From ancient times, alcohol’s potency has been revered and yet feared. It is the wine of Dionysus, the sacred barley-drink of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and the reason John Barleycorn had to die. Even so, the classical Greeks warned against drinking unwatered wine, and the Bible advises its readers to only drink in moderation.
Alcohol’s use in medicine is equally ancient. Wine enhanced the potency of herbal medicines and extended their shelf life. The invention of distillation improved this even further. Certain essences from plants are more easily extracted by alcohol than water, and tinctures formed an important part of the pharmacopeia before modern chemistry took over. Many nostrums sold in the nineteenth century counted alcohol as a major ingredient, their effect sometime heightened with narcotics. Homemade cold remedies like hot toddies and buttered rum were popular.
During the 1830s, however, the Temperance movement swelled in the United States and public pressure to ban alcohol sales mounted. Alcohol was seen as the source of many evils, no matter the method or reason for its administration, and even medical authority seemed to bend under the political winds. In 1917, shortly before Prohibition began, the American Medical Association proclaimed that alcohol was ‘detrimental to the human economy’ and had ‘no scientific value.’ The organization passed a resolution that it was opposed to the use of alcohol as a beverage or ‘as a therapeutic agent.’
The AMA may have echoed the public sentiments of the time, but a medical loophole was created in the Volstead Act for the therapeutic prescribing of alcohol. As a result, medicinal alcohol, also known as Spiritus frumenti, was prescribed throughout American Prohibition.
Under the provisions of this loophole, only a physician with a proper permit could write a prescription for medicinal liquor. Furthermore, the dose of this medical dispensation was limited to one pint every ten days, or ten to sixteen shots depending on the generosity of the patient’s pouring hand. The government issued books of specially designed forms for this purpose. The designs were changed often to outstrip counterfeiters.
Economist Clark Warburton stated that the consumption of medicinal alcohol increased by 400 percent during the 1920s. By 1929, there were 116,756 physicians in the twenty-six states that permitted the use of medicinal alcohol. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, about half of those physicians were prescribing it for patients.
Kentucky was a major source for medicinal alcohol. One of the more famous locations to take your prescription for S. frumenti was Krause’s Drug Store in Covington, Kentucky. Its unofficial name was the ‘Bootleg Drug Store’, due to its no-questions-asked prescription policy and the still that Old Man Krause kept in the basement. Other area pharmacists, particularly ones in Cincinnati, often refused to refill prescriptions for alcohol and sent those customers to Krause’s establishment. Mr. Krause, always the obliging health provider, kept his store open during Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day so no customer would suffer without his medication during the holidays.
Only a small number of distilleries received permits to produce liquor for medicinal purposes, several (once again) in Kentucky. The Stizel Distillery and Brown-Forman were located in Louisville; another, Glenmore Distilleries, was located in Owensboro. The longest-lived, the George T. Stagg Distillery, operated along the Kentucky River in Frankfort. In 1925, it bottled 1 million pints of ‘medicinal whiskey’. Today known as Buffalo Trace, it is one of the few American distilleries that can claim to have been in continuous operation since the 1700’s, due to its medical connections.
Gwen Mayo is passionate about blending her loves of history and mystery fiction. She currently lives and writes in Safety Harbor, Florida, but grew up in a large Irish family in the hills of Eastern Kentucky. She is the author of the Nessa Donnelly Mysteries and co-author of the Old Crows stories with Sarah Glenn.
Her stories have appeared in A Whodunit Halloween, Decades of Dirt, Halloween Frights (Volume I), and several flash fiction collections. She belongs to Sisters in Crime, SinC Guppies, the Short Mystery Fiction Society, the Historical Novel Society, and the Florida Authors and Publishers Association.
Gwen has a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Kentucky. Her most interesting job, though, was as a brakeman and railroad engineer from 1983 - 1987. She was one of the last engineers to be certified on steam locomotives.
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Sarah E. Glenn has a B.S. in Journalism, which is a great degree for the dilettante she is. Later on, she did a stint as a graduate student in classical languages. She didn’t get the degree, but she’s great with crosswords. Her most interesting job was working the reports desk for the police department in Lexington, Kentucky, where she learned that criminals really are dumb.
Her great-great aunt served as a nurse in WWI, and was injured by poison gas during the fighting. A hundred years later, this would inspire Sarah to write stories Aunt Dess would probably not approve of.
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