Bad batch of “dehorn” poisoned dozens
May 6, 2014
On December 7, 1934, Ben Votruba left his room at the Bridge Hotel, a run-down flophouse on the corner of Union and Burnside, and made his way across the Burnside Bridge to the Pioneer Drugstore on the other side of the river.
Ben was, essentially, a washed-up alcoholic.
Although still relatively young in years — he was 46 — those years had seen some hard living. His long-term drinking problem had taken him to rock bottom and instead of bouncing back, he’d stayed there, doing whatever he had to get by, day by day, drink by drink.
But it would be wrong to say he was obscure. The Portland Police Department knew him well. So did the municipal judge and clerks, who had seen him come before the bench on vagrancy and petty theft charges many times. They called him “the Canned Heat King.”
Drinking stove fuel
Canned Heat — sometimes referred to by its brand name, Sterno — was, and still is, a small can full of jellied denatured alcohol. The idea is, you open the can and light it on fire, and it burns with a clean blue flame that you can cook over.
Many hobos used canned heat to cook with. They used it for something else, too.
If you took the pink gelatinous blob out of the can, wrapped it in a handkerchief and squeezed, you’d get a few ounces of liquid alcohol, and you could actually drink it. It might make you a little nauseous, and it would taste like burning Napalm, but it wouldn’t kill you — and boy, at roughly 190 proof, would it ever get you drunk.
Since he couldn’t afford to drink anything better, fresh-squeezed Canned Heat was Ben Votruba’s usual drink. And he went through rather a lot of it.
The Canned Heat King’s rap sheet was probably some kind of record — he’d been hauled before the court more than 80 times. It was mostly for petty drunkenness-related offenses, although there was that one spectacular incident 14 years earlier in which he’d T-boned the Portland Fire Chief’s car while the chief was hurrying to the scene of a structure fire. They’d found three or four bottles of wine in his car afterward. That was back when Ben was young and strong — back when he could afford to drive a car and drink the good stuff.
Those days were gone now.
Buying a bottle of “dehorn”
On this particular day, Ben wasn’t drinking canned heat. He was on his way to the drugstore to pick up a half a pint or so of denatured alcohol — known to the initiated as “dehorn.” Dehorn was industrial grain alcohol cut with a tiny quantity of toxic methanol, or wood alcohol, and sometimes some formaldehyde as well. The idea was that because it was unfit to drink, it would not qualify for the steep tax levied on distilled booze.
Bottles of “dehorn” bore prominent labels that read “POISON,” reflecting the fact that wood alcohol is lethal stuff. A small amount — a tablespoon or two — will make you miserably sick. A little more of it — a third of a cup or so — causes permanent blindness, something a few thirsty moonshine drinkers have learned the hard way over the years after sampling the first runnings (the “heads”) from large-capacity stills.
But more than half a cup of wood alcohol causes one of the most miserable, agonizing, inexorable deaths known to 1930s medicine. The wood alcohol breaks down into formic acid, which spreads throughout the body and stops cell respiration. The victim, through an hours-long process, turns blue, suffers serial organ failures and finally slips into a merciful coma and dies. And in 1934, there was very little that could be done to stop that train once it had left the station.
So, yes, “dehorn” was poison. But what impecunious derelicts like Ben knew was that if you were willing to be miserably sick the next morning, you could drink it. You could drink a lot of it. Enough to get even a really experienced drinker like Ben Votruba drunk. At that time, there wasn’t enough wood alcohol in “dehorn” to reach truly toxic levels, no matter how thirsty you were.
That meant that many of the vagrants living under bridges and in North End flophouses during the Depression, desperate for a drink but strapped for cash, were eager to buy the stuff. And a certain class of drugstore soon came forward to meet this demand.
The disreputable druggists
Such a place was the Pioneer Drugstore, on the corner of Third and Burnside on the west side of the river.
Each day, dozens of vagrants like Ben would troop into the Pioneer Drugstore and others like it, and ask for a “ten-center.” The druggist would hand over a bottle of clear liquid with a skull and crossbones on the label — pretending not to know the slovenly bindlestiff at the counter was planning to drink it.
On this particular winter day, Ben walked into the Pioneer and laid down his dime. Back he repaired across the Burnside Bridge to his flophouse room on the east side, with the little bottle in his pocket. Ben drank alone, of course, in his flophouse room. Drinking in public, for a guy like him, was a great way to end up in a cold jail cell shaking through the agonizing symptoms of hardcore alcohol withdrawal.
In his room, Ben settled down on the bed and opened the bottle.
Wood alcohol poisoning takes about 10 hours to start its killing process, and that process can drag on for 10 or 12 more. So it was not until late on Jan. 8 that, as doctors and nurses at Good Samaritan Hospital looked on helplessly, Ben Votruba finally slipped into a coma and died.
Ben was one of the first of a total of 28 of Portland’s down-on-their-luck alcoholics to die that night and over the following few days from drinking a particularly bad batch of dehorn. All of them, heavy drinkers with high tolerances, had put away massive doses of it. Very few of them survived.
Police had little trouble tracking down the source of the toxic tipples; the name of the pharmacy was printed right on the side of the bottles.
Because some of the victims had bottles from several different pharmacies, a total of four drugstores came under suspicion. But within a few days it became clear that one drugstore was the source of the problem: The Pioneer Drugstore.
The drugstore’s owner, Solomon Miller, showed the authorities a five-gallon can marked “Denatured Grain Alcohol,” which Miller had gotten from a paint-supply company. This can, according to a toxicologist who inspected it, was full of “approximately 100 percent pure poison” — straight wood alcohol.
With the light of hindsight, it seems very unlikely that Miller had any idea he was poisoning people. If he’d planned to kill, would he have put his name on the lethal bottles?
But as with dozens of other shady pharmacists of the day, what he was doing was illegal. He was making money selling industrial alcohol to people who weren’t supposed to drink it, knowing perfectly well that they were doing just that.
In the end, following a speedy trial in which the public took an avid interest, Solomon Miller pleaded guilty to manslaughter in Ben Votruba’s death. He drew a three-year prison sentence. According to the Oregonian’s report, he received the news with his face in his hands, sobbing.
So far as I’ve been able to learn, the paint company that sold him the
mislabeled can of methanol was never called to account.
(Sources: Portland Morning Oregonian, Dec. 1934 — April 1935; Menne, Frank R. “Acute Methyl Alcohol Poisoning: A Report of 22 Instances with Postmortem Examinations,” Archives of Pathology, 1936)
Finn J.D. John teaches New Media at Oregon State University and is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast at ofor.us/p . To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.
Image above: Portland City Archives via Vintage Portland blog. This street scene shows Burnside Street at its intersection with Third Avenue in 1933, one year before the “dehorn” poisoning tragedy. The Pioneer Drugstore, from which the victims bought their deadly liquor, is on the far right-hand corner of this intersection, marked by the “Cut Rate Drugs” sign.
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