January 19, 2016

Back When Prescott Was "Opium Central"


There is no doubt that like many other wild-west towns, opium made its first appearance in Prescott with the influx of the Chinese population.

"It is no coincidence that 1869, the year the Union-Pacific Railroad was completed, was the year that Chinese began to appear in (Prescott) in significant numbers." (*1)

So began a most uneasy relationship with a drug habit that would grow and endure for seven decades.

Publicly, Prescott hated opium. Practically, little was done to stop it. Ultimately, Prescott would become the manufacturing hub of opium for the entire state of Arizona.

Opium use was perfectly legal at first, but its use was always kept underground and out of sight. However, by 1879, there was no hiding its popularity in Prescott any longer. The Weekly Arizona Miner wrote: "The Chinese dens of Prescott carry on quite an extensive business in the way of opium smoking. There are several persons, not altogether Chinese in nationality, who pay for the privilege of inhaling the intoxicating fumes from opium pipes in the celestial dens of Prescott." (*2)

Indeed, complicating opium's hold on Prescott was the fact that many prominent, beloved, and powerful citizens and fallen to its charms with most being able to continue their normal lives. This was true all over the west.

Wild Bill Hickok 
"Accurate American history tells us that famous names of the period like Wild Bill Hickok and Kit Carson actually frequented opium dens more often than saloons. It was not uncommon for some (people) to spend several days and nights at a time in these dens in a constant dream-state, eventually becoming physically addicted to the drug." (*3)

In 1907, the Prescott Evening Courier wrote: "But as a matter of justice, the Chinamen should have the same right to get drunk on opium as the white man has to get drunk on whiskey. The (problem) is that while the white man persists in invading the Chinese opium dream habit, the Chinaman does not take so vigorously to the street drunk habit of the whites." (*4)

In spite of this, the City of Prescott outlawed opium in March of 1880 due, in part, to the fact that it was originally and mostly a Chinese habit. However, there was little appetite to enforce the law. Twenty-one months later, the city paper complained: 

"Over a year ago, an ordinance was passed by the City Council making it an offense to visit or keep an opium den within the city limits. Since that time, two or three dens have been kept running without the least regard for the law and no arrests have yet been made, although they are visited daily by quite a number of persons." (*5)

The outcry did produce a few arrests, but the crack-down lasted barely a year. 

Six years went by before law enforcement again took notice. In that time, the opium habit in Prescott continued to grow. On March 3rd, 1889, six officers raided three opium dens at 2 a.m. "capturing 13 smokers in addition to the proprietors of the places." Only half were Chinese. (*5)

"Those who are in a position to know, state that...the 'hop-fiend' colony in Prescott consists of nearly 70 persons, forty of whom are Chinamen, 15 white men, 4 white women and two colored women." (*6) 

The "hop-fiend colony" as it was called, consisted of the people who spent their lives doing little else but smoking opium. There were still many more businessmen, workers, miners, cowboys and housewives who still maintained active, "normal" lives.

In January, 1890 a mysterious fire occurred. At the scene, a box-full of opium smoking paraphernalia was found, leading some to believe that the smoking vice was somehow to blame. A police officer then told the Weekly Miner "that the opium smoking habit was spreading to an alarming extent in Prescott, and many a one indulged in the dreamy luxury of 'hitting the pipe' who were little suspected of it. Recent efforts...to suppress the habit proved unavailing, owing to acquittals by juries." (*7)

Later, another police officer said that he was responsible for the box of opium pipes, having confiscated them from smokers without arrest.

Opium was popular in Prescott and as time passed, Prescott became popular for opium. A huge raid in 1912 demonstrated just how popular:

"One of the most sensational opium raids that has ever taken place in the southwest was carried out successfully yesterday morning in Prescott at about 2 o'clock and the largest amount of the crude article ever known to have been recovered in one joint, is now in possession of the government." (*8)

"The place raided was a so-called Chinese laundry on South Granite street, between Gurley and Goodwin" and was made by 5 officers. It was believed that the "Laundry" sign was just a front for "nothing more than an established opium manufactory and from which the entire state was supplied with the genuine article." (Italics mine)(*8)

ALSO ENJOY: Prescott "Smoker" Events Featured Marijuana! When marijuana was legal, Prescott, used to hold annual "Smoker" events.

"Six kits of smoking utilities were also taken, while the vessels that held the dope ranged from an oil can to daintily made little receptacles." (*8)

"There remained no doubt of the guilt of the two Orientals, as three of the largest cans were steaming on the stove with the brown destroyer and in a few minutes more, the final process of canning in little tubes for shipment would have been perfected." (*8)

A young white woman under the age of 20 and "of respectable parentage" was found to be "hitting the pipe to her heart's content." Instead of being arrested like the rest, she was held as a witness. (*8)

"The amount of opium confiscated (was) valued at several hundreds of dollars, and (was) estimated to be about fifteen gallons; enough...to supply thousands of inveterate consumers." (*8)

The fact that "thousands of consumers" could get their doses for "several hundreds of dollars" bares testimony to the inexpensiveness of the habit. In today's money, a session at an opium den would cost about $4. Indeed, back then, a trip to the opium den was often less expensive than a trip to the saloon!

The only recorded death in Prescott by overdose from opium smoking occurred in 1914 and caused great consternation. The newspaper cried: (*9)

OPIUM VICTIMS RUN RAMPANT IN CITY

SO FINDS CORONER'S JURY IN INQUEST UPON BODY OF HARRY SMITH; OVERDOSE FATAL


"WE FURTHER RECOMMEND THAT THE OFFICIALS OF YAVAPAI COUNTY, ARIZONA, AND THE CITY OF PRESCOTT EITHER STOP THE DRUGS FROM COMING INTO PRESCOTT, OR THE SALE OF THEM, OR TO HAVE ALL SUCH DRUG HABITUES LEAVE THE SAID CITY OF PRESCOTT, UNLESS THEY HAVE VISIBLE MEANS OF SUPPORT AND IF SUCH PEOPLE COME HERE TO GET RID OF THEM AT ONCE."


In spite of the outrage, it's interesting to note how the jury qualified their demand by saying "unless they have visible means of support." Everyone knew that there were many opium smokers that were quite capable of living productive lives and were doing so.

Also interesting was the jury's naiveté believing that the opium was being brought into Prescott, instead of it being manufactured right in town:

"The jury had before it experts who testified that Prescott was invaded by a greater percentage of "hop-heads" than any other community in the state." (*9) (Perhaps because Prescott is where the "dope" was being manufactured?)

"The investigation went even further...(noting) some interesting evidence disclosing Prescott's unfortunate claim to supremacy and undesired publicity in connection with opium." (*9)


Also Enjoy: 9 Cryptid Monsters of Arizona (UPDATE: Bigfoot near Prescott?)




One of the last opium den raids in Prescott occurred in 1934. Five police officers descended upon 136 1/2 S. Montezuma St. Two were arrested and held; two women posted bond; and two other young women were cited for vagrancy. (*10)

Eventually, Prescott kicked its opium habit. Unfortunately, this was largely because of the disappearance of the Chinese population in the 1930's and the introduction of a new "miracle drug" from Germany called Heroin. (Oops!)

CLICK HERE for a Listing of all the True Crime articles on Prescott AZ History

Tourist Tip:



The "Chinatown neighborhood" of Prescott existed west of Whiskey Row right along Granite Creek in the downtown area. Granite Creek provides for a riparian ecosystem of disidous trees in the middle of the desert. It is a joy to hike through!




CLICK HERE for info on the Greenways Trail System  which runs from downtown to Granite Creek Park.


CLICK HERE for all Prescott Hiking Trails  There are 30!



SOURCES:

ALSO BY Drew Desmond: