Duluth’s Opium Dens

Even Mickey Mouse dealt with opium smugglers. Note that the opium is being disguised as “bath salts,” a euphemism more recently used to describe synthetic drugs. (Image: Public Domain)

Heathens and Laundrymen

The practice of smoking opium arrived in the United States only a few years before Duluth was opened to European settlement. Opium followed Chinese immigrants attracted by the California Gold Rush in 1849 as well as the demand for railroad workers. At first, Americans welcomed the Chinese laborers, but soon the European immigrants working the same jobs began to feel threatened as the railroads used the Chinese to drive down wages.

The Chinese were often accused of “failing to assimilate,” and hurting the economy by sending their wages back to the old country rather than spending them here. When laws were passed that banned the Chinese from employment, they turned to independent service industries like dry goods stores, restaurants and laundries. Because restrictive immigration laws discouraged the immigration of Chinese women (who were presumed to be prostitutes), few joined male family members. Further, miscegenation laws made it illegal for Chinese-American men to marry white women. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act (which wasn’t repealed until 1943) stopped immigration altogether and barred Chinese from gaining citizenship or voting rights. It was even dangerous for Chinese immigrants to visit their homeland, as they might not be allowed to return to the U.S. and would therefore lose any American property they might have been lucky enough to obtain.

Popular fiction, notably the stories of Bret Harte, contributed greatly to negative stereotypes of the Chinese immigrants, including a moniker applied universally, “John Chinaman,” who “rarely laughed” because he was always under the influence of opium. One of Harte’s stories tells about a man who was held captive by “pigtail-wearing fiends” who forced him to smoke opium. The Chinese not only weren’t Christian, their foreign-looking clothing, footwear, and hairstyles were openly mocked as effeminate and bizarre. Their businesses were also targets for thieves, since Chinese immigrants were known to be frugal and prone to keeping their savings hidden on the premises.

As if that weren’t enough, there were also numerous anti-Chinese riots and lynchings across the West. One riot in Los Angeles in 1871 resulted in the deaths of 19 Chinese; their homes and businesses were looted. In 1885 in Wyoming, following a labor dispute, a mob killed 28 Chinese workers and burned down their homes.

Most scholars blame pervasive racism and loneliness for the fact that many Chinese-American men turned to opium smoking and prostitution, for themselves first, and then as a way to augment their incomes.

Chinese-owned hand laundries could be found in towns of any size all over the United States, and Duluth was no exception. In the earliest available directories, a half-dozen can be found listed in and around the center of town. By 1910, the Duluth News Tribune reported there were “nearly two hundred Chinamen” at the Head of the Lakes.

In 1895, the Duluth News Tribune published a lengthy exposé titled “Back of the Curtain: Mysteries of a Chinese Laundry as Seen from the Other Side. How John Chinaman Lives. Is Not Expensive in His Tastes But His Ways Are Peculiar.” The article teased the reader, “Have you never wondered as you stood waiting for the yellow ticket covered with the weird hieroglyphics, what mysteries lay hidden behind the little red curtain?” The article describes in detail the front room, complete with cashier’s desk made of soapboxes covered with red muslin, wooden ironing tables lining the walls, and the abacus.

It then goes on to describe the back rooms, one a bedroom with bunks for at least three men, and the “small metal joss,” or religious statuettes. The other back room was the laundry, with haphazard drying racks and great steaming tubs of dirty clothing. There, a stove was kept “red-hot” for the heating of irons. “The back rooms are the greatest possible contrast to the neat shop outside. Dirt and refuse is never lifted from the floor, but brushed into the corners, where it lies heaped up in some cases two feet high, giving out a foul odor, which is killed only by the fumes of opium.” The “Heathen Chinee” is contrasted with the filth of his surrounding, whom, the article claimed, used more soap on himself than for a whole week of the customers’ washing. After close, the piece goes on, they “draw the locks and bars, which are numerous, for the Chinese are great cowards,” who spend all their free time smoking opium, which “is the ruling passion of a Chinaman’s life … he loves it better than rice, better than gold.”

From the beginning, Duluth Chinese laundries (and later, restaurants, tea shops and groceries) were suspected of being “opium joints.” Reporters wavered on whether or not these suspicions were true, however. In 1887, a Duluth Daily News reporter toured the “alleged opium den of Sam Woh’s on Third Street, but failed to find any traces whatever of what has been said to have occurred there.” But the very next year, the Duluth News Tribune printed a lengthy article about “Duluth’s Opium Den: One of the Worst Dives in Duluth Thrives on Superior Street.” Hop Sing’s Chinese Laundry was the target, and this time, the reporter claimed there were rooms in the basement where the owners plied their “nefarious business.” The place had never been raided, in part because a potential customer had to be vouched for by a previous, trusted customer. A dollar gained you the right to use a curtained nook, which was furnished with “a dingy looking mattress.”

While the importation of opium was ostensibly legal until 1909, many entrepreneurs attempted to get around paying tariffs by smuggling. It was not illegal to have opium in your possession, but if it could be proved it had been smuggled, you could be fined or jailed. Federal agents used Duluth as a central point from which to conduct investigations, asserting that smuggling across the region was widespread. To counter public sentiment that their efforts were strictly about taxes, a federal revenue collector told the Duluth News Tribune in 1893 that he was “certain that young and innocent girls have been enticed into these dens and ruined.”

A large conspiracy involving “alleged fishermen” and “highly respectable merchants” was busted in 1895 for smuggling both whiskey and opium from Canada to various ports on Lake Superior. The schooner Emilie was seized by the government and subsequently sold in Duluth the same year. In 1898, there were reports of cattle being driven over the Canadian border into North Dakota with their nostrils stuffed with packages of opium. The perpetrators were never caught. Railroad porters and cross-border train passengers were caught repeatedly smuggling opium. In 1915, Violet Ray Jones, age 25, who ran a rooming house in Superior, was caught aboard a steamer from Thunder Bay to Duluth carrying 24 ounces of raw opium in her corset. It was valued at $100, but authorities claimed it could be sold in the Twin Ports for $700–800.

Meanwhile, laundries and other Chinese-owned businesses in Duluth and Superior were raided by the police on an increasingly regular basis. Most of the time, the charges against the owners were dropped for lack of evidence, but sometimes, hefty fines were paid for failure to pay the import duties.

Most press reports opined that the raids were hypocritical, since, as one 1886 newspaper article asserted, many rich Duluthians smoked opium, especially when they were out of town and couldn’t be witnessed doing so. “There are those who assume to know, who state that even some one or two gently bred ladies of Duluth make occasional visits to those places and remain for hours, and when they emerge, exhibit the easily recognized effect of indulgence in the opium habit. It is a well known fact that there are some young men who indulge more frequently in the pernicious vice than their friends have any idea of.”

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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.