In 1918, the Treasury Department established a Special Narcotic Committee, tasked with reviewing the scope of the drug problem in the United States. The Committee issued its final report, Traffic in Narcotic Drugs, in June of 1919. The product of a year’s worth of work by a committee which included reputable figures in the drug field, the report covered many aspects of the drug problem—but no part of the report drew more attention than the conclusion that the nation’s addict population numbered one million. To understand how that figure was obtained, we need to briefly review some very poor statistical analysis. And that’s part of the story. But the bigger story is that “one million addicts” took on a life of its own, a mythical number that long outlived the federal government’s own interest in its promulgation.
“There was not the least sign of social disorder in 1942”
—Daniel Patrick Moynihan, speaking at the 100 Years of Heroin Conference, Yale University, 1998
Dorothy Sullivan was an informant for the Chicago office of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. On Tuesday, January 22, 1942, she was scheduled to testify in federal court in support of the government’s case against two men charged with heroin sales. She never made it to court. Instead, she fell, screaming and on fire, from eighth floor of a South Dearborn office building. Passers-by described looking up when they heard screams, and seeing what looked like a “flaming bundle of rags” plunging to the street. Dorothy Sullivan was killed instantly when she hit the ground, just one of an uncounted number of narcotics informants to meet a violent end over the course of the war on drugs. Their stories are rarely told.
“The real war will never get in the books”–Walt Whitman, 1875
On October 31, 1932, Charity Hospital in New Orleans admitted a comatose man, diagnosed with malaria and thought to be an opiate addict. The patient deserted the hospital after being revived. Two days later, he was once again brought to Charity hospital, again in a coma. He died the following day. Over the course of the next month, five more Charity Hospital patients, all injecting drug users, died of malaria. Over the course of the following year, a total of 48 injecting drug users were admitted to the same hospital with diagnoses of malaria, 10 of whom died.
“The Real War Will Never Get in the Books”—Walt Whitman, 1875
As 1929’s Fourth of July celebrations wound down in Los Angeles, a teenager named Christobal Silvas Sierra—Christo, to his friends—law dying. No one saw him die in the darkness. But for an unusual sequence of events, we would not know how he had died. Frankly, we would not even remember that he had lived and died at all. But we do know how he died. And we have the power to remember him and many others like him. We should. And then we should attend to making some sense of it all in the larger history of America’s century-long drug war. Continue reading →
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.
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.
Editor’s note: Not every interview conducted for Addicts Who Survived was of an addict. The work includes some fascinating oral histories of individuals with notable roles in the modern history of addiction and the drug war. Among these, Dr. Willis Butler, who operated one of the most notable narcotic maintenance clinics opened around the time of the Harrison Act and closed soon thereafter. We’ll have commentary to Dr. Butler’s oral history tomorrow.
Willis Pollard Butler was the most celebrated and controversial of all the early clinic doctors. Born in modest circumstances in Gibsland, Louisiana, in 1888, Butler moved with his family to Shreveport in 1899, where he took a summer job as a drugstore delivery boy. (Ironically, his chores included the delivery of dram bottles of morphine to the local addicts.) He eventually worked his way through Vanderbilt Medical School, graduating in 1911. Returning home, he applied his talents as chemist and bacteriologist for the Shreveport Board of Health, until he was elected parish physician and coroner in 1916. He served in that capacity for no fewer than forty-eight years. When interviewed in 1978, he was over ninety years old.1
Butler was above all else a superb politician. He was handsome, charming, articulate, and on a first-name basis with everyone who counted in Shreveport. That, together with the efficient and discriminating manner in which his clinic was run, assured local support and temporarily frustrated the designs of interloping federal agents.
Although Butler’s memory was phenomenal for a man of his years, it should be borne in mind that his is only one side of the story, that the agents who hounded him and the doctors who turned on him can make no rebuttal. As Butler himself observed, “I don’t know anybody connected with it—top, bottom, or middle—still living except me.” For the sake of confidentiality, the names of addicts mentioned by Butler have been changed, as have the names of those who may have violated the law.
I was health officer, medical examiner for this district, and parish physician. One day—it was the third of May, 1919—Dr. Oscar Dowling, president of the state board of health, came to Shreveport. As usual, he called me, because I was representing the state board of health up in northern Louisiana. He asked me down to the hotel to make a culture of his throat—he had a sore throat. I went down there to see him and, as we walked out of the hotel, he said, “Butler, you having any problem up here with addicts?” I said, “Yes. I don’t know about particular problems, but we got a lot of them. I’m having trouble with them in jail, and there’s an awful lot of thievery and that sort of thing going on, and the police say that a lot of them are responsible.” He said, “Well, we have opened up a clinic down in New Orleans, under Dr. Marion Swords. I suggest that you come down there and see how it’s being done, because we have the approval of the government and the Treasury Department Narcotic Division. Maybe you could start the same thing up here.”
Well, I went to New Orleans. I knew Dr. Swords quite well; he was secretary-treasurer of the state board of health. He had this clinic right across from the courthouse on the corner of Conti Street; it looked like a little alley down in the French Quarter. What I saw was a bunch of derelicts coming in, and they were giving them a little vial—it looked like it might hold 15 or 20 cc. He said that they were putting morphine in there, a certain amount according to what they wanted them to start with. The next day, they would put in a little less, but the same amount of water. They were going to get them off of it by reduction. I said, “You don’t know much about addicts if you think that you can fool them as to whether they’re suffering or not.” I said I’d have nothing to do with that sort of thing at all, and I told Dr. Dowling that I did not want to assume any such responsibility. Continue reading →
Editor’s Note: Our series of reflections on Addicts Who Survived continues today with Eric Schneider discussing Teddy’s narrative, posted yesterday.
How did heroin become a drug used largely by African Americans after World
War Two, when it had been a primarily white drug in the previous decades? What were
the social settings that nurtured this new wave of heroin use? How did young people,
primarily males, become the postwar generation of heroin sellers and users?
David Courtwright locates the transition from white to black heroin use in the
Great Migration, the movement of African American southerners into northern cities,
where a primarily rural people encountered not only problems of social dislocation but
also a racism as overt and virulent as the one they left behind. But urban life was also
different, and while hemmed in by a color line that shaped residence, education, and
employment, African Americans were freer to act within these bounded spaces. Here
African Americans developed a language and a style of cultural resistance, an infra
politics of daily life, a zoot-suited, bebop-inflected assertion of self that emerged most
clearly in the social settings of entertainment and vice districts that police effectively
zoned into black residential neighborhoods. Illicit off-the-books economic activity
mingled with outright criminality and ordinary working class street life, and the drug use
of gamblers, pimps, prostitutes and hustlers inevitably seeped into daily life.
How do we understand the process by which heroin use spread? There are some autobiographies, most notably Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, that
testify to the spread of heroin within teenage peer groups. Investigations by reporters,
local police or the Federal Bureau of Narcotics tracked down the sources of the new
upsurge in heroin use that had caught them completely by surprise after the heroin
drought during World War Two. Court records reveal the outlines of trafficking schemes
as heroin made its way from city to city, and Congressional, state and municipal hearings
featured heroin users who explained before television audiences how they got “hooked.”
These records, while useful, all have limitations. Autobiographies are artfully designed
and can rarely be taken at face value, prosecutorial records are focused on proving a
particular version of events, and investigators in public hearings prepare their witnesses
and agree on the presentation of a narrative. Of course oral histories also suffer from
limitations, especially selective memory, and depend on the knowledge and the rapport
established by the interviewer, but they provide first-person insight into the
circumstances and the choices made by ordinary individuals whose experiences might
otherwise be lost. Addicts Who Survived is the best collection of interviews with opiate
users that I know. Continue reading →