Taking Opium in 1861: A Reporter’s Weirdly Funny Story

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.”

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