The Century of the Poppy: Opium in Nineteenth-Century America by P. B. Ryan

Posted by on Oct 1, 2012 in 19th Century U.S., Featured Book, Historical Research | 3 comments

Taking up a long steel spindle—what had looked before like a knitting needle—Will scooped up a pea-sized dab of opium paste on its tip. He reclined on his side, his head on the chum tow, and rotated the tarry little mass just above the oil lamp’s flame… The little nugget bubbled and swelled, transmuted by fire into something that looked and smelled as enticing as molten caramel.

He rolled the opium once again into a pea-sized ball. Impaling the little morsel on the tip of the needle, he thrust it into the tiny aperture on the bowl of the smoking pistol, extracting the instrument with a twisting motion in order to leave the pea there with a little hole in it. He leaned forward then, slanting the bowl across the flame while maneuvering the opium with the needle to keep it in place. It sizzled into vapor as he sucked on the pipe, drawing so deeply of the treacly fumes that his cheekbones stood out like a Chinaman’s. Nell found it hard to believe that he could inhale as long as he did; fifteen full seconds must have passed before he slid the pipe from his mouth.

Sweet white smoke trickled from his nostrils as he lowered the pipe with an arm gone utterly slack. He sank down bonelessly onto the bunk, eyes slitted, lips parted, exuding an otherworldly repose….

This description of opium smoking, from the first book of my Nell Sweeney mystery series, Still Life With Murder, is related from the point of view of Nell, a young Irish-American governess in post-Civil War Boston. Charged with keeping tabs on her employer’s black-sheep son, the wounded, complicated Dr. William Hewitt, she has grudgingly accompanied him to a “hop joint,” or opium den, above an exotic little Chinese grocery shop in Boston’s South Cove.

 According to contemporaneous nineteenth-century accounts, there were “low joints” of this type in virtually every city in the United States. For the most part, they were squalid, airless little rooms in basements and Chinese laundries, although Chicago and San Francisco boasted some upscale establishments furnished in opulent Oriental style.

Opium was widely associated with China during the nineteenth century, but in fact it was cultivated primarily in Turkey and India. Introduced into China in the early 1700’s, it was outlawed there in 1729, but that didn’t stop the East India Company and American tycoons such as John Jacob Astor from smuggling upwards of 1,000 tons of it per year into that country until the early 20th century. As a result, many of the Chinese who came to the United States to work on the railroads partook of it to one degree or another, which is why the vast majority of American opium dens had Chinese proprietors.

Most of the men and women who patronized these places were just out for a little illicit thrill, and didn’t “kick the gong around” often enough to develop a dependency. Others, drawn in by the lure of the forbidden and opium’s blissful high, indulged a little too enthusiastically, with tragic results. “The smoker finds after a time that the pleasurable sensations of the first few months disappear,” observed H.H. Kane, M.D., in an 1881 article in Harper’s Weekly, “and he only smokes to avoid the terrible suffering that usually accompanies the effort to abandon the practice. The good spirit of the magical pipe has disappeared, giving place to a demon who binds his victim hand and foot.”

Dr. Kane offered a “low estimate” of three to five thousand American opium addicts in the U.S. at that time; modern estimates are as high as 200,000. I believe the reason for this discrepancy is that Dr. Kane was only counting those who became enslaved to the pipe. During the nineteenth century, there were countless opiated tonics marketed for pain—especially of the female variety—as well as for coughs, diarrhea, insomnia, and assorted other ailments. These were basically tinctures of varying amounts of opium dissolved in alcohol, usually with flavorings added. Laudanum, paregoric, and Godfrey’s Cordial were among the most popular. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was one of dozens of such elixirs intended for infants. It’s safe to say many nineteenth-century opium addicts were women and children.

The ranks of American opium addicts became more heavily male after the Civil War. Innumerable opium pills were dispensed to wounded soldiers during the war (estimates range from half a million to ten million in the Union Army alone), in addition to millions of ounces of morphine sulfate and opium tinctures.

In Still Life With Murder, Will Hewitt, a former Union Army battle surgeon, reflects on this. “All those opium pills I dispensed in field hospitals—thousands of them, great, rattling floods of them… I often wondered what would happen when some of those lads got home. But when you saw a man’s leg off…and I sawed them off by the score after every battle, sometimes by the hundreds, arms as well… Minié balls expand when they hit bone, smash it to bits. Nine minutes per leg—that’s all it took me. When you do that to a man, you’ve got to give him something, something that works. Say what you will about opium, it kills pain like nothing else. One minute they’re screaming and sobbing and thrashing, and the next…” His expression grew oddly contemplative; he almost smiled. “Blessed oblivion.”

The alkaloid morphine, first isolated from opium in 1803, was recognized as the component responsible for the drug’s primary effects: pain relief and euphoria. Dubbed “God’s own medicine,” morphine was initially thought to be safer and less addictive than opium, but that proved to be wishful thinking. In 1873, Heinrich Dreser synthesized heroin from morphine. This supposedly benign substance was marketed commercially by Dreser’s employer, the Bayer Company (yes, the aspirin people), and promoted as a weaning-off cure for morphine addicts. I think we all know how that turned out.

By the turn of the 20th century, it had become clear that the opium poppy, although extremely valuable from a medical standpoint—morphine is still indispensible in certain situations—had cast a dark and deadly shadow over America and much of the rest of the world for far too long. Laws were passed; treaties were signed. Obviously, the results of these efforts are mixed—as long as opiates exist, there will be addicts—but at least we’re no longer in Morphia’s thrall as we once were.

P. B. Ryan, October 1, 2012


  1. Great post, and I loved STILL LIFE WITH MURDER!

  2. Insightful article! Fascinating.