Opium in the Library: Remedy & Reverie in the 18th and 19th Centuries

By Hannah Johnston, Library Volunteer

Writing on opium and opioids in the 20th century, particularly in the United States, was often characterized by an interest in the mechanisms of addiction, a growing concern for public health, and a widespread and a deep-rooted fear of the “dope evil.”[1] Only two centuries earlier, however, the “dope evil” was instead “a safe, and noble Panacea.”[2] While there was certainly an understanding of the addictive nature of opium and, to some extent, concern over its safety, many writers in the 18th and 19th centuries were simply fascinated by the drug.

Two works in particular, The Mysteries of Opium Reveal’d by Dr. John Jones (1645–1709) and The Seven Sisters of Sleep by botanist Mordecai Cubitt Cooke (1825–1914), showcase this interest in the origins, nature, and various uses of the drug. While differing in their goals and their opinions on the primary benefits of opium, both works demonstrate some of the ways eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers grappled with a substance unlike any they had previously encountered. In conversation with each other, The Mysteries and The Seven Sisters can reveal how changing ideas in medicine, culture, and politics influenced the perception and use of opium in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Considered one of the first comprehensive works on the effects and mechanisms of opium, The Mysteries of Opium Reveal’d aimed to demonstrate how, when used effectively, the drug could be a reliable and incredibly useful medicine.[3] Dr. John Jones first explained the origins, nature, uses, and possible misuses of opium.[4] Jones’ book was what one might expect from an eighteenth-century English medical book—while he did devote time to discussing the history and recreational use of opium, he was most deeply invested in unearthing the mechanisms by which opium “lulls, sooths, and, as it were, charms the Mind ….[5]

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A table of opiate dosages to give to various populations of men and women from John Jones’s Mysteries of opium reveal’d (1701). NYAM Collection.

More than a hundred years later, in the mid-19th century, Mordecai Cubitt Cooke wrote a very different kind of opium book. The Seven Sisters of Sleep focuses on seven narcotic drugs – opium, tobacco, cannabis, betel nut, cocaine, datura (a genus of hallucinogenic plants), and fly agaric (a psychoactive mushroom) – allegorically described as the “sisters” of the Queen of Sleep, who each ruled over different portions of the world.[6] Six of Cooke’s twenty-six chapters were devoted to opium in various respects, and the appendix of the book included tables and information on the use and trade of opium on a global scale.[7] While Jones was more concerned with the proper way of producing opium, dosage for various ailments, and outlining the drug’s exact effects on the body (he noted that opium primarily impacted the stomach), The Seven Sisters was primarily focused on recreational or regular use of the drug, and offered personal accounts of experiences with opium as well as comprehensive reports of opium use, particularly in China.[8]

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A table of opium and its substitutes, from Mordecai Cubitt Cooke’s The seven sisters of sleep: Popular history of the seven prevailing narcotics of the world (1860). NYAM Collection.

Cooke_SevenSistersOfSleep_1860_368_watermark

A table estimating the amount of people taking narcotics around the world, from Mordecai Cubitt Cooke’s The seven sisters of sleep: Popular history of the seven prevailing narcotics of the world (1860). NYAM Collection.

Writing on the possible pitfalls of opium use, Jones argued that opium “does not diminish or disable the Spirits by any means whatsoever… when duely and moderately used. Cooke, however, addressed several rather terrifying side effects of the drug.[9] He devoted his twelfth chapter to the dangers of opium, describing in vivid detail the horrifying dreams had by some opium users and noting the occurrences of violent psychotic breaks fueled by opium use.[10] While both works discuss the “noxious principle” of the drug, Cooke devotes far more discussion to its potential for misuse, perhaps reflecting a growing understanding and worry about opium’s addictive nature.[11]

Both works made a point to discuss the place of opium on the global stage; the differing ways each author approached the subject, however, reveal the rapidly increasing role of opium in British imperial activities around the world. Jones’ discussion of this subject is limited mostly to the origins of opium, where he notes the relative quality of opium sourced from different countries.[12] Cooke’s work, on the other hand, was published after the Opium Wars between Britain and China of the previous two decades, and reflects the importance of opium in British imperial growth. He described the ways that different ethnic groups used opium, particularly in Asia, and included reports on the rates of opium use throughout different parts of China.[13] Although largely refraining from the demonizing Chinese opium users, which often happened in late 19th century Britain and the United States, Cooke’s writing suggests a British fascination with opium as a cultural import as well as a recreational drug.

The Mysteries of Opium Reveal’d and The Seven Sisters of Sleep reflect the many ways in which views on opium have changed over the last three hundred years. All in all, both writers were invested in defending the use of opium, and noted the many pleasurable effects the drug had on mind and body. However, the ways in which these effects were described by each writer show how the changing political and cultural climate altered the place of opium in the public mind and on the global stage. These works can offer us a glimpse into the worldviews and events that informed the evolving understanding of opium, its uses, and its dangers.

This blog post was written to complement The New York Academy of Medicine’s  Opioid Symposium, held on Friday, September 20th, 2019. You can also “adopt” The Mysteries of Opium Reveal’d, featured in this blog post, and other related works, to help ensure their care and preservation. See more information about this here

References

[1] Several articles in [Lawrence Boardman Dunham clippings and correspondence albums], Dec 1926 to Sept 1932, Volume 1, Manuscripts, New York Academy of Medicine Library, New York, NY.

[2] Dr. John Jones, The Mysteries of Opium Reveal’d (London: 1701), 1. All emphasis original unless stated otherwise.

[3] Ibid; Richard J. Miller and Phuong B. Tran, “More Mysteries of Opium Reveal’d: 300 Years of Opiates,” Trends in Pharmacological Sciences 21 (August 2000), 299–304.

[4] Jones, 1.

[5] Jones, 216.

[6] Mordecai Cubitt Cooke, The Seven Sisters of Sleep: Popular History of the Seven Prevailing Narcotics of the World (London: 1860), 1–5.

[7] Ibid, 357–371.

[8] Ibid, 163–180, 357–371.

[9] Jones, 81.

[10] Cooke, 163–180.

[11] Jones, 1; Cooke.

[12] Jones, 6.

[13] Cooke, 132–148, 366–368.

“FEAR Narcotic Drugs!” The Passage of the Harrison Act

By Anne Garner, Curator, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

Ad published in American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, volume 36, number 6, March 25, 1900.

Ad published in American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, volume 36, number 6, March 25, 1900.

One hundred years ago today, Congress approved the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act. The Act’s passage critically impacted drug policy for the remainder of the century, and the habits of physicians with regard to prescribing and dispensing medicine.

By 1900, use of narcotics was at its peak for both medical and non-medical purposes. Advertisements promoting opium- and cocaine-laden drugs saturated the newspapers; morphine seemed more easily obtainable than alcohol; and widespread sale of drugs and drug paraphernalia gained the attention of medical professionals and private citizens alike.1 State regulations failed to effectively curb distribution and use.2

Physicians and pharmacists recognized they had an image problem. In 1901, the American Pharmaceutical Association formed a committee to study the country’s drug problem and recommended the ban of non-medical drug use.3 The American Medical Association seconded the APA’s pitch and strongly advocated for federal legislation.4

Hamilton Wright. In Morgan, Drugs in America. A Social History 1800-1980.

Dr. Hamilton Wright. In H. Wayne Morgan, Drugs in America. A Social History 1800-1980, p. 99.

This groundswell in support of federal action among local medical professionals also had roots overseas. In the aftermath of the Spanish-American war, the U.S. inherited control of the Philippines, and with it a serious opium problem. An American missionary, Charles Henry Brent, convened a commission in 1903 that recommended narcotics be subject to international control.5 Roosevelt seized on these findings, recognizing an opportunity to improve relations with China. In 1908 he initiated an international conference in Shanghai to talk about the narcotics problem. The President sent Brent and Hamilton Wright, U.S. Opium Commissioner, to represent the U.S.6 Wright, an outspoken, charismatic, and controversial figure, was central to the eventual passage of the Harrison Act.

Passage of a federal law would not be easy. In April of 1910, at Wright’s behest, Representative David Foster proposed a bill banning the non-medical use of opiates, cocaine, chloral hydrate, and cannabis, with harsh penalties for violations. The purchase of patent medicines containing any of these ingredients would require tax stamps and strict record-keeping. Proponents of the bill stressed the link between criminalization and drug use. Despite Wright’s best efforts, the uncompromising Foster bill garnered strong resistance from manufacturers and druggists, and died in Congress.7

A clipping from the library's Healy Collection,  which contains 19th century images, mostly clipped from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News and Harper’s Weekly. Click to enlarge.

A clipping from the library’s Healy Collection, which contains 19th century images, mostly clipped from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News and Harper’s Weekly. Click to enlarge.

Two more international conferences followed, at The Hague in 1911 and 1912. Soon after, Wright renewed his commitment to pass federal anti-drug legislation. A new bill proposed by Tammany representative Francis Burton Harrison, again at Wright’s urging, looked very similar to the Foster bill. But after two years of negotiations in Congress, the final legislation incorporated several key compromises. Physicians could dispense medication to patients without record-keeping. Patent medicines with legal amounts of narcotic substances could be sold by mail order or in general stores. Cannabis and chloral hydrate were omitted from regulation. With these concessions, opposition from pharmaceutical and medical professionals softened, agreement was reached, and the bill was signed into law on December 17, 1914.8

The immediate impact of the Act’s passage was confusion. The law offered only vague implementation guidelines. Was it largely a taxation measure, or was it intended to monitor and regulate professional activity? The Act’s major ambiguity related to the authority of physicians to prescribe maintenance doses of narcotics to already-addicted patients. Two 1919 Supreme Court cases clarified the issue. U.S. vs. Doremus found the Harrison Act constitutional and validated the government’s ability to regulate prescription practices for addicts. Webb et al. vs. U.S. denied physicians the power to provide maintenance doses.

The Supreme Court decisions forced addicts to locate new sources. They turned to the black market, where they paid top dollar. Petty crime increased.9 Penalties for violation of the Harrison Act were harsh. In the early years of the law, conviction numbers were relatively low—most years fewer than 500—but by 1919, the year of the Supreme Court rulings, convictions showed a marked upward trend. By 1923, convictions were approaching 5,000 per annum.10

The effect of the legislation on addicts was not viewed unsympathetically by the medical establishment, or even by law enforcement. Even the head of New York’s dope squad, Lieutenant Scherb, seemed concerned: “Many of [the addicts] are doubled up in pain at this very minute and others are running to the police and hospitals to get relief….the suffering among them is really terrible.”11 Beginning in 1919, authorities and public health officials cooperated to develop 44 addiction recovery facilities. These new facilities were short-lived, and most had closed by 1921. Unpopular with the public, many shut down because the lion’s share of patients found themselves back on the streets again.

NYAM holds a scrapbook of newspaper clippings from 1926-1927 illustrating that drug abuse was still front and center in America’s mind well after the Harrison Act’s passage.12 Most articles framed narcotic users as criminals: what was once a legal pastime was now seen as a major threat to American society. One clipping quotes Harvey Waite of the Association for the Prevention of Drug and Narcotic Addicts of Michigan: “Drug addicts are a menace to the peaceful citizens of the United States because from them come the most notorious criminals and lawbreakers.”

From the library's scrapbook of 1926-1927 newspaper clippings. Click to enlarge.

From the library’s scrapbook of 1926-1927 newspaper clippings. Click to enlarge.

The Harrison Act’s most lasting impact was in how it shifted the public conversation from a discussion about regulating a legal activity to eliminating an illegal one. The Act would form the cornerstone of all drug legislation to come, including the Controlled Substance Act of 1970.

References

1. Musto, David F. The American Disease Origins of Narcotic Control. New York: Oxford, 1999. Pp. 3-8.

2. Morgan, H. Wayne. Drugs in America. A Social History 1800-1980. Pp. 101-102.

3. Morgan, p. 102.

4. Musto, p. 56-57.

5. Courtwright, David T. Dark Paradise Opiate Addiction in America before 1940. Cambridge: Harvard, 1982.

6. Morgan, 99-100.

7. Musto, 47-48.

8. Morgan, 106-108 and Musto, 59-61.

9. Hodgson, Barbara. In the Arms of Morpheus. The Tragic History of Laudanum, Morphine, and Patent Medicines. Buffalo: Firefly, 2001. P. 128.

10. Erlin and Spillane, pp. 44-45.

11. The New York Times, April 15, 1915.

12. [Narcotics]. Clippings from newspapers from Dec. 1926-Sept. 1932. [New York?, 1926-1932]. 3 v. Email history@nyam.org to request.

Chinese Opium Dens and the “Satellite Fiends of the Joints”

By Anne Garner, Curator, Rare Books and Manuscripts

Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) visits an opium den. Cinemax, 2014

Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) visits an opium den in The Knick. Cinemax, 2014

Dr. John Thackery passes through a number of dimly-lit opium dens in the heart of New York’s Chinatown during the course of The Knick. What were these dens really like—and who frequented them?

In the mid-19th century, the Chinatowns of America were largely isolated communities, populated by immigrants brought by labor brokers to work on the Central Pacific Railroad or other jobs. Many of these workers planned to return home after several years; there was little desire to assimilate. Scholar Gunther Barth has suggested that with the safety of a familiar culture came familiar vices.1

A large number of Chinese immigrants came from Canton, a region with a rich history of opium-smoking. As the Chinese presence spread east, opium dens cropped up in the Chinatowns of every major American city.

American Opium-Smokers Interior of a New York Opium Den/ Drawn by J.W. Alexander. [New York] : Harper and Brothers, Oct. 8, 1881. Courtesy of Images from the History of Medicine (NLM).

American Opium-Smokers Interior of a New York Opium Den/ Drawn by J.W. Alexander. [New York] : Harper and Brothers, Oct. 8, 1881. Courtesy of Images from the History of Medicine (NLM).

H. H. Kane wrote in 1882 that the first white American to smoke opium did so in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1868.2 Until then, opium smoking had been strictly confined to the areas of Chinese settlement. By 1875, the practice was widespread enough that San Francisco passed a law prohibiting opium dens. This ordinance was America’s first anti-narcotics law.

The San Francisco ordinance coincided with an increasing anxiety among whites in large urban areas that the low-paid Chinese would threaten wages and standards of living. At the time, the country was mired in a deep recession. The federal Page Act, passed the same year as the San Francisco law, similarly targeted Chinese immigrants, aiming to “end the danger of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women.”3

Beginning with Virginia City the following year, local ordinances banning opium-smoking quickly passed across the U.S. These laws were largely ineffective. Law enforcement, focused on prosecuting Chinese dens known to attract white clientele, only drove whites deeper into Chinatown, and to smoke at higher rates.4

As opium use among whites increased, community leaders began to signal a concern about the morals of white women. Philadelphia missionary Frederic Poole cautioned that white women exposed by the Chinese to opium-smoking were at risk of “a life of degradation.”5 In 1883, Reverend John Liggins wrote of the dangers of the many New York City dens found in Mott and Pearl Streets (still the heart of Chinatown today), and quoted Kane that the habit, learned from the Chinese, contributed to “the downfall of innocent girls and the debasement of married women.”6 The same year, Allen S. Williams wrote in an early book on the opium-smoking habit about New York’s Chinatown dens:

Chinamen flit noiselessly by in ghostly, fluttering garments, and startle the Caucasian intruder by the very suddenness of their unsympathetic companionship…. the Chinese opium joint…is run for the sole purpose of pandering to a vicious taste whose indulgence is injurious to society.7

On the left coast, The Wasp, a popular San Francisco paper, sent two “reporters” to that city’s Chinatown in 1881, and published their findings:

In reeking holes ‘two stories’ underground, where the light of heaven and healthy atmosphere never penetrate, we found human beings living—if it may be called living, which is at best but an existence—as contentedly as rats in a sewer, whose habitation theirs so much resembles. The opium smokers’ resorts were among the first visited…a person once there, he may well desire to make himself oblivious of such surroundings and raise himself to a temporary heaven of his own, but how white men, and even white women, can bring themselves to descend to such filthy holes, where the reeking slime courses down the walls and the air is heavy with foetid odors, is a mystery to any well-regulated mind.8

The Wasp article offers an especially disturbing example of how many Americans implicated the Chinese as a group with standards and moral habits far inferior to those of whites. As early as the 1880s, opium dens run by the French and even white American-born women could be found in New York and Philadelphia, but the imagery continued to portray them as exclusively Chinese-owned and -operated. “It’s a poor town now-a-days that has not a Chinese laundry, and nearly every one of these has its lay-out [pipe plus accessories],” wrote one white traveler in 1883.9

Fig. 2—Smoker's Outfit. In Opium-Smoking in America and China.

Fig. 2—Smoker’s Outfit. In Opium-Smoking in America and China.

The framing of opium smoking as a Chinese problem continued as the century drew to a close. Temperance advocates and moral reformers identified opium smoking with indolence and passivity, qualities out of sync with a culture that emphasized hard work and a fast-paced industrial society. These kinds of characterizations became an important way to generate public revulsion for an immigrant group perceived to threaten both economic and social stability, and to gain traction for legislative action.10

The antagonisms toward the Chinese and attendant immigration restrictions resulted in a Chinese immigrant population that decreased by 1920 to less than half of what it was in 1890.11 The last opium den in New York was raided in 1957. Decades before, many of Chinatown’s dens, largely abandoned because of the rise of opium derivatives morphine and heroin, had all but disappeared.

References

1. Courtwright, David. Dark Paradise. Opiate Addiction in America before 1940. Cambridge: Harvard, 1982. 68.

2. Kane, H.H. Opium-Smoking in America and China. New York: G.P. Putnam’s, 1882. 1.

3. Peffer, George Anthony. Forbidden Familes: Emigration Experiences of Chinese Women Under the Page Law, 1875-1882. Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 6 No. 1, Fall, 1986.

4. Courtwright, 79.

5. Courtwright, 78.

6. Liggins, John. The Spread of Opium-Smoking in America. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1883. 20.

7. Williams, Allen Samuel. The Demon of the Orient and his Satellite Fiends of the Joints. New York: [the author], [1883]. 12.

8. The Chinese in California, 1850-1925.

9. Courtwright, 73.

10. Musto, David F. The American Disease. Origins of Narcotic Control. New Haven: Yale, 1973. 294-300.

11. Courtwright, 85.