January 24, 2014 | {category_name}

Murder, Soda and Intrigue

We all know the history of alcohol's prohibition, but did you know that the soda fountain also had its own prohibition? When I was writing Fix the Pumps, and detailing the effects the Pure Food & Drug Act of 1906 had on the soda fountain, I wondered what effect pulling all those drugs from circulation had on the mood of the country. I didn't dig into this aspect at the time as it didn't fit into the story line, but I always wondered. I've now decided to answer my own question and it is very interesting and may involve murder.

The "soda prohibition" wasn't a constitutional modification, like the US 18th amendment that enabled the Volstead Act, but a simple consumer protection law that required proper labeling of products, but also deemed substances like alcohol, cocaine, morphine, opium, cannabis and heroin as dangerous, effectively putting a halt to their excess use, though they were still available. This law took a lot of the kick out of soda and put a major dent in the snake oil salesmen of the time.

Change was happening before the laws were put on the books, most of this due to observations from ethical medical practitioners that cocaine and other drugs were not healthy (They Thirst for Cocaine (1902)). Coca-Cola is said to have removed most of the cocaine from their formulation by 1904, but there were dozens of other soda brands on the market, some still using cocaine in their formula and there were still no laws banning it outright.

When I started to look for clues as to how this new law effected the United States I found a startling result in the historical murder rates. The murder rate in 1903 was 1.1 murders per 100,000 people, in 1905 the rate doubled to 2.1 and in 1906 it doubled once more to 3.9 murder per 100,00 people. By 1907 it was 4.9, an almost 5 times increase in the murder rate since 1903.

For comparison in 1919, at the start of prohibition, the murder rate was 7.2 per 100k people and peaked in 1933 at 9.7 but then once alcohol was available the rate started to decrease and by 1939 it was down to 6.4 murders per 100k people.

US Murder Rate

When you look at the graph it is hard to ignore this rapid increase in murders in that 1903 to 1907 time frame. When you think about it, taking away drugs like cocaine, morphine, opium and heroin from addicts, I'm sure there was an increase in grumpiness due to withdrawal symptoms. A quick look through scientific research papers points to a significant increase in violence associated with cocaine use. Cocaine abstinence syndrome (withdrawal) is also associated with increased agitation and hostility. (Cocaine and Psychiatric Symptoms)

I haven't come across any other reasonable explanation as to why the murder rate increased so rapidly around 1906, but looking at the info, it is not too hard to draw the conclusion that a few people suffering from drug withdrawals had an increase in hostility and went off the deep-end.  I'd say it is a plausible explanation, but may require deeper research to truly understand the effects of the Pure Food & Drug Act had on the population.


“I haven’t come across any other reasonable explanation as to why the murder rate increased so rapidly around 1906…” - did you bother looking? Ha ha. Increased murder rates had, and has, little to do with violence stemming from withdrawal. What a farce.

Overlay this chart with black market economic activity and there is your answer. Prohibit desired products, gangs step in to fill the market. Murders are almost gang (drug) related. Another federal control mechanism, that being the ghettoization of African-Americans, helps explain the post WWII spikes as well.

Not trying to be mean, but c’mon,  suggesting withdrawal led to such spikes is ignoring much more impactful socio-economic factors.

Darcy O'Neil24/01/2014

Austin, there was no black market activity in 1906 because most things were still legal. You could still get a prescription from a doctor for cocaine until 1914. However, supply was limited by the law in 1906. And yes, you are being a jerk.


Read , “The Prevalence and Trend of Drug Addiction in the United States and Factors Influencing It” - Lawrence Kolb and A. G. Du Mez. Addiction to opiates declined from it’s peak (~1890’s) to 1914. This data does not support your contention.

Yes, sanctioned supply was limited in 1906. It created a barrier for those who wished to get whatever substance, and that barrier created opportunity for other supply chains. A black market can exist even when a product is legal, as long as the unregulated market can respond to a regulated one, which is exactly what the PFDA created. “there was no black market activity in 1906” - at first glance that is preposterous, but perhaps you could share the information that led to you making this conclusion?

No doubt that the PFDA created an environment for increasing violent crime, but there isn’t any data to support that it had anything to do with cocaine withdrawal. In fact, there is data that demonstrates the opposite: that violent crime increases when users are taking cocaine, not suffering from withdrawal. Read “Cocaine, opiates, and ethanol in homicides in New York City” - Tardiff K, Marzuk PM, Leon AC, et al. and “Cocaine abuse and violent death” - Budd RD. Have any information to the contrary, Darcy?

There is also very interesting data regarding mass urbanization in the early 20th century. Violent crime data from other countries experiencing such urbanization mimics what we saw in the US. Did you look into this when writing the article? Thoughts?

I don’t understand the need for name calling, Darcy. I figured that by posting something, with a comment section, that you’d be open to engaging with those who may not agree. You can stand on your soap box, that’s the beauty of the internet, but by doing so you accept that there may be someone in the crowd that will disagree.

Darcy O'Neil25/01/2014

When you start a comment by calling the post a farce is rather confrontational. Your follow up response at least provided some info. Here are the facts: In 1904 the murder rate was 1.3 per 100K people. In 1906 it goes to 3.9, that’s a tripling of the murder rate in three years and a further increase to 4.9 in 1907.

The only other major uptick in murders stretches from 1965 to 1974 and that goes from basically 5 murders per 100k to 9.8. So in the early 1900s we have a quadrupling of the murder rate in 4 years and in the 1970s we have it double over 7 to 10 years. The 1970s fit socio-economic factors, not the 1910s.

My assertion that there was no black market activity in drugs was because the drugs were freely available in a glass of Coca-Cola for 5 cents, or in the many other soda drinks that contained drugs. Coca-Cola was not unique. You couldn’t get a shot of whisky at the saloon for that price, because alcohol was taxed, soda/medicine was tax free until the late 1910s. Black markets don’t instantly pop-up, especially when Heroin was a patented Bayer product and the coca leaves had to be imported from South America.  It should be noted that you do not offer any proof of an existing black market in 1906, or prior.

The PFDA was implemented on June 30th, 1906 and it just happens in that year that the murder rates doubles to 3.9 murders/100k from the previous year. Now, I realize that correlation does not imply causation, but the murder rate spike in such a short period of time must have been caused by something. In fact this may very be a change in how murders were documented, but I can only use the data I have available.

Randall Roth, author of American Homicide, maintains that “…homicide rates among adults are not determined by proximate causes such as poverty, drugs, unemployment, alcohol, race or ethnicity, but by factors that seem on the face of it to be impossibly remote, like the feelings that people have toward their government, the degree to which they identify with members of their own communities, and the opportunities they have to earn respect without resorting to violence.”

Now, I’m sure you noticed the word drug, but when the government takes something away from the people that increases general anger. Taking away drugs, which were seen as medicine not as narcotics, would have been very upsetting for many people. The other thing to note was that the cocaine content was about 5-8mg per drink which is basically a therapeutic level similar to modern prescriptions for amphetamines and far below recreational levels that people use today.

I’m open to debating anything I post on Art of Drink, or elsewhere, but don’t automatically dismiss stuff and call it a farce. I do my research, and this isn’t academia, though I’ve worked a University and in research labs for over 15 years of my life.


So, a comment like “what a farce” is intended to be part of a friendly discussion? Oh… the internet. Got it.


Thanks again for the reply, Darcy!

No, I could not offer any evidence of black market activity. That’s a product of the activity itself; black market activity is intended to be untraceable. Considering data collection methods at the time, it shouldn’t be surprising that there is no data to suggest there was or was not black market activity. I make an assumption, a rather unfounded one, that it did exist because of the move for the PFDA itself. The act was introduced to ensure accurate information on the products, and I see this as a suggestion that there was vendors in the market who were not disclosing that information. Vendors who do not disclose such information could be considered (at least by me) as black market actors. I understand the hypocrisy of challenging your argument because of the lack of data to support it, and then in the same post, make an argument for the existence of black markets without data to support it. I hope you can understand the limitations in measuring black market activity, and can excuse my assumptions.

Getting back to the question at hand though… I am familiar with Roth and his writing. Although I side with the countless others that bring forward data that shows the factors you quoted do have an impact on violent crime, it’s not particularly relevant to your argument. The question that needs to be answered in order to confirm your contention is: “are those suffering from withdrawal more likely to commit violent crime than those who are actively using the drug?” The data I linked offers an answer to that question, a resounding “no”. It suggests the opposite.

I am on board with your argument to a point. I agree that withdrawal brings agitation. Where you lose me is making the leap that agitation breeds violence. It’s a big leap, and there is no data (to my knowledge) that suggests it to be accurate. Would you have information you could share that shows the a user suffering from withdrawal is more likely to commit violent crime than an active user?

Thanks again for the reply.


Well, Stinky, your sarcastic jab would be warranted if I attacked Darcy on a personal level. I did not do that, I simply attacked the argument. Sensibilities are a tough thing, especially on the internet. It’s difficult to attack an argument and not unintentionally attack the author at the same time. I am not friendly to an argument, but I try to be friendly to the person making it. It seems I failed though, and that’s unfortunate. it provides a really easy way for people to dismiss your arguments instead of offering something of substance.

That said, do you have anything relevant to add to the conversation?

Darcy O'Neil26/01/2014

Here are some research papers on homicides and drug use. The Memphis one makes a specific mention of crimes commited during the “posteuphoric depression or withdrawal phase”. 

Cocaine and homicide in Memphis and Shelby county http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pu…

Cocaine- and methamphetamine-related deaths in San Diego County (1987): homicides and accidental overdoses. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pu…

A meta-analysis of marijuana, cocaine and opiate toxicology study findings among homicide victims. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pu…


Maybe the thesis is wrong. Maybe it is not that withdrawal produces violence but drug use tends to incapacitate often prone to violence young men - the opposite reaction for some people to alcohol. I’ve always been mystified by the media and hollywood’s portrayal of hard drug use producing super warriors. My experience is that they tend to produce people who sleep a lot and are otherwise apathetic.


Have you checked to make sure the numbers are comprable? Perhaps there was some major shift in how data was collected and assessed at that point. At least that is the first thing I’d look for.

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