How drug addition was a big problem in America even more than 100 years ago

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Vintage cocaine tooth drops (1885)

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The secret past of drug addicts (1974)

By Robert Kirsch — The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) November 8th, 1974

“Every generation assumes that it discovers or endures problems for the first time,” H. Wayne Morgan says in Yesterday’s Addicts: American Society and Drug Abuse, 1865-1920.

This anthology of documents on drug abuse takes it clear the problem is a much older one in this country than generally realized, that contemporary drug problems and approaches are rooted in attitudes of the past.

Unlike alcoholism which was publicized early by the temperance movement, drug addiction tended to be a subterranean social problem until the years after the Civil War. Many wounded veterans became addicted to morphine; doctors called it the “Army disease.”

Opium derivatives were widely used to calm infants and were prescribed by physicians for a wide variety of complaints before the addictive effects were noted.

Habit-forming drugs were so readily available in pharmacies and patent medicines that addiction began to increase in all sectors of American society, the poor and the rich, laborers and the leisure classes.

Life of disappointment

Women particularly were prone. Dr. F.E. Oliver, in an 1872 report to the Massachusetts State Board of Health, warned that they were “doomed often to a life of disappointment, and, it may be, of physical and mental inaction, and in the smaller and more remote towns, not infrequently, deprived of all wholesome social diversion.

“It is not strange that nervous depression, with all its concomitant evils, should sometimes follow — opium being discreetly selected as the safest and most agreeable remedy.”

The physical and psychological effects of addiction began to be noted and by the late 1870s, both physicians and journalists were writing publicly of the dangers of drug abuse.

Public discussion centered on opiates, but the substances used ranged from ether and chloroform to cocaine, and, later, heroin.

Opium dens were often the subject of muckraking articles and books. One writer, in 1881, claimed, “There was hardly a town of any size in the East, and none in the West, where there is not a place to smoke (opium) and Americans (who are) smoking.”

This was the tip of the problem; most addicts took their drugs secretly.

In general, that generation did not seek to persecute the addict but an adverse stereotype of addiction emerged, says Dr. Morgan, one which was enhanced by later events.

“That image rested on deep-seated fears of the ultimate threats of drug abuse to national ideals and goals; that image remains today. Those public attitudes and the long debate over drug abuse after 1865 shaped regulatory legislation.”

Fast-paced living

For readers who tend to see the past in a nostalgic glow, this book will prove disconcerting. For others who believe that problems such as these are historically rooted, the documents provide some fascinating information.

The efforts of some experts to explain the causes of addiction are difficult to accept. Their tendency was to blame heredity and predisposition as causes of weak moral character and nervousness. But it would be wrong to assume that all embraced this view.

Many saw the causes as social and cultural: the result of “eminently an age of novelties and experimentations.” It could also reflect a belief in the automatic worth of scientific progress.

Still others blamed the pace of civilized life.

A doctor writing in 1867 said: “We live too fast; we do as much work in a week as our forefathers did in a month and physically we are not so well qualified as they were. We eat too fast; we think and read and even take our recreation at a high rate of speed…”

The failure of cures brought a movement toward stronger regulation of drug use.

But it is likely, says Morgan, that education, strong social disapproval and propaganda did more than the laws to slow down the rate of addiction in the 1920s and 1930s.

Only after World War II did drug abuse rise, perhaps for the same reasons as before: glamorization of drugs through communications, a need to experiment, boredom and anxiety.

Although the volume gives no firm answers, it sets the problem in a historical context, which is both informative and challenging.


Victorian drug problem - 1900
Top illustration: Portion of “The age of drugs” by Louis Dalrymple, as published in Puck (October 1900). Shows the interior of a drugstore with a pharmacist, dispensing a “Bracer” to a crowd of eager buyers, while a girl has a bottle of “Soothing Syrup.” On the counter are bottles and packets of “Arsenic, Strychnine, Antipyrin, Nerve Stimulant, Opium, Cocaine” and “The Needle.” Signs on the wall state “The Killem’ Quick Pharmacy,” “Open all night,” and “Prescriptions carefully compounded.”
A Victorian addiction: The cocaine monster (1898)

The Herald (Los Angeles, California) December 11, 1898

Throwing his tentacles around the nation: How it grips its victims — The deadly drug whose influence carries men to insanity and death becoming too popular

Value of cocaine leaves imported at the port of New York in 1894: $14,384; imported in 1897: $54,122; indicated value of imports for 1898: $75,000.

In these simple figures are contained the elements of a warning sermon that would startle all America. We seem to be rapidly becoming a nation of cocaine fiends.

If the number of those addicted to the use of the dreadful drug continues to increase at the present rate, the importation of what was originally regarded its a blessed alleviator of pain will have to be classed with opium and its use prohibited by law, except for medicinal purposes.

At present, the cocaine fiend can purchase the drug without trouble, and the ease with which it is taken is a fatal recommendation to those who crave a nerve-deadener. No laborious cooking of pills over a lamp, cleaning of implements or troublesome necessity for secrecy, as with the use of opium.

Cocaine can be taken at any time, with scarcely any trouble, and without a soul besides the being aware of his being in the toils.

At first, that is. It will not be long before every intimate friend will observe a change, a gradual and scarcely-perceptible change, come over the appearance and general conduct of the cocaine fiend. If the one who yields to the toxic influence of the drug be a lawyer, then it will be noticed that his language as he pleads a case in court has become particularly diffuse, while his arguments are long drawn out and lacking in logic. Others will notice this peculiarity and wonder.

The victim will be in blissful ignorance of anything wrong, for another queer phase of the progress of cocaine poisoning is that it lulls the user into a delightful feeling of self-satisfaction, and, whatever his shortcomings, he is contented and happy — until the influence of the drug departs and leaves him only with the deadly craving for more that none can fight off.

The lecturer who becomes a victim to the cocaine habit will, to the surprise of his audience, spend the entire period allotted to a certain subject on a single insignificant part of it, or seem to forget the topic entirely and wander into something entirely foreign.

It will strike the listeners that the learned lecturer has been drinking or is beginning to get feeble-minded. There will be nothing in the appearance or manner of the speaker to indicate that he himself has the slightest knowledge that he has not been treating the subject in the brightest and most careful way.

Cocaine is a drug that deludes its victims. It is the very devil himself in the form of an innocent-looking crystal, and the way the much-to-be-pitied cocaine user is dragged slowly, but with awful certainty, down to insanity and death is a terrible tribute to the strength of the demon that links in the drug.

This confusion of ideas and language is the first symptom of the toxic influence of cocaine beginning to work. If you have a friend in whom these symptoms are noticed, it might be well to find out if he is addicted to the use of cocaine, for at this early stage the habit may be broken. Later, it is almost hopeless for the victim to try to sunder his chains.

Begun in many cases in a legitimate way, as an anesthetic, the surprisingly pleasant effect is sought, for again by the one who has had a glimpse at the portals of Elysium.

This is the beginning of the terrible habit. The effect is a sense of exhilaration followed by a quiet, dreamy state that causes the worried man to forget his troubles and the sufferer his pain. Once this freedom from physical and mental sickness has been experienced, the cocaine fiend will rob or kill to get the drug. Enforced non-use of it will not cure the victim. Sentence him to a term of imprisonment, and he will go straight from the jail door to the nearest drug store to secure cocaine before he eats or sleeps.

This, of course, cannot last. From an occasional use of the drug to insatiable craving is the rational course of the cocaine fiend. From thence to the insane asylum anil the grave is a swift and easy descent.

In his fall from health to physical and mental disintegration, the cocaine fiend undergoes a terrible experience. When not in the temporary heaven that the drug provides, the victim is in the lowest depths of an inferno. He is subject to apprehensions, delusions and hallucinations. He suffers from insomnia, anorexia and gastrologic pains, dyspepsia, chronic palpitations and will-paresis. He is a terror both to himself and others. The life of the man is a living death. He knows it, and with this knowledge staring him in the face, he rushes for the drug, and is happy for a brief period under its influence.

It is time something were done to keep from this high-strung nation a drug so deadly. Clear-minded medical men have recommended its exclusion from the country, believing that its use medicinally should be foregone rather than that such a cursed temptation should be placed in the way of weak humanity.

What the real action of the drug is, and how to counteract its influence, are at present puzzling questions to the medical fraternity. A lending member of the profession to whom these questions were put replied, after careful consideration, as follows:

“Its physiological action is practically unknown. As an analgesic, it is uniform in its action, and this is due to the suspension of the physiologic functions of the sensory cells which it comes in contact with. Beyond this, it is an excitant of the cerebrospinal axis, later it has a peculiar action on the encephalon, manifest in a wide range of physical phenomena.

“Beyond this, a great variety of widely variable symptoms appear. In some cases, all the intellectual faculties are excited to the highest degree. In others, a profound lowering of the senses and functional activities occur.

Morphine takers can use large quantities of cocaine without any bad symptoms. Alcoholics are also able to bear huge doses without hunger. Not infrequently, the excitement caused by cocaine goes on to convulsions and death. Sometimes its action is localized to one part of the cerebrospinal axis and then to another. In some cases, well-marked cerebral anemia appear, and for a time is alarming, but soon passes away.

“Few cases of death are recorded from an overdose, as they are comparatively rare, and the poisonous states which follow usually give way to appropriate remedies.

Small doses frequently given are more readily absorbed than large doses. Habitues always use weak solutions, the effects being more pleasing with less excitation. The morphine and alcoholic inebriates very soon acquire a certain tolerance to large doses taken at once. The cocaine user takes large quantities but in small doses frequently repeated.

He becomes frightened at the effects of huge doses, and when be cannot get the effects from small (to him safe) doses, he resorts to alcohol, morphine or chloral. In many cases, memories of the delusions and hallucinations are so vivid and distressing that other narcotics are used to prevent their recurrence. In other cases, the recollection is very confused and vague, and strong suspicions tell the mind that the real condition is grossly exaggerated by the friends for some deterring effect.

“In common with opium and alcoholics, there is moral paralysis, untruthfulness and low cunning in order to conceal and explain the condition by other than the real causes.

A Victorian addiction The cocaine monster (1898)

“The prognosis is always doubtful when the addiction has continued any length of time. The temporary removal of the drug and restoration of the case occurs in nearly all cases, but unless a radical change of life and living is made, and the patient gives unusual care to his health and to the avoidance of every source of exhaustion of nerve and brain, and every condition of peril to his health, the danger of relapse is very prominent.

“The treatment must be pursued on general principles. Isolation and removal of all exciting causes and building up of the brain and nervous system comprise the general principles. In every case, certain special localized means are essential to meet the various conditions present. The sudden removal of the drug is the first step. The continuous activity of the skin from hot air, sweating and baths is essential, and this should be kept up for a long time.

“Among foods, meats are to be used sparingly at first. As the case improves, their use may be increased. A diet of eggs, milk and grains with fruit is best. The patient should remain in bed or reclining at full length most of the time during active treatment. Muscular exercise by massage for an hour a day should be given. If this is not practicable, walking in the open air with an attendant or a few moments exercise with ropes and pulley will aid in reducing the muscular nervousness.

“Exercise and massage depend for their value largely on the adaptability of the case to bear it. In a brain-worker, less exercise or massage is required than in a muscle worker, or one who if out in the open air much of the time. In an over-fed, plethoric person, exercise is better borne and followed by greater relief than in spare ones. Most cases should remain in bed the first week after treatment, and then begin to sit up and take mild exercise. Daily baths should be continued with regularity and care.

“Persistent watchfulness over all acts of the patient should be kept up for six or eight weeks, then a rigid course of living and diet should be arranged and its importance insisted upon for a long period to come. All these cases should be under medical care and control for a long time before full recovery can be expected.”


The drug terror: American cocaine addicts (1914)

The Sun (New York, NY) February 15, 1914

With practically unrestricted traffic, cocaine vice has grown so swiftly that we are most drugged nation in world, with 4.45 percent of population addicted to habit

The drug terror American cocaine addicts (1914)

A campaign for the extermination of drug addition

One morning in January, a woman undertook one of the greatest moral struggles in history.

Quietly, announcement was made from 2 Rector street that Mrs William K Vanderbilt had placed “a generous sum of money” at the disposal of Ernest K Coulter and a staff of investigators to use in the campaign for the extermination of drug addition, not only in the city and state of New York, but throughout the United States.

So swiftly has this vice grown that the United States has distanced every other nation in the world in the volume per capita of its illegitimate drug consumption.

The commerce in cocaine, heroin, morphine and opium now approximates the opium traffic of 1906 in China — history’s most notorious example of a drugged nation — when after 200 years of its commerce in opium, 6.5 percent of China’s population were found to be opium smokers.

With the aid of practically every civilized nation in the world, China has today reduced that figure to 4.1 percent, while in the United States, twenty years of practically unrestricted traffic in drugs has made drug addicts of 4.45 percent of the population.

Not only is the United States the scene of the world’s greatest drug traffic, but cocaine and heroin, whose illegitimate use is particular to Americans, are among the deadliest of the world’s habit-forming drugs.

The morphine victim would experience no result whatsoever from the daily drug dose of the South American coca chewer, the Arabian hasheesh user, or the Chinese opium smoker. But a morphine addict will live 20 years and do his work, while the American cocaine addict turns criminal and dies in five years.

Dope: Opium, morphine and hashish

No other vice renders its victim so dangerous. Opium, morphine and hashish send their victims searching for solitude, but a sniff of cocaine after lifting its victim into a half hour’s rosy overestimation drops him into the streets and alleys in a state of dangerous melancholia.

So brief is the drug’s effect that it takes from $4 to $5 [approximately $105 to $132 in 2021 dollars] a day to satisfy a cocaine addict — more money than any other drug addiction exacts.

That’s why “coke” produces more criminals in the city of New York than any other single cause.

No other country in the world knows the cocaine habit. “Cocaine addiction is an American habit,” says Dr Charles U Towns of 110 West Eighty-first street, a recognized authority. “It is the result of our high pressure of living, our craving for over-stimulation, our proneness to ‘take something’ when we don’t feel well.

“I have never known an Italian, a Hungarian, a Russian, a Pole and only a few Jews (except in the underworld) who took drugs.”

“Cocaine addiction is the easiest habit to acquire and the hardest to cure,” says Dr Podstata, a Chicago drug expert. “Nothing so quickly deteriorates its victim or provides so short a cut to the insane asylum,” says Dr Towns.

“A quick, deadly grip of its victim”
hitting the opium pipe 1914
Original caption: “‘Hitting the pipe.’ Tons of opium imported for ‘medicinal purposes’ are used for this purpose.”

Because it takes such a quick, deadly grip of its victim, there are some physicians who refuse to administer any cocaine what ever, even in legitimate medical practice, Yet any crook can bring a carload of cocaine from Philadelphia into New York City, and the Interstate Commerce Commission is powerless to interfere.

Notwithstanding its vitiating effects, the growth of cocaine addiction is indicated by the increasing import into the United States of coca leaves, the only source of cocaine and the product of a shrub which cannot be grown here.

According to the American Pharmaceutical Association, the coca import from 1808 to 1902 inclusive was valued at $83,214; from 1903 to 1907 inclusive, $1,616,690.

The present annual consumption of cocaine is 200,000 ounces, of which 92 percent is used illegitimately for every man, woman and child in the United States; a sniff of cocaine sufficiently strong to kill several million.

Enormous profits

Its enormous profit explains the growth of the cocaine business. An ounce of cocaine, wholesale, costs about $4. Divided into pink pill boxes and blue bottles, the ounce is sold without adulteration for from $20 to $25 to those who use the needle and know the difference.

a dope fiend cooking his meal
Original caption: “A dope fiend cooking his meal. Drug dealers have grown prosperous on this type.”

Adulterated heavily with acetanilide, it is sold to “sniffers” for from $40 to $50 an ounce, and half-crazed fiends on the verge of the “cocaine leaps” can be made to yield even greater profit. Thus profits ranging from 500 to 1500 percent on the investment have entrenched the cocaine business on a nationwide scale.

But there are politer methods of getting cocaine than consorting with crooks. “The widespread use of cocaine in the comparatively short period of time since its discovery,” says Dr Towns, “has been brought about by patent preparations containing small quantities of it.”

During its first few years, cocaine addiction spread through the wide sale of “catarrh cures” which contained from 2 to 4 percent of cocaine. … Not only did these “cures” introduce many persons into depths of cocaine addiction, but they pointed the way to a method of taking cocaine easier than by hypodermic.

For s time, it became the practice to fill with the “cure” a small bottle through the cork of which had been inserted two tubes, one of which was placed in the mouth and the other in the nostril; a puff from’ the mouth did the rest.

Later it became the custom to sprinkle the “cure” on the back of the hand and either to touch it to the tongue or to sniff it onto the mucous membrane of the nostrils.

Thus the deadliest of all vices became the simplest to begin.


Dr Wiley’s famous list of drugged medicines (1916)

Published in Bulletin 393 issued by the Division of Drugs, Bureau of Chemistry, Department of Agriculture

Cocaine bearing medicines and drinks

  • Dr. Birney’s Catarrh Powder
  • Dr. Agnew’s Catarrh Powder
  • Dr. Cole’s Catarrh Cure
  • Crown Catarrh Powder
  • Tucker’s Asthma Specific
  • Koca Nola
  • Celery Cola
  • Wiscola
  • Pillsbury’s Koke
  • Kola-Ade
  • Kos-Kola
  • Cafe-Cola Koke
  • Coca-Bola
  • Tobacco Bullets
  • Wonder Workers

Morphine bearing medicines

  • Dr. Fowler’s Strawberry and Pepsin mixture
  • Dr. A. Boschee’s German syrup
  • Habitina
  • Dre. Fenner’s cough cold syrup
  • Prof. Hoff’s consumption cure
  • Dr. Moffett’s Teethina, teething powders
  • De. Bull’s cough syrup
  • Jackson’s Magic Balsam
  • Van Totta’s Cough Pectoral
  • Dr. Fahrney’s teething syrup
  • Linseed, Licorice and Chlorodyne Pastilles
  • Pastilles Paneraj
  • Dr. Fahey’s Pepsin Anodyne Compound
  • Dr. Miller’s Anodyne for Babies
  • Kohler’s One-Night cough cure
  • Hooper’s Anodyne, the Infants’ Friend
  • De. James’s Soothing Syrup cordial
  • Yonkerman’s Consumption Cure
  • Shiloh’s Cure
  • Adamson’s Botanic Cough Balsam
  • Jadway’s Elixir for Infants
  • Antikamnia and Codein tablets
  • Ammonal with codein and camphor
  • Royal Headache tablets
  • Sal-Codeia Bel
  • Children’s Comfort
  • Kopp’s Baby’s Friend
  • Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup
  • Gooch’s Mexican Consumption Cure
  • Dr. Grove’s Anodyne for infants

Cannabis Indica Bearing Medicines

  • Victor Infant Relief
  • Piso’s Cure, a remedy for coughs and colds

Chloral Bearing Medicines

  • David’s Asthma Remedy
  • Acker’s Asthma Remedy
  • Linseed, Licorice, and Chlorodyne cough lozenges

The drug terror American cocaine addicts (1916)

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