The Value of Propaganda as Historical Evidence: Anslinger’s Gore File as Source Material

Editor’s Note: This week, Bob Beach follows up on an earlier post about the Harry J. Anslinger papers. Today, Bob shares some of his findings from the infamous “gore file.”

In roughly four years, between 1933 to 1937, Harry Anslinger led a policy push to marginalize and strictly regulate the use of marijuana in the United States. His victory, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, was the culmination of bureaucratic maneuvering, public lobbying, and the use of extreme, sensationalist propaganda. These facts are not in doubt.

But what of propaganda? What is it? Where does it come from? There is no doubt that propaganda can be completely fabricated. But the most effective propaganda is rooted in some form of truth: cultural anxieties, social tensions, economic hardship. Indeed, all three of these were factors during the 1930s and it seemed like each of these elements found their way into the moral panic that was reefer madness.

But there’s more to it. Propaganda isn’t just the manifestation of racial tension or gender anxiety. Nor is propaganda a simple transference of these problems into exaggerated form. Luise White, in her 2000 book, Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa, tries to understand the nature of rumor and gossip (about bloodthirsty colonial agents) seriously as primary source material. And my own study of Anslinger’s so-called “gore file” attempts to do the same thing.

While White uses rumor and gossip to reconstruct the nature of colonial power relationships, the documents in the “gore file” portion of Anslinger’s papers appear to be the source material from which Anslinger’s propaganda was created. It is unclear at this point exactly how these reports were generated as they appear as typed notes with no discernible format or template. They could just as easily have been typed from newspaper reports by research staff in Anslinger’s office, as by agents or local police or detectives in the field. I had the time to quickly cross reference a few of the New York City articles with the New York Times database, and they seem to be based on actual events.

One of several cross-referenced stories
One of several cross-referenced stories

A simple reading of the various reports produces recognizable stories and tropes used in Anslinger’s speeches during the period. An emphasis is placed on African-American and Mexican users as well as the threat of the drug to young white children. There are references to the insanity supposedly caused by marijuana use and the irrational, violent crimes often committed by individuals under the influence of the drug. None of this is new, nor is any of this surprising. But buried in the minutia of these reports is evidence that seems to support the notion that the “insanity” resulting from marijuana consumption is better explained as self-medication– that is, use that seeks to alleviate the inner turmoil resulting from a preexisting psychological disorder.

An important part of this evidence develops in the narrative of the reports themselves. In many of Anslinger’s public reports, marijuana use appears first. However, in most of the reports of violent and irrational crime, marijuana appears after the description of the crime. This may seem a bit trivial, but in reading the various documents, the evidence of marijuana use comes from a follow-up investigation or interview when the accused is found to be in possession of, or admits to, being a regular marijuana user. The assumption is then made that marijuana was the cause of the crime.

In one of the more obvious examples, a man in Abingdon, Virginia, was arrested for smuggling marijuana into a local prison. According to the report, he had been doing this for several years. At the end of the report, the author mentioned that another member of the man’s family had, months before, killed a police officer “probably while under the baleful influence of the weed.” (1) More to the point, a man in New Mexico caught selling marijuana from his grocery store, made three separate suicide attempts during the course of his attempted arrest. Though he temporarily eluded capture, the assumption was made that his behavior could only be explained by marijuana use. (2)

Despite these seemingly obvious misattributions, in several cases I was able to cross-reference it is clear that some very violent and irrational crimes were indeed committed by these admitted marijuana users. It is likely that these individuals suffered from some unknown or poorly understood psychological condition and cannabis was being used to alleviate suffering. A survey appears in the archive that seems to point to this explanation.

Like the other reports, there is no supporting documentation, nor is there a description of the survey or its purpose. So clearly more research needs to be done. However, the pages detail the responses of over 30 cannabis users to a series of questions about their use. When asked why they use the drug, a surprising number of responders mentioned specific, health related reasons.

A man in Chicago used cannabis to calm his nerves; a man from New York used cannabis to give him pep. A number of interviewees mentioned the drug’s sleep inducing properties as reasons for use, while others identified specific disorders from rheumatism, headache, asthma. (3) A man from Oakland, California noted that cannabis “makes him feel jolly…avoids all things that would lead to trouble of any kind. Notices things more closely…makes his hearing sharp and keen.” (4)

To be sure, these references are not the end of the story. There is much more work to be done. My point is that the reports and surveys in the files of perhaps the most divisive anti-drug bureaucrat in American history might–despite their use as propaganda– reveal quite nuanced accounts and the voices of users themselves. The gore file is an incentive to take seriously the contentious, and at times apocryphal, discourse produced during the reefer-madness era. The material should encourage drug historians to continue looking for the voices of “recreational” users in unexpected places.

A propaganda machine
A propaganda machine

Even if further research proves fruitless, there’s another potential use for Anslinger’s files: just as Luise White used rumor to highlight colonial power relationships, the propagandistic use of the various reports in Anslinger’s gore file may be used to illuminate the power relationships in the war on drugs.

Notes:

(1) “Marijuana Related Arrests,” Box 9, File 7. H. J. Anslinger papers, HCLA 1875, Special Collections Library, Pennsylvania State University.

(2) ibid

(3) “Marihuana Addiction ca 1930s,” Box 9, File 20; “Marijuana Users (1935-6),” Box 9, File 53.

(4) “Marijuana Related Arrests,” Box 9, File 7.

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