The Opium Fiends

Every day we hear of the serious opioid crisis that is ravaging many areas of the country. Usually people start off legitimately, taking prescribed pain medications for an injury, and soon they become dependent upon the drug to function normally. Opium addiction today generally translates either to medications like fentanyl, or illegal substances like heroin. People take them to dull pain, or to lower anxiety, or just to slip away for a little while.

Drugs derived from opium are not new, and they have many positive uses as well as the deadly ones. Morphine, for instance, is the most effective pain killer for terminally ill patients. But in the early days, it was quite a different experience.

Opium came to San Francisco in 1861, about 113,000 pounds of it. Opium dens were established in Chinatown and quickly became successful businesses. More and more dens opened as immigrants continued to flow into the country to join the California Gold Rush. Usually these establishments were owned and operated by Chinese immigrants.

Opium is derived from papaver somniferous, better known as the opium poppy. It could be purchased and smoked at opium dens. Smoking required a number of small implements that were generally provided to the smokers at the dens. Opium pipes had a long bamboo stem with a bowl attached. The opium pellets were heated over a lamp, and smoked. Usually the smoker would lie down on a mattress, a rug, or a bunkbed, and drift in and out of consciousness.

Though opium dens had been created by and for Chinese immigrants, but curiosity soon drew Western visitors into Chinatown. This wasn’t entirely welcome news for the owners. Perhaps sensing trouble, some opium dens were restricted to Chinese clients.

Not everyone was so particular, and opium dens – less elegant but open to anyone with money to pay – began to sprout up across the country. Opium attracted people from all points on the economic spectrum but it was not a cheap habit to indulge. Five ounces of opium cost eight dollars in 1890. In 2017 dollars, that is $199.34.

Chinatown, NY, 1925

It was commonplace for people to smoke opium and to be treated with derivatives such as laudanum, a combination of opium and alcohol that was popular in the Old West. There is a fun theory that L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was inspired by laudanum he was given as a child to write the scene where Dorothy falls asleep in the poppies.

“Now it is well known that when there are many of these flowers together their odor is so powerful that anyone who breathes it falls asleep, and if the sleeper is not carried away from the scent of the flowers, he sleeps on and on forever. But Dorothy did not know this, nor could she get away from the bright red flowers that were everywhere about; so presently her eyes grew heavy and she felt she must sit down to rest and to sleep.”
—Excerpt from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)

L. Frank Baum in 1911

The most lavish dens were in San Francisco, and they received a lot more attention than their seedier counterparts in New York City. This concerned the City of San Francisco so much that they enacted the first anti-drug law in the nation. That’s right. The War on Drugs started in San Francisco. Imagine that.

The opium squad. Photo credit

A special police squad in San Francisco was devoted to locating and shutting down opium dens. It worked about as well as the current war on drugs. That is to say, in 1909 – the same year the U.S. government cracked down with the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act that banned importing the drug for recreational use – 1.5 million pounds of it was imported for that purpose.

So opium went underground. A den might be located in the back room of another business, or it may officially operate as a boarding house. In the 1920s, the speakeasies adopted this tactic to get around prohibition laws.

In addition to the deterrant of possible arrest, a mini-propaganda campaign was launched. It mainly consisted of the occasional release of opium den photographs designed to horrify viewers. Asleep or unconscious men and women, sometimes painfully malnourished, lay on mattresses or in bunk beds in a stupor, oblivious to everything around them.


The pets of opium addicts, particularly cats, tended to develop their own addictions, through second hand opium smoke.

There were also concerted religious and community efforts to shut down the opium dens. Smokers were labeled a public menace – opium fiends. The dens themselves were strongly associated with human trafficking, and parents were warned to keep their daughters away from Chinatown. Photographs like these were very effective with the public:


The opium trade was the rage in the 1890s, but by World War II, they had all but disappeared. They remain one more tiny piece of the old world that was washed away with the rising tide of modernism.

1890, San Francisco. Opium den.


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