Duluth’s Opium Dens

Poppies: the source of opium. (Image: Public Domain)

On the morning of August 30, 1912, newsboys howled a shocking headline on Superior Street: “GIRL IN OPIUM DEN WITH NEGRO! POLICE ARREST COMELY CALUMET YOUNG WOMAN AND COMPANION AFTER BREAKING DOOR! Under Influence of Drug! Taken into Custody!” And finally, the last part of the headline, which is perhaps even more offensive to modern sensibilities: “Negro is as Repellant in Appearance as Girl is Personally Attractive.”

According to the initial story in the Duluth News Tribune, the girl could be “taken for a high school girl,” and was found “in a bewildered and semi-conscious state.” She was high on opium, found in a smoke-filled room in the arms of Fred Newman, a man supposedly so “repulsive looking” that not even one of “his own class and race would choose [him] for a companion.” She, on the other hand, was “strikingly attractive … attired in a becoming red sweater coat, [and looked] out of keeping with her surroundings.” Her name was Mabel England, though she told the police her last name was Howard. She was eighteen years old.

In the days that followed, the press seemed to fall in love with Mabel England. She was called “a real mystery,” as the reporters hung around in the city jail plying her with questions about her past and how she came to her “downfall.” They reported that she conversed with them freely, with unusual brashness, and played popular music on her cornet inside her jail cell. They said she appeared nonchalant about the seriousness of the charge against her—“improper relations with a negro in an opium den”—but became “morose” when they asked her about her real identity. They insisted she was “apparently from a good home and with the advantage of proper bringing up… She looks the part of a well developed young girl from the country and wears good clothes, not of the gaudy kind, but neat and of quiet colorings.” She told them she learned the cornet from her father, who played with the Salvation Army “in the copper country.” She had never taken a drug until she came to Duluth, she said.

Mabel England photographed leaning out of a window of the Duluth Police Headquarters and Jail happily talking with reporters. (Image: Zenith City)

Within a few days, the local officer of the Salvation Army and other “philanthropic people” had offered to bail her out, promising to make sure she made it to her trial and that she would be kept safe. Meanwhile, little attention was given to the three African-Americans jailed for victimizing her. Fred Newman and Mae Jackson would be charged with what was then called “white slavery”—forcing England into prostitution. Byron Webster of Superior would face federal charges for bringing her across state lines for “immoral purposes.”

In less than a week, charges against Mabel England were dropped on the promise she would testify against the three others. Meanwhile, she was kept at the police station, where she was allowed “every convenience” and free run of the place.

Fred Newman’s trial was on September 10, 1912. England testified she came to Duluth with the Salvation Army, and was selling their newspapers on the Bowery when she went into a “negro club” where she was given a “pill” of opium, which made her feel “weak and dizzy.” She reported the experience to the Salvation Army, which decided she was too vulnerable for street sales. When she didn’t return to the club, Byron Webster sought her out, and “induced her to go into a disorderly house in Duluth and later on brought her to Superior.” There she became a waitress in a Chinese restaurant, but “admitted to having earned money by a life of shame” and claimed to have given some of the money to Webster, Jackson and Newman. She was now incorrectly reported to be 15 years old. She also admitted she’d spent time in a reformatory for girls, and had been an unwed mother.

Newman persistently protested his innocence, saying England “told all sorts of lies about me,” and declaring his relations with her were “proper.” He was sentenced to 33 months in the state penitentiary, during which the judge said he hoped Newman would kick his opium habit. (The maximum sentence could have been 20 years.) Mae Jackson got two years on the same charge after pleading guilty. Webster’s fate is unknown, but he was back to work as a porter in Superior as early as 1915.

On October 22, 1912, the News Tribune ran a small, final item. “Miss Mabel England, who was the object of considerable notoriety here a month ago, was married last week at Calumet, Mich…. [to] an old sweetheart.” This was no happily ever after, however—she was divorced only four years later, and her life path after that is unclear.

Opiate of the Masses

Mabel England was, in essence, a common fictional character brought to life. Her preferred story—that of a good girl brought down by the seduction of nefarious characters into a life of drugs and shame—was a popular one, sensationalized from every angle in newspapers and fiction. She was pitied, but also feared. The implication was clear: she could be your sister, or your daughter. And more than anything, she was a necessary tool for reformers, who counted on her to bring home the idea that opium was an infectious evil brought to upstanding white society by “alien” Chinese and “sex-crazed” black men.

While the alcohol prohibition movement moved forward simultaneously with the fight against open prostitution, the drug reform movement was a secondary and more conflicted partner. Opium, after all, was not only the sinister drug of smoking dens and criminals, but a popular medicine as well. Duluth newspapers printed “Household Hints” columns that regularly recommended opium in homemade concoctions to relieve stomach cramps, cough or chronic pain. It was available in the form of drops and pills from your local pharmacist or doctor. Patent medicines commonly (and sometimes secretly) contained opium, cocaine and alcohol until the Pure Foods and Drugs Act of 1906 required their labeling.

This is not to say that people weren’t aware of opium’s addicting qualities, but like today’s prescribed use of pain-relieving opiates in pill form, the line between legitimate need and addiction was murky. On February 5, 1876, the Duluth Minnesotian-Herald printed the following item in the Rip-Raps column:

“On Wednesday morning last, an apparently middle aged, wild-eyed, thinly clad woman, who had been in town a few weeks, made her appearance that very cold day at the drugstores in our city, in search of opium, of which she is a confirmed eater. But they were all out except a piece the size of a filbert, which was given her. She is the daughter of a physician, who prescribed the drug to his child when a young woman as a remedy for some disease, and now she is a slave to the habit, subject to the most dreadful distress if at any time she shall get out of opium, and in case she cannot obtain it she experiences a delirium, worse than that produced by spirituous liquors, to which she must resort, until she can obtain the other drug, of which she uses about three ounces a week.”

Accidents and addiction led to occasional tragedies. In 1891, A. C. Robinson of Park Point gained guardianship over his alcoholic and opium-addicted wife, who was the daughter of a prominent local judge. She publicly threatened vengeance, but no one took her seriously. She returned home and attempted to murder her entire family with rat poison—luckily without success. In 1903, two-year-old Bessie Stensrud of Superior died when she found a box of opium pills in the back of a drawer and ate them. Purposeful opium overdose was a favored method of suicide, considered painless. When Mrs. M. G. Johnson of Superior died of an opium overdose, her husband (who had been previously arrested for abusing her) claimed to skeptical police that they’d both been taking opium for stomach problems. No one was ever charged in her death.

By 1911, despite belief to the contrary, the vast majority of opium addicts were white women who acquired it from doctors, often to combat menstrual pain. But opium was not just an occasionally problematic medicine, it was also a popular drug, smoked or eaten for pleasure. Society wasn’t so much threatened by opium itself as it was by the method for procuring the drug and the locations in which it was most often enjoyed. Across the nation, opium dens and those who frequented them released an onslaught of middle class cultural—and especially racial—fears. Duluth was no different.

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Story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Heidi Bakk-Hansen.