When people say liquor can kill you, they’re usually referring to long-term effects such as memory loss, hypertension, liver damage, etc. But the dangers of illegal alcohol products more commonly called white lightning, rot gut or moonshine can kill and maim almost instantly. Such was the case on this day in 1951. A deadly moonshine mixture poisoned 433 people in Atlanta.
A white Gainesville bootlegger named John “Fat” Hardy, had a large order for moonshine that weekend from the black nightclub owners. He had a reputation in the region and regularly shipped the product to neighborhoods in Atlanta and cities throughout the Southeast. Like all others in his trade, he cut corners with cheap ingredients that produced the same buzz as the more expensive stuff. He ran out of ethanol while making the batch and replaced it with methanol, a lethal form of alcohol. Unlike the kind of alcohol enjoyed for drinking this was made from wood products and not fruits or vegetables.
The emergency room at Grady Memorial was packed with people affected. By the end of the night, 38 African-American men and women were dead after drinking the moonshine and many others were left blind and paralyzed. A locally famous blues song, “Fats Hardy Tardy” was written by Tommy Brown about the incident. Gospel group Echoes of Zion also produced the song “Atlanta’s Tragic Monday” related to the event.
Although the police knew who the culprit was, they were slow to respond to the tragedy. William Gordon, editor of the black newspaper, The World, was outraged and decided to send a delivery truck to the poorest black neighborhoods with a megaphone, broadcasting a warning about the liquor.
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 whiskey, 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.
Rumor has it he escaped the death sentence because the 360-pound man was too big to fit into the electric chair and the state didn’t own an “electric sofa.”
That last might just be true, wrote Deborah Blum in her blog Speakeasy Science. Or it could be one of those stories that southerners enjoy even more than moonshine.
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