IT MIGHT SEEM surprising that in late 19th century Jefferson County, as well as in the rest of the United States, buying, possessing and using opium and its derivative products such as morphine and laudanum were completely legal, as long as the existing taxes and import duties imposed on them had been paid.
It is also true that the first major U.S. opiate epidemic was underway from the 1870s through the early 1900s.
The roots of this addiction probably lay in the Civil War years.
Morphine had been synthesized from opium in 1817, and the use of the hypodermic syringe in the U.S. dated from 1856.
During the war, injections of morphine were used to treat pain in the wounded.
The Union army also dispensed nearly 10 million opium pills and 2.8 million ounces of opium powders and tinctures to its soldiers.
Although medical journals began warning of the dangers of addiction in the 1870s, doctors, in the absence of alternative medications and with inadequate medical education, were slow to respond.
Many male doctors prescribed morphine to relieve women’s menstrual cramps, “diseases of a nervous character” and even morning sickness.
Thousands of addicts
By the late 1890s, upper- and middle-class women made up 60 percent of the estimated 150,000 to 200,000 opium addicts in the country.
An additional use of opium came to this country with the influx of Chinese immigrant laborers, beginning in the 1870s and continuing until the early 1900s.
They brought with them their leisure-time activity of “smoking” (actually, inhaling vapors from heating) opium refined for that specific purpose.
At various times in the last three decades of the 19th century, Port Townsend had a Chinese population ranging from 400 to 1,500 people, made up mostly of single men who were contract laborers, working as cooks, houseboys, dishwashers, truck gardeners, or laundry or cannery workers.
It is estimated that about 100 of these men and a few of the town’s Euro-Americans were regular opium smokers.
Other Chinese immigrants owned or worked in several downtown mercantile stores that sold rice, tea, lichee nuts, candy and other imported items.
The Zee Tai & Co. store at 918 Water St. was the longest lived of these businesses, opening in 1884 and staying in business until 1930.
Other stores were located in the area along Washington Street between Adams and Monroe, where most of the Chinese immigrants lived.
Zee Tai and some of the other stores had rooms known as “opium dens.”
Bobby Gow, a longtime Chinese-American resident of Port Townsend, recalled that he and his friends often hung out at the stores, hoping for hand-outs of candy and lichee nuts; and they would often go down in the cellar at Zee Tai to watch the men smoke opium.
In several Port Townsend Leader interviews and his historical society oral history, Gow described some of the dens and the typical smoking process, as follows: “In those days, you could sell opium legally, you know, if it had a [customs] stamp on it. They [the store] would buy a legal can, with a stamp on it and then sell that — use it up.
“They’d weigh out a little of the sticky black substance on a delicate balance; then put it on a playing card … The playing card wouldn’t absorb the stuff — it was coated with plastic.
“They [customers] would pay by the weight. After they [the store] used that can, they’d dump the smuggled stuff into that can with the stamp on it so they could sell it over the counter.”
Watched men smoke
Gow also described watching men smoking in the back of the Yee Tung store: “They had a bunch of bunks there, two high all the way around the room.
“All they had was a wooden pillow and mat laying on a hard board. They had these little stands alongside them.
“They’d take the card of opium and a long, thin-like-a-knitting needle or lady’s hat pin. They’d dip it in there and roll it up into a ball.
“It was black and tar-like.
“Then, they would hold it over this peanut oil-burning lamp. They would turn the substance over and over, it would never fall off the pin.
“Then, when it was bubbling, they would put the wad in a pipe and take about three or four puffs on it.
“They’d smoke awhile, then all of a sudden they would get drowsy. They’d sleep there for hours.
“Many would go through the whole process again once they woke up.”
Gow remarked that sometimes he and his friends got “woozy” from smelling the smoke.
He also said that the men only seemed to smoke opium on the weekends, or days when they didn’t have to go to work.
As the port of entry for the Puget Sound Customs District, the Port Townsend customs office received a few legal importations of opium throughout those years.
In 1894, the Port Townsend Daily Leader reported the “second largest importation of opium ever made in the history of Puget Sound customs district … when 200 pounds came consigned to a local business house.”
“It is the very best quality of the prepared article, and really belongs to a local Chinese firm, Zee Tai & Company, but as the law prohibits Chinese from importing opium the provisions of the statute were observed by consigning the drug to Americans.”
The Leader also mentioned that this was the first official importation since six years earlier, which was “the first lot on which the records show that duty was ever paid.”
The McKinley Act of 1890 provided that, “an internal revenue tax of $2 per pound shall be levied and collected upon all opium manufactured in the United States for smoking purposes; and no person shall engage in such manufacture who is not a citizen of the United States, and who has not given the bond required by the Commissioner of Internal Revenue.”
These restrictions and costs meant that little smoking opium was produced in the United States and most of the opium sold here was refined in as many as 12 smoking opium “factories” in Victoria where it could be purchased for $8.50 a pound.
By 1891, the import duty on this smoking opium had reached $12 a pound.
It made smuggling smoking opium, which had already been occurring, still more attractive because pre-existing taxes already made it cheaper for people in the U.S. to pay the smugglers twice what the smugglers had paid in Victoria.
A June 5, 1891, article in the Port Townsend Morning Leader reported: “From 1880 to 1887 smuggling was at its prime, and paid the largest dividends with the least chance of detection. … there were few inspectors and no traveling inspectors aboard the boats.
“Successful running of the gauntlet at Port Townsend and there was little else to fear. Then Uncle Sam became distrustful, and numerous inspectors were sent out.”
The same article claimed: “Smuggling opium never was looked upon here by a great many people in the light of a crime, but as a simple evasion of the revenue laws, of no moment unless perchance one was unlucky enough to be caught.”
Though that article claimed that smuggling was on the wane, other headlines that same year would seem to indicate that there were many who still made the attempt: “Opium Seized From Smugglers,” “Clever Opium Seizures,” “the Minister Had Opium,” “Uncle Sam’s Storehouse Filled to the Brim with Seized Opium” and “Seizure of Opium on the Steamer Olympian Sunday.”
On the Olympian, a steamer that regularly plied Northwest port cities, a valise filled with 40 pounds of smoking opium was found hidden in a hollow under a plank in the “oiler’s room.”
Another stash arrived on the steamer North Pacific with a passenger carrying 19 cans of it in the bottom of a small dirt-filled box with a houseplant on the top.
Another large stash was recovered when a load of coal was unloaded.
Sold at auction
Seized opium was sold at auction to the highest bidder, with revenue going mostly to the U.S. government, but up to a fourth of the money could be paid to the inspector or law enforcement person who apprehended the smuggler.
Unfortunately, there also appeared to be a certain amount of graft among the customs officials, involving smuggling and use of funds intended for rewards to enforcers, as well as at least one occasion when a large amount was stolen from the customs house before it could be auctioned.
The early 20th century brought rising concerns about the addiction rates among lower-class white Americans who had discovered heroin, in addition to other opiates.
Heroin was the brand name, assigned by the Bayer company in Germany, to a synthesized opium tablet they began marketing as a non-addictive painkiller in 1897.
By 1903, it became apparent that they were wrong.
Rising anti-Chinese sentiments in the U.S., and worldwide efforts to stem the use of opium led to the passage of the 1909 “Smoking Opium Exclusion Act” prohibiting all importation and sale and use of smoking opium.
This act restricted the importation of opium to that used for medical purposes.
In 1914, efforts to stamp out addiction to opium and coca leaf products led to passage of the Harrison Act.
The law restricted all sales and prescription for those products.
It required all who imported, dispensed or gave the products away to be licensed to do so.
Physicians and pharmacists had to be registered and keep records of their distribution of narcotics.
Only patent medicines containing very small amounts of derivatives, such as cough syrups and paregoric for diarrhea control, were exempted.
An April 22, 1915, Daily Leader article reported that the first arrest in Port Townsend had been made after a raid of “Opium Joints” resulting in the confiscation of $400 worth of smoking opium from two Chinese men, who were being held pending action of a federal grand jury in Seattle.
The article went on to say, “Congress has on previous occasions enacted laws with the object of restricting the use of opium to medical purposes, but the laws have been evaded to such an extent that the national lawbody [sic] enacted a measure which is so strict that it is believed that the desired results will be accomplished.
“The enforcement of the provisions of the new law is placed in the hands of the treasury department, which is now inaugurating an active campaign to rid the country of opium.”
The Harrison Act per se was not as restrictive as the article indicates, but the enforcement of it by Treasury agents was so strict as to deprive all existing addicts of receiving maintenance or weaning off prescriptions from physicians.
It ultimately brought about an underground trafficking market that, by 1918, was estimated to be equal to narcotics sold legally.
And the street price of heroin rose from $6.50 an ounce to $100 an ounce, while its purity diminished.
Opium smuggling to Port Townsend did not immediately cease but it dropped precipitously, according to later news headlines which did not report any activity after 1920.
Gradually, Port Townsend Chinese immigrants either went back to China or moved to other areas with larger Chinese populations until, by 1930, there were only a handful of Chinese still living here.
Linnea Patrick is a historian and retired Port Townsend Public Library director.
Her Jefferson County history column, Back When, appears on the third Sunday of each month, alternating with Alice Alexander’s Clallam County history column on the first Sunday of the month.
Patrick can be reached at [email protected]. Her next column will appear May 20.