Was Bix Poisoned?

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The Scene

The new tenant had only recently taken up residence at 43-30 46th Street in the Borough of Queens, New York. He rarely left his apartment except to restock his supply of bootleg gin. But on this humid, mid-summer day, there was suddenly a disturbance in the hallway outside of Apartment 1G. The new tenant is screaming and demanding to see the landlord, who when he arrives, finds the man standing in the middle of his room, trembling and ranting that two Mexicans with long daggers are hiding under his bed.

The landlord bends down to look under the bed, and as he was beginning to stand up, the tenant collapses into his arms. A doctor living in the building—some say it was the wife of the doctor who was a nurse—rushes to the apartment, but it is too late.

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Bix Beiderbecke has died at the age of 28 at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, August 6, 1931.

The Cause

Lobar pneumonia was listed as the official cause of death, and there is broad agreement that acute alcoholism contributed significantly to the serious decline in Bix’s physical and mental health over the last couple years of his life.

As he researched Bix over the years, Randy Sandke has wondered about the underlying cause of the legendary cornetist’s demise. He laid out his premise in a 2013 article originally published in The Journal of Jazz Studies, titled “Was Bix Beiderbecke Poisoned by the Federal Government?” “I think Bix got a bad rap,” Sandke reiterated in a recent interview. “This happened during Prohibition, and he may have been unlucky to have imbibed in tainted industrial alcohol that had been doctored by representatives of the Federal Government.”

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Poison?

The 18th Amendment did not stop people from drinking alcoholic beverages during Prohibition, just its manufacture, transportation, and sale. While the ban pertained to consumable alcohol, there still remained a need for industrial alcohol, which was often stolen by bootleggers and sold as drinkable spirits.

The Government fought to stay one step ahead of the bootleggers by trying novel ways to denature (read: poison) industrial alcohol. The Treasury Department, which oversaw alcohol enforcement, claimed that approximately 60 million gallons of industrial alcohol had been stolen annually by bootleggers to supply the nation’s drinkers. But in speakeasies all over town, the tainted liquor continued to flow freely, and it was estimated alcohol poisoning may have contributed to the deaths of up to 10,000 people during Prohibition.

Was Bix Poisoned?
Bix in 1924. in a detail from the classic photo of the Wolverine Orchestra. In his tragic case, the patient may not have been entirely to blame.

Was it the Fed?

Substantiating his theory, Randy Sandke refers to a book by Pulitzer prize-winning author and science writer Deborah Blum: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in the Jazz Age. Two individuals who are prominently mentioned in the book are pathologist Charles Norris, who was appointed New York City’s first chief medical examiner in 1918, and his head toxicologist, Alexander Getter, who created new chemical analyses to detect poisons. Norris regarded Prohibition—and in particular the Government’s practice of poisoning its own people—as a great evil responsible for thousands of unnecessary deaths and said so, publicly and vehemently.

Sandke refers to an episode in 1929 when Beiderbecke had an adverse reaction to alcohol and passed out on stage while performing with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in Cleveland. Bix had a complete nervous breakdown and later, in a fit of delirium, trashed his hotel room. Whiteman called for medical assistance and ordered Bix back to Davenport, but Bix headed for New York instead.

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A Changed Man

Bix was only 26 years old, but he was a changed man. The episode left him with severe peripheral neuropathy affecting both his legs and feet as well as chronic pneumonia, which eventually killed him. His kidneys and liver didn’t function properly, and he suffered from headaches, dizziness, blackouts, memory loss and had to use a cane to get around, all symptoms of someone who was a victim of alcohol poisoning.

“There was a definite change in his life from the time he had that breakdown in Cleveland,” Sandke said. “His health never really recovered from that point on. As to what really killed Bix, you could say that he was a victim of Prohibition.”

Bix Beiderbecke is an interesting figure in jazz history who has achieved mythological status over the years. It has been written that his life story plays out like an operatic tragedy: a young gifted musician leaves his small town home to venture to the big city, makes a name for himself, then succumbs to the vices of the musician’s life. So why do Beiderbecke’s life and music continue to fascinate people so many years later? Perhaps it is due to the fact that Beiderbecke’s story has been so often romanticized in the years since. People seem to prefer to remember him as a tortured artist who died for the sake of his music.


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