When influenza began to sweep through the U.S. in 1918, a frightened nation looked to an unproven but familiar remedy: whiskey. There was just one problem. More than half the states had passed Prohibition laws by then, making liquor difficult, sometimes impossible, to legally obtain.

As citizens in the so-called dry states pleaded for whiskey to prevent or treat the deadly virus, some resourceful officials hit on a solution: Liberate the vast stores of bootleg liquor that had been confiscated since the statewide laws went into effect. While some of that contraband had simply been poured down the sewers, much of it remained locked away as evidence or perhaps with an eye toward eventual repeal.

Newspapers across the U.S. reported that military doctors were administering confiscated whiskey in Army camps, which had been hard hit by the flu. In Richmond, Virginia, two railroad cars of it reportedly rolled into beleaguered Camp Lee. At Camp Dodge, Iowa, where more than 500 soldiers had already died, hundreds of quarts had been dispatched to fight the influenza, the papers reported.

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The Army was largely mum about what it was doing, while pro-Prohibition forces maintained that those stories were exaggerated, if not downright false. Some called them German propaganda, branding the reports a “Diabolical Hun Plot” meant to put American soldiers at risk from deadly alcohol.

But before long, officials were breaking out their bootleg whiskey for civilian hospitals, too. Hospitals in Omaha, Nebraska received 500 gallons, courtesy of the local sheriff. The commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service in Washington, meanwhile, ordered his revenue agents in North Carolina to distribute their confiscated whiskey to hospitals around the state.

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Doctors debate whiskey’s medicinal merits

The medical community was divided on whether whiskey was of any real use in fighting the influenza or anything else. The highly regarded United States Pharmacopeia, which published standards for prescription and over-the-counter medicines, had dropped whiskey, brandy and wine from its listings in 1916. The following year, the House of Delegates of the American Medical Association had thrown its weight behind Prohibition, resolving, over the objections of some delegates, that “the use of alcohol as a therapeutic agent should be discouraged.”

Bootleg whiskey during Prohibition
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
A revenue agent wearing a waistcoat designed to hide whisky during the prohibition era in America, circa 1923.

Still, many doctors continued to recommend and prescribe whiskey for the influenza pandemic and a wide range of other ailments. When the AMA got around to surveying physicians on the matter in 1922, 51 percent said they considered whiskey a “necessary therapeutic agent.” Some physicians believed alcohol helped stimulate the heart and respiratory system of patients weakened by illness, while others thought its sedative effects made suffering patients more comfortable. 

Even in states where alcoholic beverages were prohibited, doctors could often write prescriptions for medicinal whiskey and pharmacists could dispense it—with certain restrictions. In Colorado, for example, doctors had to obtain numbered prescription forms from the state, and prescriptions were limited to four ounces. In Michigan, doctors could prescribe up to eight ounces, but had to indicate how many prescriptions that patient had already received in the preceding year; the druggist then had to forward the form to the county prosecutor. In Indiana, doctors could only prescribe pure grain alcohol.

Cities with whiskey on hand sometimes gave it out directly to anyone with a doctor’s prescription. In Burlington, Vermont, for example, the local police department filled prescriptions free of charge thanks to the city’s epidemic emergency fund. In Nashville, local authorities dispensed 10,000 half pints of whiskey to residents with prescriptions.

Some doctors seemed only too eager to reach for the prescription pad. In Pittsburgh in 1919, four doctors and a druggist were arrested in a scheme to sell whiskey to “patients” who hadn’t even been examined. The doctors earned $1 for each prescription, while the druggist got $5 a bottle for the whiskey. The scheme was so successful, newspaper reports said, that local bootleggers had been forced to cut their prices in order to compete.

In the wet states, of course, people were still free to buy whiskey and other spirits as they saw fit. The president of a Baltimore roofing company, concerned about the toll the influenza pandemic could take on his workforce, purchased a huge bottle of rye whiskey and told his workers to help themselves “whenever, in their individual estimation, it might be indicated.” He reported that not one of his more than 200 men had fallen ill. Whether they fell off any roofs, he didn’t say.

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No prescription, no problem

The makers of over-the-counter patent medicines, which had yet to be fully regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, also saw a money-making opportunity. In addition to newcomers like Influenzene and Spanfluenza tablets, many widely advertised concoctions that had been around for years simply added Spanish influenza to the list of ills they purported to prevent, treat or even cure. What many had in common—aside from being of little or no medical value—was a substantial alcohol content.

For example, Tanlac, an elixir that billed itself as the “Master Medicine” and claimed to cure just about everything, contained 17% alcohol. And Peruna, one of the most successful patent medicines of the day, contained a reported 28 percent.

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Prohibition marches on

Meanwhile, pro-Prohibition forces were reportedly becoming concerned. Would all the news about whiskey’s supposed medical benefits derail their push to ratify the 18th amendment and make Prohibition the law of the land? They needn’t have worried. The amendment had all the states’ votes it needed by January 16, 1919 and went into effect a year later.

Not everyone was pleased by that outcome, to say the least. One soldier on a troopship returning from the war in 1919 spoke for a lot of his comrades when he interrupted a former government official who was giving the men a patriotic speech. “Yes, we fought for democracy,” the soldier reportedly shouted, “but all we got was Spanish influenza and Prohibition.”