Updated: Aug 29
Newspapers are extraordinary historical sources in their sheer number and their accessibility. Recently I’ve been reading a lot of them as research on opium in the late 1800s. During this age of cheap print, high literacy rates, and early investigative journalism, much ink was spilled on the puzzling and alluring vice of opium in all its forms.
A number of reporters ventured into the verboten interiors of opium dens in San Francisco and New York to write first-person accounts, or tried it at home or among friends. Their assessments of the experience of smoking opium varied wildly: some wrote about seeing God and paradise, while others dryly concluded the drug was good for little except falling asleep.
Some journalists’ accounts of the opium use of others are stern, Progressive-spirited exposes, while some are sensational and colorful (yellow, to be exact).
But in the newspapers, this era also belonged to humorists. One of Mark Twain’s earliest pieces of reporting described the “comfortless operation” of opium smoking, whereby an experienced smoker “puts a pellet of opium on the end of a wire, sets it on fire, and plasters it into the pipe much as a Christian would fill a hole with putty; then he applies the bowl to the lamp and proceeds to smoke—and the stewing and frying of the juices would well-nigh turn the stomach of a statue.”
Twain spent most of the 1860s in California, and he grew increasingly outspoken about anti-Chinese prejudice over the course of his literary career. In 1870 he was contributing a column to The Galaxy magazine for which he wrote a series of satirical letters from a fictional Chinese immigrant to a friend. (The “letter” format was popular with newspaper columnists, particularly humorists.) In one letter, the Chinese traveler describes his arrival at the port of San Francisco, where a small packet of opium becomes a pretext for officials to confiscate all his belongings and arrest his companion:
I stepped ashore jubilant! I wanted to dance, shout, sing, worship the generous Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. But as I walked from the gang-plank a man in a gray uniform* kicked me violently … . I was about to take hold of my end of the pole which had mine and Hong-Wo’s basket and things suspended from it, when a third officer hit me with his club to signify that I was to drop it, and then kicked me to signify that he was satisfied with my promptness. Another person came now, and searched all through our basket and bundles, emptying everything out on the dirty wharf. Then this person and another searched us all over. They found a little package of opium sewed into the artificial part of Hong-Wo’s queue, and they took that, and also they made him prisoner and handed him over to an officer, who marched him away. They took his luggage, too, because of his crime, and as our luggage was so mixed together that they could not tell mine from his, they took it all. …
Whether or not Twain himself imbibed, he did make some observations on the oppressive forces of California’s fledgling drug control apparatus. (This article by cannabis activist Ellen Komp reports newspaper evidence that Twain and a friend were tailed by a policeman in San Francisco while stoned on hashish.) Apparently he never wrote a first-person account of taking opium.
Like Twain, Mortimer Thomson had been both a reporter and a humorist. In 1861, writing his “letters to a friend”-style column under the pen name Doesticks, Thomson recounted the hallucinogenic sensation of rapid bodily metamorphosis after taking laudanum. The piece was written a couple of years after Thomson infiltrated a massive 1859 slave auction in Savannah and published a detailed, scathing report for the New York Tribune, and just before he became a Civil War correspondent.
It’s worth a read in its original syndicated form:
But this time would not, after all, be the last that Doesticks ate opium. Coping with the realities of financial strain and political strife, the writer, like other laborers, probably took opium and drank plenty of alcohol to mitigate the mental and physical burdens of day-to-day striving.
After he died in 1875, a friend published a letter about Thomson’s unpredictable trajectory through life. The friend wrote, in part:
Like Fitz-Hugh Ludlow, Doesticks yielded to stimulants—brandy and opium—during the last years of his life. It was this that killed him and took away a soul which in its few years of journeying through the vale of tears brought more real joy and laughter than a dozen sour souls like Hawthorn and Emerson and Carlyle … . The work of the humorist is indeed grander, and more self-sacrificing than that of the historian, the poet or the essayist. But his reward is generally kicks and blows … .
I hope to learn more about Thomson and to continue finding interesting accounts of opium use among the American intelligentsia.