring which supplies not only Winnipeg but most of the territory for many miles around. Occasionally officers of the customs excise branch, with aid of the Royal Mounted police, will seize a still which is operated by the ring. The men caught operating the still, usually farmers and laborers, are hardly in jail before some high-priced lawyer is retained on their behalf. They are soon out on bail and if they are convicted and fined the money is ready” (Tribune, November 30, 1930).

Many of today’s cocktails originated during the Prohibition Era in the U.S., from 1920 to 1933, and were invented to disguise the foul tasting and sometimes deadly “bathtub gin” served in Manhattan and Chicago speakeasies (the blind pigs plaguing Winnipeg, where illicit liquor was sold without a licence, were far less glamourous establishments), which was primarily made by mixing cheap grain alcohol with water and flavorings and other agents, such as juniper berry juice and glycerin. Because of U.S. Prohibition, pure distilled grain alcohol wasn’t readily available, so denatured alcohol — methanol added — was used, which could lead to blindness and death in many instances.

Ironically, the U.S. government was complicit in the poisoning of its own citizens by adding methanol (methyl hydrate) to “industrial” grain alcohol.

“The adding of these chemicals was required by law after Prohibition to prevent industrial alcohol from being used as a beverage. Basically, the government ordered the alcohol to be laced with chemicals that would make it undrinkable. As a result, there were many bootleggers who attempted to make industrial alcohol drinkable and less toxic by redistilling, diluting or mixing it with other chemicals (as was also done in Manitoba). None of these procedures was particularly effective, and people who chose to drink alcohol illegally would be risking their lives (The Poisoners Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum).

Among the most dangerous of the products was wood (also called methanol or methyl hydrate) alcohol, which had been consumed by the room renters at the Coronation Block in Winnipeg and led to the death of 11 of their number while blinding another.

“Methanol, when ingested, breaks down into even more toxic substances, a process called toxification,” wrote Blum. “Enzymes in the liver first convert methanol to formaldehyde (used as embalming fluid — drinkers were embalming themselves from the inside out) which is then converted to formic acid. This process takes up to 30 hours from the initial exposure to methanol, and means that you might not die initially from its consumption, but may experience symptoms a day later. Usually the first sign of methanol poisoning is loss of vision. If the person recovers from the toxins, the blindness is permanent as formic acid actually damages the optic nerve.”

When 23 people died in New City during Christmas 1926, it was determined that the poisoning outbreak was somehow different.

“The deaths, as investigators would shortly realize, came courtesy of the U.S. government.

“Frustrated that people continued to consume so much alcohol even after it was banned, federal officials had decided to try a different kind of enforcement. They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States, products regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits. The idea was to scare people into giving up illicit drinking. Instead, by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people” (Slate, February 19, 2010).

In total, it is estimated that 34,000 Americans died as a result of consuming wood alcohol.

In Canada, the death toll from wood alcohol consumption during the 1920s and 1930s was also a societal problem. In Winnipeg alone, city police said 30 lives were lost to poisoning by drinking wood alcohol during a three-year period ending in 1927.

“Men drink wood alcohol because it is cheap and speedy,” Dr. George Stephens, the medical superintendent of the Winnipeg General Hospital, told a Winnipeg Tribune reporter (article published December 19, 1927). “They can get an eight-ounce bottle for about a quarter, and wood alcohol gives a terrific kick within a few minutes.”

Usually, the wood alcohol was diluted by its drinkers by adding water in the mistaken belief that this increased their survival rate.

Dr. Stephens said much of “the stuff sold as methyl hydrate is merely denatured alcohol. It contains a large quantity of grain alcohol, because grain alcohol is cheaper than the wood alcohol. The methyl spirit is used to make denatured alcohol ‘non-potable’ (just as in the U.S.), but after drinking this more or less diluted poison for a while they get the idea that they can drink anything. They have the misfortune to buy some genuine methyl hydrate (wood alcohol), and it kills them.”

Another unnamed doctor told the reporter that if a first-time drinker of wood alcohol lived through the experience, “he might try it again.” It was a case of pressing one’s luck, as the second indulgence could potentially result in blindness or death.

“A thing like that can become a habit with the human. Not because he likes the stuff but because he has only a few cents to spend and wants ‘that feeling.’”

Denatured alcohol, unlike alcohol for human consumption, wasn’t taxed by the federal government so it was much cheaper to buy. And at the time, there were no real restrictions on selling such products.

At the Coronation Block, corner of King Street and Alexander Avenue, police found bottles labelled as poison and methyl hydrate in rooms 16, 18, 19 and 21. However, it was believed at the time that the men gathered to drink the lethal spirits in rooms 19 or 21. The party was understood to have started at noon on Monday, December 26, and continued late into the afternoon of the 27th.

According to the December 29 Free Press report of events, two elder men renting rooms at the Coronation met in the hallway and one greeted the other by saying, “Are you dead?”

“No, but most of the others are,” was the reply by the second man. “They took four out this morning.”

On the first day, five bodies were removed from the Coronation Block. The last body taken away was that of William Anderson, who had rushed from his room at 4:30 p.m. screaming that he was dying. He fell down the stairs and was picked up by the police who were summoned to the building by the night watchman. The man was indeed in the throes of death as he claimed and he passed away just 10 minutes later.

The second man mentioned that “Old Dan” was among the dead.

“What Old Dan dead?” was the startled reply. “Well, he sure looked sick last night. And that other fellow, he could hardly stand. I saw him staggering through the hall, and he sure looked sick.”

When asked about what they were drinking, the reply was that it was methyl spirits, which they called “dynamite.” The men said the Coronation was the only place where they drunk the stuff as downtown hotels kicked them out if they brought in “dynamite.”

“Most of those fellows who were carried out today have been here for some time — they are regular roomers.”

The reporter asked another man, as the “roomer” unsteadily walked to the door to leave room 19, which was later determined to be the scene of the two-day binge, what he had been drinking.

“You know what,” he replied.

“Canned heat?”

(Sterno “canned heat” is a fuel made from denatured and jellied alcohol. It is designed to be burned directly from its can. Sterno is made from ethanol, methanol, water and an amphoteric oxide gelling agent, plus a dye that gives it a characteristic pink color. The methanol is added to denature the product, which is intended to make it too toxic for consumption. Sterno would be squeezed through cheesecloth, a handkerchief or a sock to obtain  a liquid, hence the nickname “squeeze,” which was mixed with water or juices and then drunk to obtain a cheap high — Wikipedia. Sterno was usually sold in 1920s Winnipeg at three cans for a quarter, or 10-cents a can, and there were no restrictions on its sale. During one Martha Street raid in December 1927, city police found hundreds of empty Sterno cans that had been used in drinking binges.)

“No. That stuff in bottles. Alcohol, home brew or something.”

“You were in on the party?”

“Yes, you know I was,” he replied.

Police took this man down to the station for further questioning.

When another man was asked where they had obtained the wood alcohol, the reply was that it was from a downtown drug store.

A Tribune reporter also interviewed “roomers” for a December 30 article.

One of those interviewed, “a thin-faced, quiet-voiced man of a little more than middle age,” told the reporter that it wasn’t ordinary stuff that the party-goers had, “or they wouldn’t have gone so quickly.” He said he had been talking to one man that died an hour later who showed no signs that he had been drinking.

He said that such drinking parties had been going on for a long time.

“It didn’t do them any good, but it hadn’t killed any of them until this party.”

The roomer also confirmed that they had been drinking wood alcohol.

“How do you buy it?” he was asked.

“You get it from any drug store for 35 cents a bottle.”

“They ask for wood alcohol?”

“No, they call it methylated spirits.”

“What effect does it usually have on them?”

“Just like ordinary liquor, only it acts quicker. It takes them different ways. Some of them get a laughing jag, some a crying jag, and there’s one or two who get a fighting jag.”

The man told the reporter the roomers drank the stuff knowing it was poison “to cheer them up,” and it was cheaper than whiskey. “You can get a good jag for 35 cents.”

Police believed that the “death liquor” was from a particularly toxic shipment received in Winnipeg. The fear was that some of the deadly product was still on sale in the city and more deaths were to come.

An effort was also being made to locate a “liquor peddler,” who had visited the Coronation on the day of the deadly party. The alleged peddler’s role in the poisonings turned out to be a red herring.

A.M. Fraser, who represented his brother D.D. Fraser, a resident of Switzerland who owned the block, which was then being leased, said the building caretaker’s wife had seen a man who she believed had sold the death-dealing brew to the tenants.

It was later found out that what the “roomer” had earlier stated was true — the wood alcohol was simply bought at a Main Street drug store.

The deaths from wood alcohol poisoning climbed each day after the drinking party.

One victim was Weldon Hamilton, a resident of Transcona, who was taken to the Misericordia Hospital. At the time, police were unsure of his connection to the Coronation Block deaths.

Yet another was Martha Street resident John Ostrander, who was found lying on the floor of his room totally blind and dying on December 29. He was taken to the general hospital where he passed away just an hour and a half later. Ostrander was the ninth fatality of the Coronation Block poisonings.

By December 30, the body count had risen to 10 with two others in hospital. The 10th victim of the party had been found dead in the Grand Union Hotel by a chamber maid.

One deathly-ill man, Soren Stenberg, was discovered in a room at the Fountain Block at the corner of Fountain Street and Logan Avenue. He was taken to Healthwin hospital (a private facility), but died just two hours later. He left behind a wife — they were separated at the time — and six children, the oldest 12 years of age and youngest 12 months old, reported the December 31 Tribune. Stenberg’s was possibly the 11th and final death (reports didn’t mention the order of deaths, so it’s difficult to discern who died when) from wood alcohol poisoning following the drinking spree at the Coronation Block.

Four men survived the binge in the Coronation Block. On January 3, 1928, James Wheatley and William Rainey were released from the Winnipeg General Hospital, while Hamilton also recovered but was permanently blinded by the toxic brew.

Another victim of the wood alcohol poisoning was Joseph Orr, a 56-year-old transient, who was found lying in a railway box car in Transcona, “Helpless with drink and groaning with pain,” on January 1. He was taken to the general hospital and by the next day was reported to be recovering and in fine spirits.

(Next week: part 3)