HIGH POINT CONFIDENTIAL: ‘A poison death wave’

Jan. 7—HIGH POINT — “Pick your poison.”

It’s an old, old expression, a slangy way of asking, “What kind of liquor do you want?” Sometimes the phrase might be “Name your poison” or “What’s your poison?”

One summer more than 75 years ago, however, “Pick your poison” took on a much darker meaning in High Point. In one of the city’s greatest but least-known tragedies, nearly a dozen residents died — in a span of less than a week — as a result of drinking what they thought was an alcoholic beverage. Turns out they were only half right — it was alcoholic, but it was by no means a beverage.

The year was 1945. The first death occurred on July 12 — a man named Alfred Poe — but within a couple of days, Police Chief John A. Lowdermilk realized Poe’s death was not an isolated incident. Another man, James Jones, died on the 13th, and a woman, Elnora Polite, died on the 14th. Two more residents were ill, one of them critically.

The culprit? All five victims had drunk denatured alcohol, which is ethanol — the psychoactive ingredient found in alcoholic beverages — mixed with chemicals intended to make the concoction bad-tasting, foul-smelling and altogether unfit for human consumption. Denatured alcohol might be found in such products as wood alcohol, paint thinner and even some cosmetics.

In those days, it was not uncommon for individuals to sell denatured alcohol — watered down, then flavored and sweetened to minimize the foul odor and taste — presuming to pass it off as an alcoholic beverage. Denatured alcohol was significantly cheaper than ethanol, thereby yielding the seller a larger profit.

Lowdermilk suspected that’s what was happening in High Point, but he had to prove it, which meant finding the source of the denatured alcohol. His first clue was when Elnora Polite, from her deathbed, told doctors she had drunk an alcohol concoction known as “mule” two days earlier. Where did she buy it?

Meanwhile, the death toll continued to rise. Three more High Pointers died — William Norris, William Baldwin and Theodore McRae — and another three were in critical condition. Then came three more deaths — Crowell Lilly, Carrie Archie Douglas and Richard Archie. And two more — John Henry Archie and Charlie Davis — brought the death toll to 11, all of them from drinking denatured alcohol.

The High Point Enterprise called it “a poison death wave.”

Several other residents got sick, too, but eventually recovered.

Even as the deaths mounted, police began to make progress on the case, arresting four individuals — John C. Archie, Willis C. Phifer, and James and Marie Nelson, a husband and wife — and charging them with manslaughter for selling the poisoned alcohol at bootleg prices.

In addition, John C. Archie — the father of three of the victims — and Phifer were charged with stealing the denatured alcohol from the Alma Desk Co., where they were employed and where company officials said some 300 gallons of wood alcohol had mysteriously disappeared in recent months.

Then, in a strange twist of fate, Archie — who apparently had sampled his own poisoned concoction — became ill and was hospitalized. He eventually recovered enough to be returned to jail, but the bad booze had left him permanently blind, according to doctors.

From his jail cell, the 57-year-old defendant denied culpability in the 11 deaths.

“I never did anything to cause anyone to die,” he told The Enterprise. “All I did was to give my two boys and my stepdaughter a drink of ‘mule’ when they asked for it, and that didn’t kill them.”

Archie also denied that the mule had caused his blindness.

“I drank a pint and a half of the stuff, and it didn’t hurt me,” he said. “I been drinking that ever since 1928, and it never hurt me yet. … No, it didn’t hurt me, and I ain’t to blame for my children’s death. They must’ve got something else to drink after I saw them.”

The case finally went to trial in March 1946 for Phifer and the Nelsons, with all three surprisingly being acquitted on the manslaughter charges. Considering 11 people had died, Judge WHS Burgwyn called the verdict “a grave miscarriage of justice.”

Meanwhile, Archie’s case was postponed until a later date, and he, too, would escape manslaughter charges. In his case, at least, perhaps the death of his three children was punishment enough.

jtomlin@hpenews.com — 336-888-3579

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