The British jazz critic Stuart Nicholson caught my attention the other day when he provocatively suggested that Bix Beiderbecke may have been murdered. Did I miss something in my research? I wondered. Was someone out to get Bix? Did he have enemies I didn't know about?
Beiderbecke was twenty-eight when he died and by nearly all accounts he was an alcoholic. In September of 1929—almost two years before the end—he was admitted to the Keeley Institute, in Dwight, Illinois, the nation's premier alcohol rehabilitation facility. The records of his stay can still be found, of all places, at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. And they make for tough reading. After Beiderbecke had arrived and been examined, the doctor wrote to inform his mother that her son suffered from a loss of appetite, diarrhea, heart palpitations, dizziness, neuritis in the feet, an enlarged liver, balancing problems, and a tremor in his fingers.
Whatever the success of his subsequent treatment, it's fair to say that Beiderbecke's health never fully recovered, and when he caught pneumonia during the summer of 1931—pneumonia he may have been suffering from even while at Keeley—his immune system couldn't fight it off.
Citing the musician Randy Sandke, he asserts that Beiderbecke's symptoms were "hardly consistent with prolonged use of alcohol, [but] rather a sudden and acute poisoning—but with what?"
Sandke, of course, is a wonderful horn player in the Beiderbecke style. But he is by no means a medical authority. Nevertheless, in the winter 2013 issue of the Journal of Jazz Studies, he published the article "Was Bix Beiderbecke Poisoned by the Federal Government?" In it, he refers to a breakdown that preceded Beiderbecke's stint in rehab, writing:
It seems all too obvious that Beiderbecke's near fatal attack resulted not from prolonged use of alcohol, but rather sudden and acute poisoning caused by substances of far greater toxicity.
This is the crucial premise of Sandke's—and Nicholson's—argument. Beiderbecke's health problems could not have been caused simply by drinking a lot. It must have been something else, something more.
And yet what evidence does he provide? In a footnote he argues that Bix was not suffering from the DTs when he had his breakdown.
As it happens, Dr. Frederick J. Spencer, whose book Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats presents a physician's take on the same evidence, also argues that this incident did not involve a case of the DTs. And yet nowhere does Spencer—an actual medical authority—suggest that Beiderbecke's symptoms were inconsistent with alcoholism.
For readers to accept that Bix was murdered or at least poisoned by the federal government, they must accept that his health was destroyed by something other than his own alcoholism. And yet there is virtually no evidence of this, and what little there is comes to us on the authority of a non-physician.
Dr. Spencer quotes a letter from Beiderbecke to his friend Frank Trumbauer in which Bix complains of how "the poison in my system has settled in my knees and legs."
"Alcohol," Spencer writes, "was the 'poison' in Beiderbecke's system."
It turns out that Stuart Nicholson agrees. At least more or less. Following Sandke's lead, he reminds his readers that during Prohibition, the government poisoned, or "denatured," any alcohol manufactured for industrial use in order to prevent it from being consumed as a beverage. Denatured alcohol—not alcohol addiction—is what killed Beiderbecke, Nicholson writes.
This strikes me as not a very useful point. I think it's clear that Beiderbecke was an addict. And if he also drank poisoned alcohol, then that exacerbated the effects of his illness. People have asked me over the years how it was possible for someone like Bix, even assuming he was an alcoholic, to die so young.
It was possible because he was not imbibing the high-quality liquor available to us today. Instead, he was most likely drinking alcohol that had been (legally) poisoned and, as we'll see, perhaps only partially (and illegally) un-poisoned.
Here, then, is how Nicholson claims this to be murder:
People definitely did die—but not because the U.S. government distributed poisoned alcohol. The government required that any alcohol manufactured for industrial purposes be denatured according to a certain formula. Once the made-for-drinking alcohol ran out, bootleggers began "renaturing" the industrial stuff, a process that attempted to remove the poison. They then sold it to customers despite the fact that the poison was not always completely gone.
Bootleggers distributed that alcohol, and they did so despite the government's repeated warnings that it was poisoned. This is how they made their money, by taking advantage of people like Bix who needed the drink.
Blom's own book doesn't say who accused the government of murder, but it strikes me as hyperbole. Denaturing alcohol was dangerous for the government to do under these circumstances, and it may have been bad policy and even constituted a public health crisis, but it was hardly a secret. People purchased drinks at their own risk. (See, for instance, the New York Times, "Defend Poisons Put into Alcohol," August 11, 1926.)
I do think this is important context for understanding Bix Beiderbecke's health and early death. And I think it shines a light on the way innocent people were caught up in the middle of a battle between the government and bootleggers. But does it mean that Bix was murdered?