The Use and Abuse of Drugs in Nineteenth-Century Tennessee History
  by Dr. James B. Jones, Jr., Public Historian
Every Day in Tennessee History

PROBABLY the earliest source of information on narcotics’ abuse in Tennessee history was Dr. John C. Gunn’s book Domestic Medicine, or Poor Man’s Friend. In the hours of Affliction, Pain and Sickness (1830). Gunn’s book provided counsel about many topics, including opium, the use and abuse of which was neither ordinary nor extraordinary.

DR. GUNN endorsed the professional use of opium. “Without this valuable and essential medicine” he wrote, “it would be next to impossible for a Physician to practice his profession with any considerable degree of success. It called the...soothing angel of moral and physical pain." Opium played a big part in remedies for a variety of ailments including but not limited to: fear, grief, ague and fever, rheumatism, sleeplessness, consumption, “constant looseness of the bowels,” catarrh, kidney stones, ear-aches, lock jaw, cancer, and diseases of pregnancy.

OPIUM wrote the Tennessee physician, had from colonial times been used in America as the main ingredient in Bateman’s Drops and Godfrey’s Cordial. These had “sustained their characters for near a century [and] have opium as their base or principal parts, and they are certainly valuable medicines.” Thus the use of opium was “the result...of a continuous growth....” So, medicinal use of opium was unexceptional in America. Opium legitimated the physician’s practice.

BESIDES being a medicinal option Gunn sanctioned opium for its pleasurable and consciousness-altering effects. His very bad poetry reflects this assertion:

Charmed with this potent drug, the exalted mind
All sense of woe delivers to the wind
It clears the cloudy font of wrinkled care
And soothes the bosom of despair!

OPIUM was better than alcohol he wrote. The excitement produced by alcohol “is a flame which soon subsides, and leaves nothing” intoned Gunn, “but ashes of self reprehension and bitter reflection behind it....” Opium, however, gave a “steady, agreeable, and permanent glow of pleasure, [both] physical and intellectual which,” he stated discerningly, “lasts from ten to twelve hours.” Alcohol, wrote the Tennessee physician, confused the mind, but opium induced “order, harmony and pleasurable serenity, [it] produces a just equipoise between our intellectual strength and sensibilities [while it] arouses all our dormant faculties, and disposes them to harmonious and pleasurable activity.

GUNN’S enthusiastic rapture was tempered with an afterthought: “Opium, if habitually taken, in other words when it is made use of as a stimulant...and not as a medicine, affects the physical system....[and] the mind becomes weak, irresolute, heavy, dull and languid” followed by addiction and death. So he admonished: “...use not this drug, but as intended by the great Father of the a medicine alone, it the relief of pain and suffering, and soothing and tranquilizing to the system with balmy refreshing slumbers.” Thus the doctor gave conflicting advice. It is impossible to know the extent of opium addiction in antebellum Tennessee, yet it seems likely that some could have been given the probability that painful diseases were not unknown and that physicians applied it so freely.

MANY believe that America’s drug problem originated in the Civil War. Morphine was freely given to casualties on both sides and liberally administered in cases of amputation or advance gangrene. The Union army procured over nine million opium pills and over 2,840,000 ounces of opium products including 29,828 ounces of morphine sulfate. Dr. T. L. Madden, professor of surgery in the Shelby Medical College in Nashville, prescribed a concoction of quinine, calomel, cayenne pepper and opium for “congestive fevers” so common in the Tennessee River Valley. In 1863 the Medical Inspector of the Federal Army advised that the concoction be utilized by the Medical Corps in Tennessee.

RECORDS relating to the use of opium by the Confederacy are nonexistent, but that does not mean opiates were unknown. In 1863, recognizing that the substance was scarce, Confederate Army Surgeon-General Samuel Preston Moore issued a circular that unsuccessfully attempted to interest Southern women in the production of opium:

Medical purveyors will make induce the ladies throughout the South to interest themselves in the culture of the garden poppy. They may thus render the Confederacy essential service. Purveyors will furnish the ladies with the seeds...and will instruct them that the juice exuding from the punctured capsules, when sufficiently hardened, should be carefully put up and forwarded to the nearest purveying depot.

DESPITE the Union blockade, however, opiates were widely attainable in the Army of Tennessee. An excellent example is an entry in Sergeant John Coffee Williamson’s journal. He served with the 5th Tennessee Cavalry during Wheeler’s summer 1864 raid into the Volunteer State. On August 29 after a triumphant dash into Sparta, the cavalry encamped near Smithville. The sergeant nonchalantly wrote in his diary:

I have been very sick all day, and at night I was perfectly worn out. We got up no rations. I took a dose of morphine and slept soundly.

Whether his sickness could be characterized more as withdrawal symptoms or diarrhea is not known. But, it is important to recognize that a Confederate sergeant could procure morphine, a refined derivative of opium, after the northern blockade had severely reduced the procurement of nearly everything soldiers and civilians needed. Surely it must have been more commonly used than is commonly believed.

PHYSICIANS in blue and gray prescribed opium for diarrhea and dysentery, arguably the two greatest causes of death in the war. One Confederate surgeon revealed just how freely opium was dispensed for intestinal ailments. While on the march he carried in one pocket a ball of a laxative called blue mass, and in the other a ball of opium. Each morning at sick call he would first ask each soldier: “How are your bowels? If they were open, I administered a plug of opium, if they were shut I gave a plug of blue mass.” Given the commonplace occurrence of malaria, dysentery, and the “Tennessee Trots” and the cavalier issuance of opium, one can understand the ease with which troops on both sides of the conflict contracted the “soldier ’s disease.” Yet the Civil War did not cause drug addiction in Tennessee or in the United States, but only quickened its cadence. There are also references to women and men committing suicide during the war by taking overdoses of laudanum. Some have suggested that Confederate General John B. Hood, whose wounds included a shattered shoulder and the loss of a leg, took laudanum or morphine to ease what must have been considerable agony. He may have actually become a drug addict. To put it more graphically, just as a bullet doesn’t care who it kills, so drugs don’t care who they addict. Perhaps his rash decision to attack at Franklin in 1864 was partially the result of clouded judgement brought on by opiate pain killers.

RARE SURVEYS by public health officials conducted in Michigan in 1878, Chicago in 1880, and Iowa in 1885, demonstrated that nearly seventy five percent of all drug addicts were women who took on the habit as a result of their desire to ease neuralgia, aching cramps, and even morning sickness. A rapid rise in opium and morphine consumption began in the early 1870s. Apart from prescriptions another cause for abuse was the widespread use of opiates in patent medicines. Regardless of gender, most addicts concealed their dependence on opiates and their number cannot be quantified. Conventional wisdom, then, holds that opium addiction increased largely as a factor its therapeutic utilization, and there is little to contradict that notion. Nevertheless, some drug abuse resulted from other, less medicinal usage.

IN THE LATE NINETEENTH CENTURY the practice of smoking opium was closely identified with the Chinese. Indeed, the wave of Chinese immigration to America brought with it the custom of smoking opium which they called “chasing the tiger.” Indeed, Chinese immigrants figured prominently in some of the earliest accounts of this until novel recreational use of the drug.

ONE REPORT in the Memphis Daily Appeal in May 1879, complained that: “At the Chinese opium dens of this city, it is not unusual to see a fast man and lewd woman resting on a dirty couch and smoking together from a dirty pipe, fixed up by a dirtier Chinaman [sic].” A widely reported incident in Memphis in late June 1879 explained that opium smoking was rampantly on the increase in the city. Accounts explained how five people, three women escorted by two “sports” were discovered smoking opium in the back room of Henry Ying’s laundry on 207 Main street. One article entitled “CRACKING A JOINT,” [sic] told how two Memphis police officers entered the opium den at Ying’s establishment after midnight. There a “strange sight met their eyes.” According to the account:

Several parties were seated in the room, including several of the demimonde and three sports, who were watching with great interest a bed in the farther end of the apartment. Upon this bed way lying a Chinaman and a white nymph du pave [sic].... The girl held between her lips an uncouth-looking pipe...upon which was sizzling a gummy substance, which was applied from the end of an iron wire, which...[the Chinaman] heated in a small lamp placed in a waiter on the bed, and then dipped in a small wooden box which contained the substance referred to. From the top of the pipe a thin blue flame ascended, and large puffs of smoke came from the lips of the girl as she lay in the dreamy happiness produced by the that of the hashheesh [sic] eater of the East.

THE STARTLED “SPORTS” managed to breakout, but the three women and Mr. Ying were taken to police headquarters. Ying’s paraphernalia were confiscated. According to the reporter, whose knowledgeable account of the opium den seems to misrepresent any innocence, each application of opium consisted of three drops, which in the opium-smokers' patois was called a “joint.” The process of smoking opium was called “cracking a joint.” Fifty cents bought three joints. It was known that there were several opium dens in the city in 1879, “all situated in Chinese laundries.” Perhaps more disturbingly impressive was the assertion that “the practice of smoking opium is largely on the increase [in Memphis], not only amongst ‘the gang’ but also among a class of people considered respectable.” Consequently the recreational abuse of opium, in Memphis at least, was not circumscribed to society’s riffraff, but cut across class, racial, and gender boundaries. Included were any number of respectable citizens such as clerks, housewives, attorneys, cotton brokers, police officers, engineers, newspaper editors, judges. merchants, writers, bankers and the idle rich.

THE “YING INCIDENT” stimulated a debate. The editor of the Memphis Daily Appeal was outraged at the number of “Chinese opium dens at present in this city.” “In fact” claimed the editor, “every Chinese laundry house is an opium den. Within the past six months opium smoking has increased to a wonderful extent in this city, especially among women of the town and their male friends.” A contrary judgment was expressed by the editor of the Public Ledger. He wrote that Mr. Ying “during his leisure moments indulges in the pleasurable Chinese custom of whiffing the fumes of opium. He also favors any curious friends with a dose, provided their curiosity leads to his hospitable den.” Neither Ying nor the three prostitutes, however, were prosecuted because there was no law against opium smoking. The dismissal of the four prompted the editor of the Public Ledger to observe:

Why people haven’t a right to smoke opium, eat hashish, or chew hen manure if they desire, is a question in many circles at present. Tobacco chewers, cigar smokers -- especially in the street car - and bibulous people have no more right to satisfy their appetites than opium smokers.”

IN LATE JUNE 1879, the Memphis legislators amended the city’s public health law stipulating that no one could “give away, or have or loan for use, with or without hire or reward, any opium or any deleterious drug, to be smoked, inhaled, or otherwise used, not any pipe, instrument or receptacle which such thing may be done”

THIS REPRESENTS THE FIRST attempt at controlling drug abuse in any Tennessee city. While the editor of the Daily Appeal was placated, a letter in the Public Ledger represented a more jaded yet decidedly annoyed constituency, and pointed out a certain hypocritical attitude expressed in this law:

Is it not strange that they will allow druggists or anyone else that may desire to do so to sell morphine, opium, or any other deadly poison to anyone that may have the money to pay for it? And because the Chinese and perhaps a few others, that may wish to have an easy time for awhile by smoking their opium...our city dads kick at it with both feet and say you shall not smoke your opium. We allow you, however, to take it internally or by the skin, and if it kills you, all right, we are not to blame.

THE ABUSE of opium did not cease in Memphis. Six years after the “Ying incident,” in late August 1885, a Bluff City newspaper reporter visited a local Chinese/laundry/opium den. He revealed that the use of morphine and opium were greatly on the increase in the Volunteer State and the nation as a whole. Just as been reported in the previous decade: “Votaries are to be found in ‘good society’ as well as among the ‘shady kind.’ In opium dens the so-called respectable ladies and actresses of note can be seen mingling with outcasts of their own sex, and with all classes of men in silent fellowship.”

IT WAS ESTIMATED that in Memphis the population of opium addicts was upwards of 1,000, mostly white males and females. As a Memphis druggist explained, “they suffer some intense pain of some sort, and a physician will prescribe morphine and administer it hypodermically. They find immediate relief and bless the drug. The next time they feel the pain they don’t wait for the physician, but take it on other own...and...become confirmed opium fiends.” Some smoked gum opium, some drank, inhaled, or injected morphine, but most women became addicted as a result of the therapeutic use of paregoric or laudanum. It was not until 1909 that smoking opium, both the act and the substance, was made illegal in the United States.

THE PROBLEM was common in Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga. Smoking opium was a specialized product that was meant only for recreational use. An alarming headline in the March 30, 1888, Nashville Daily American read in bold letters “THE HASHEESH EATERS.” A druggist explained how the opium habit was increasing in the Capital. The greater numbers of addicts were middle-class white women who veiled their addiction by seeking out opium and morphine from drugstores in the suburbs. Nashville’s centenarian Miss Jane Thomas related that at about the time “they had just begun inhaling morphine here,” she was at a fashionable party. One of the guests complained of a headache. She was given some powdered morphine which apparently cured her headache and caused her to swoon.

ONE SAD STORY in the Capital in 1895, related the overdose death of a young woman made an addict by morphine her physician father prescribed for her great pain after a runaway buggy accident. She escaped from the drug sanitarium, quickly trekked to Nashville and bought the narcotics that killed her that same afternoon. She died a casualty of “the deadly blight of the awful morphine habit.” Some drug fatalities were by accident or suicide. For example the early June 1874 death of Ms. Willie Melrose in Memphis. A newspaper story entitled “The Old, Old Story,” told how a courtesan died of an overdose of “deadly morphine, administered by her own hand.” In August of the same year, George Wade, thirty-two, died suddenly in Murfreesboro. He “had for some time been on a spree, and had become nervously prostrated.” He then took some morphine to settle his nerves. He was found dead the next morning, his nerves obviously settled. In Memphis, in June 1885, “Morris Rosette,...a young man of the Hebrew persuasion came to the conclusion that life is not worth living and purchasing a quantity [of morphine and] took a large dose with suicidal intent.” Rosette was soon discovered and a physician applied an emetic. The young Jew was taken home where he recovered. Other examples abound.

OPIATES were not the only drugs subject to abuse. During the Creek Indian War (1813-1814) soldiers imbibed the “black drink” before abandoning Andrew Jackson in the Mississippi Territory. This Native American concoction stimulated the central nervous system with a cornucopian dose of caffeine, and was used to strengthen one’s resolve to march and keep awake while on guard duty There is even an account of a domestic altercation brought about by the use of “Dean’s strychnine” in Memphis in 1861. Another central nervous system stimulant, cocaine, is more well known. About 1885 cocaine became widely and wildly popular. Large drug houses provided cocaine at high prices that plummeted as early as 1886 when production caught up with an incredible demand. In 1903 Memphis Police Captain Perry recalled the presence of cocaine among the city’s poor and criminal elements as early as the 1880s.

ALTHOUGH NOT UNIQUE in Tennessee’s urban centers, cocaine became a problem near the turn of the century. Cocaine was popularly associated with African-Americans but was by no means race specific. According to the white press, Tennessee Negroes became addicts because, as they said: “I couldn’t git nothin’ else boss.” In Knoxville where the police made efforts to stop the liquor traffic the use of cocaine increased. In Memphis “no attempt was made to prevent the sale of liquor, [yet] the [cocaine] drug habit increased....” Anecdotal reports suggested that black men used more cocaine than white men and committed more crimes as a consequence. In some cases contractors utilizing Negro labor actually facilitated cocaine addiction among their workers “under the impression that they can get more and better work from their employees.” Cocaine was also utilized in the white slavery traffic, corrupting “young girls, and...when the habit of using the drug has been established it is but a short time before the latter fall to the ranks of prostitution.”

COCAINE was thought to be the cure for morphine, heroin, alcohol and opium addictions. The drug’s exhilarating properties made it a preferred component not only of patent medicines, but for wine, beer and even soda pop. An advertisement in the Daily Memphis Avalanche in December 1885, extolled the virtues of J.S. Pemberton’s tonic, “French Wine of Coca.” Laced heavily with cocaine, it was the “ideal Nerve Tonic and ‘Intellectual Beverage’” and rid the buyer of those “’tired and good for nothing feelings. ’” Sears and Roebuck offered “Peruvian Wine of Coca.” According to the 1897 catalog: “If you wish to accomplish double the amount of work or have to undergo an unusual amount of hardship, always keep a bottle of our Peruvian Wine of Coca near you. Its sustaining powers are remarkable.” Sears had “made arrangements for an extra large shipment.” A dozen bottles cost $10.00.

THE SUMMER OF 1900 was a time of widespread public fear of cocaine, and attempts were made to control the traffic in Chattanooga, Memphis and Knoxville. Chattanooga was alarmed by the spread of the cocaine drug habit and the local clergy demanded a restrictive law. The city should act itself to end the menace. On June 6 the Chattanooga city council passed Tennessee’s first anti-cocaine, morphine, and laudanum ordinance. The law made it a misdemeanor for anyone to sell or give cocaine to anyone without a prescription. Only disreputable drugstores as found “Cocaine Alley” would lose business. Police Chief Hill stated his wholehearted sanction and vowed vigorously to enforce the law.

A FEW DAYS LATER, a newspaper headline read “Fiends in Cocaine Alley Experiencing Trouble in Securing Their Favorite Stimulant.” The ordinance had cut off addicts thus “giving them a chance to recover and reform.” But addicts were not so convinced and sidestepped the requirement for a prescription to obtain the drug. Many drug stores, it so happened, had their own “doctors” who wrote prescriptions for eager addicts. Situated in both poor white and negro sections of the city, mercenary medical doctors were ensconced in a small office in the rear of the drugstores where they wrote prescriptions for any drug in demand. Some of these prescriptions were for a pound of cocaine that the addict could draw against until the limit had been exhausted. The police chief vowed to crack down on these kinds of operations.

IN MEMPHIS “Cocaine Joe,” and “Sallie the Sniff” were to find life more difficult if the city council were to pass an anti-drug ordinance based on Chattanooga’s. The sale and use off cocaine had reached such heights that the police department was unable to cope with the problem. According to the police, there was a time when only a handful of people were addicted to cocaine. “[N]ow 80 per cent of the colored population...are using it in quantities that support about a dozen small drug stores and...contribute to the volume of business of a few corner groceries.” Not only blacks “but whites are also using it in large quantities.” Cocaine caused an increase in crime. Statistics showed that the percentages of criminals using cocaine was nearly treble that of criminals not addicted. There were even nineteenth-century equivalents to twentieth century “crack houses.” The city Sanitary Officer inspected an abandoned house and collected a bushel-basket’s worth of empty cocaine boxes, all sold by one retail drug store. The problem was serious.

THE NEW ORDINANCE made the sale of less than one pound of cocaine without a doctor’s prescription a misdemeanor. The retailer’s certificate would be filed and open to the inspection of the police at any time. In 1900 a pound of cocaine sold for about $35.00 in Memphis, well beyond the typical addict’ s means. The penalty for sale was not less than five and not more than twenty dollars. The ordinance was unanimously passed on June 7, 1900.

KNOXVILLE had a similar cocaine problem. A Journal and Tribune headline claimed, “Only the Poorer Classes of the City Are Addicted.” As late as 1899, the use of cocaine was virtually unknown but in just one year it was available in every drug store, selling at three grains for a dime. In 1900 an average of fifty dollar’s worth was sold by each drug store. According to the newspaper report, the “first genuine cocaine ‘sniffers’ that made their appearance in Knoxville were half a dozen negro women from Middlesboro [Kentucky].” These women, arriving in August 1899, were believed to have introduced cocaine use on Central Avenue, the city’s red light district. From there its use spread to both races, genders and across class lines. Many bar patrons salted their beers with cocaine, but this was not as economical as hypodermic injection. Only the rich could afford syringes so the poor resorted to sniffing the drug. In 1900, the Journal and Tribune carried a story entitled “A Night On The Bowery.” In the Bowery were there were also two or three small drug stores whose “principal business at night seems to be the sale of morphine and cocaine, the twin friends of the district which are sending many of its inhabitants, especially women and girls, to their graves.” At these drug stores “all night long, pale-faced women, or girls, or boys scarcely out of their teens, with blood-shot eyes and bloated features showing long dissipation, come slipping in and go out with the tell-tale little round box of powdered cocaine, or morphine.” The Knoxville city council enacted that city’s anti-drug law on July 20, 1900. By 1904-05 the practice evidently had not been eradicated and by 1915 the use of cocaine was still widespread.

FROM THE ANTEBELLUM ERA to the end of the 19th century drug use and abuse in Tennessee followed an ever accelerating pattern. The problem would stimulate revision of municipal ordinances in the early 1900s, culminating with a relatively humane state narcotics-control act in 1913. Thereafter the federal Harrison Act (1914) took precedence as the model anti-drug enforcement option. Nevertheless, the problem of drug abuse has persisted up into the late twentieth century when uniformly unsuccessful wars on drugs have consistently failed to resolve the dilemma. The only endeavor at legalization to be attempted in Tennessee was swept aside by the national law which demonized unfortunate addicts, punishing them for acquiring an addiction for which they should more reasonably have been treated. Once the use of drugs became a social issue, then, Christian-based morality demanded the penalization of addicts instead of their treatment.

Please remember to cite the author should you wish to copy or use this article for your own research efforts.

Copyright © 1999 by Dr. James B. Jones, Jr.


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