Speakeasy Science

The moonshine murderer

A few days ago, I wrote about the lessons I’d learned while a young journalist in North Georgia on how to safely drink illegal alcohol (Moonshine Days). Probably because I had moonshine on my mind, I ended sharing stories about it with family and friends during a recent visit to the state.

Just to let you know, my father, a retired entomologist from the University of Georgia, swears that he has disposed of the moonshine stock they once kept in the basement. Even though it tasted great. Really.

But beyond trading drinking experiences, the most interesting conversation I had was with old friend and acclaimed southern writer Philip Lee Williams about the state’s infamous moonshine killer, John “Fat” Hardy. The 360-pound-Hardy received a life sentence in 1951 for mixing up an especially poisonous brew that send some 350 Atlanta residents – mostly located in the city’s poor black neighborhoods –  to the hospital and killed nearly 40 of them.

Fat Hardy, as everyone called him, had been making a profit selling cheap moonshine to people who couldn’t afford the legal brews. On a late October weekend in 1951, he got a big order and couldn’t get it filled by his regular supplier. So he bought a 55-gallon-drum of methyl alcohol (meant to be used as a fuel additive for racing cars) and juiced it up some a little real moonshine and some fruit flavoring, stirred it up with a broomstick, poured it into barrels, and delivered 77 total gallons to the Atlanta slums.

The drum, according to the police, was labeled as both dangerous and poisonous. That’s because methyl alcohol is an acutely lethal substance. During Prohibition, when many people made their own liquor, thousands died or were blinded by drinking methyl alcohol (also known as wood alcohol). Methyl alcohol is a chemical cousin of the alcohol found in such common intoxicant as wine, beer, gin, scotch and vodka. That alcohol is called “ethyl” alcohol.

What makes methyl alcohol so dangerous is the way our bodies metabolize it. It’s converted internally into two very nasty poisons – formic acid, which attacks the optic nerve – and formaldehyde.  Within hours, people were collapsing and the city’s Grady Hospital was overflowing with sick and dying patients. Of the 38 who died, 34 were black residents on Hardy’s delivery route.

The case drew national attention. Life Magazine wrote it up as “The Bad,Bad Whisky Blues”. Hardy claimed that – despite the warning labels – he hadn’t known the methyl alcohol was dangerous. But his business partners testified that when people started falling ill from the first batch of bad whisky, he merely retrieved those barrels, poured them into new ones, and sent them out again.

Hardy was convicted on December 12, 1951 and sentenced to life in prison. You might wonder why a mass murderer escaped the death sentence. Well, the all-white jury that convicted him recommended leniency.  But my friend, Phil Williams, says that there’s another twist to the story.

Georgia lore has it that Hardy was too big to fit into the state’ electric chair. The prosecuting attorney reportedly told the judge that he would accept the life sentence recommendation “because the state doesn’t have an electric sofa.” That last might just be true. Or it could be one of those stories that we southerners enjoy even more than our moonshine.