Reflections on “Addicts Who Survived”: Amund Tallaksen

Editor’s note: Our commentary to accompany yesterday’s excerpt from Addicts Who Survived comes from Amund Tallaksen (NB: if you’ve missed any of the series, please check out the series introduction, the first excerpt, and Eric Schneider’s commentary).  Amund is a doctoral candidate in history at Carnegie Mellon University, presently working on a dissertation examining drugs and drug control on post-World War Two New Orleans.  He has graciously taken some time away from the archives in Louisiana to offer these reflections on Willis Butler’s oral history. 

Shreveport, Louisiana, is a city most Americans know very little about. Close to the Texas and Arkansas borders, Shreveport is the largest urban area in northern Louisiana, the majority-Protestant and more culturally “southern” part of the state (as opposed to the majority-Catholic, geographically southern half). Americans with an interest in drug history, however, have an almost intimate knowledge of what happened in Shreveport in the early 1920s. This is largely because of one man, Willis P. Butler, who ran the narcotic dispensary in the city from 1919 to 1923, providing legal access to morphine for addicts in need. The Shreveport clinic was the longest functioning of all the narcotic clinics in the country (most of which were located in the Northeast) and when Willis P. Butler was forced to shut his operation down in 1923 it unequivocally marked the end of the clinic era.

Willis Butler, at the age of remembering
Willis Butler, at the age of remembering

The clinics were largely forgotten by mid-century, yet when methadone became increasingly available to American opiate addicts in the late 1960s, it created a renewed interest in the clinic system of the 1920s. Willis P. Butler was essentially “rediscovered” in the fall of 1971. One academic managed to get in touch with Butler in early October 1971, and the word quickly spread – the late Yale historian David F. Musto, for example, was among the earliest to get in touch with Butler, only a few weeks later. When interviewed by David Courtwright in 1978, Butler was over ninety years old and among the very few alive to tell the story of the clinics from personal experience. Butler was born in 1888, and graduated from Vanderbilt Medical School in 1911. After finishing his degree, Butler moved to Shreveport and was elected to the role of parish (county) physician and coroner of Caddo parish, a role which included tending to the needs of addicts.

Shreveport, 1919
Shreveport, 1919

One of the most dramatic and interesting parts of Courtwright’s interview is the story of the very open personal conflict between Butler and his two “nemeses,” Dr. Oscar Dowling and Levi G. Nutt. Oscar Dowling was the legendary head of the Louisiana State Board of Health and served as a member of the American Medical Association’s Board of Trustees from 1913 to 1925. In 1919 Dowling was a driving force in the establishment of the three Louisiana clinics (Alexandria, New Orleans, and Shreveport), yet by 1921 he had made a complete turn-around and strongly opposed the continuation of the very same clinics. His conversion was undoubtedly a result of pressures from the Narcotic Division of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, who actually threatened Dowling with an indictment if the Board of Health did not shut down the clinics. Dowling acquiesced, and managed to shut down the Alexandria and New Orleans clinics during the spring of 1921. The resulting friendship between Dowling and Levi Nutt, the head of the Narcotic Division, further amplified Dowling’s opposition to Willis Butler. The friendly relationship between Dowling and Nutt seem to have continued, and in a 1926 article printed in the New Orleans Item newspaper, Nutt praised Dr. Dowling’s work against drug addiction in Louisiana. (Interestingly, the article was penned by Anne Helbrant, wife of the famous narcotics agent Maurice Helbrant).

Nemesis #1: Oscar Dowling
Nemesis #1: Oscar Dowling

Nevertheless, while the Alexandria and New Orleans clinics were successfully shut down, the city of Shreveport, through a city ordinance, decided to keep Butler’s clinic open against the protests of both Dowling and the Narcotic Division. Butler finally agreed to end the dispensing of morphine in 1923, however, after intense pressure from federal agents. In no unclear terms, Butler described these agents as “crooks and scum and scalawags,” and the bitterness Butler felt towards the federal agents and Oscar Dowling comes through in Courtwright’s interview, despite the half-century that had passed since the events.

Within just a few years of the closing of the clinic, however, Dr. Butler would witness his two “nemeses” have their careers ended in disgraceful manners. Levi Nutt’s career was famously ended by the murder of New York gangster Arnold Rothstein and the consequent investigation, which uncovered widespread corruption within the prohibition agency. Even more embarrassing for Nutt was the revelation that his own son and son-in-law had worked as Arnold Rothstein’s personal accountants. The ousting of Levi Nutt eventually paved the way for Harry J. Anslinger’s ascent to the job as narcotics commissioner in the reformed Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which was established in 1930.

Nemesis #2: Colonel Levi Nutt
Nemesis #2: Colonel Levi Nutt

Furthermore, Oscar Dowling, the head of the Louisiana State Board of Health, and “the man who cleaned up a whole state” according to the New York Times, found his career upended by the political juggernaut that was Huey P. Long. Elected governor of Louisiana in 1928, Huey Long was a friend of Butler, and he clearly considered Dowling a political enemy. Long publicly attacked Dowling as “neither competent, efficient nor otherwise qualified” and demanded his immediate resignation in May 1928. Dowling, however, refused to go down without a fight, and the much-publicized feud between Long and Dowling was only ended November 26, 1928, when the Louisiana Supreme Court sided with Huey Long and approved the appointment of Joseph O’Hara, the former coroner of Orleans parish, to fill Oscar Dowling’s role as head of the State Board of Health. Tragically, Oscar Dowling was killed under strange circumstances only two years later. In January 1931, he was found “killed by a train aboard the Texas and Pacific railroad ferry at New Orleans.”

Is it hard to imagine Willis P. Butler not feeling at least somewhat vindicated in the 1970s, as methadone’s availability spread and a new cohort of activists and academics showed a renewed interest in his work from the 1920s.