San Francisco, California. The newspapers described Gypsy Adams as “a Louisiana girl, of Creole extraction” who was an inmate of one of the Tenderloin’s infamous brothels. The house was owned by Mrs. Mary Mills, known to her employees as “Mother Mary”. Gypsy quickly became well-known in the Tenderloin and her loud crassness and unmoderated drinking and drug use quickly earned the disgust of her peers. But Mrs. Mills was kind to her and refused to turn her out.

August 24, 1901 was a Saturday. Around 8 p.m., Mrs. Mills, who was in her 80s, entered Gypsy’s room and eyed the woman sprawled on the bed. On a bedside table, a lamp filled with coal oil or kerosene. She trusted most of the girls, but not this one. “Gyp,” she called. “Give me that lamp. You’ll knock it over and burn the place down.”

Gypsy sat up suddenly. She looked at Mother Mills with eyes that were unnaturally bright and said, “Sure, I will.” In one rapid movement she grabbed the lamp and threw it with all her strength at Mrs. Mills. It hit the elderly lady squarely on her forehead and her clothing immediately caught light. Mrs. Mills screamed and ran out of the room. It was several minutes before horrified onlookers were able to put out the fire. In the meantime, Mother Mills was badly burnt.

Even as the police were hurrying to the scene, a physician was summoned. After several minutes of searching, the doctor was able to find a tiny area of skin left that was not charred, and here he gave her a shot of morphine to ease her pain. It was not to be expected that Mary Mills would recover, the doctor cautioned.

Gypsy was arrested at once. “She was decidedly the worse for booze,” an arresting officer later explained. “The only thing she seemed to regret was that she had not killed Mother Mills.”

But she had killed her. Mary Mills died in agony six hours after Gypsy threw the burning lamp at her.

A few days later, Gypsy appeared at a preliminary hearing. When asked about who would represent her, the defendant announced her intention to represent herself. She explained that she was wrongly accused. Mother Mills had dropped the lamp and caused her own death.

The police testified to her drunkenness. “She used the vilest language,” one of them added. “And acted more like an insane person than one in her right mind.”

Bessie Turner, another of Mother Mills’ girls, was also in court to testify against her. She had helped wrap a blanket around Mrs. Mills to smother the flames, and the poor woman whispered, “Gyp done it.”

Gypsy was allowed to cross examine the witness. “Aren’t you a dope fiend?” she shrieked at Bessie.

“You’re a liar,” Bessie announced. She stood up suddenly and before she could be stopped, she seized Judge Oster’s gavel and hurled it at Gypsy, who dodged it easily. “The women then exchanged remarks that shocked the courtroom,” The San Francisco Examiner reported.

“Miss Turner suddenly seized the lamp which had caused the destruction of Mother Mills and started for the defendant. She was stopped by Constable Heap.” It took Judge Oster several minutes to restore order to his courtroom, and when he did, he gave Miss Turner a $10 fine for contempt of court. Gypsy was ordered held without bail in the county jail, on a murder charge.

There were 24 inmates in the jail, and Gypsy was the only female. In late September, Gypsy was charged with first degree murder. Frank B. Daley would serve as her court-appointed attorney at her trial on November 19.

On November 22, 1901, Gypsy stood before Judge Bledsoe and claimed she was high on the night Mrs. Mills was murdered. “I ate about half a pound of opium,” she recalled. “I was crazy, I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Daley put up a good fight for his client, and the jury was out for a total of 17 hours. When they finally came back to the courtroom, they returned a merciful verdict. Gypsy was convicted of second degree murder, which carried a penalty of 10 years to life. The prisoner listened passively to her fate, without betraying any emotion.

Gypsy was sentenced on December 9. Judge Bledsoe asked if there was any reason why sentence should not be pronounced, and though she had written a lengthy plea for mercy, Gypsy replied, “No.”

“Very well,” the judge said. He sentenced her to 25 years in San Quentin State Prison.

Gypsy Adams’ San Quentin mug shot (1901)

Not all of Gypsy’s adventures were over. But that is a post for another day!

At the turn of the century, the French artist Albert Matignon (1860-1937) became fascinated with opium.

Morphine (1905)

Matignon became somewhat well-known after painting Morphine in 1905. He was one of only a few artists who were bold enough to delve into drug and alcohol-related themes.

Two women passed out in an alcove at an opium den

By 1911, he had seen the seedier side of opiates. That year he exhibited a painting of a ghostly woman smoking in an opium den and called it le vampire de l’opium. The painting captures a young woman, in the final stages of physical and mental decay, still clinging to the opium pipe that was the source of all her troubles.

Le vampire de l’opium (1911)

Joyeux Halloween!

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.

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