Duluth’s Opium Dens

This poem appeared in the Duluth News Tribune August 18, 1921. (Image: Zenith City)

Pipe Dreamers and Pimps

Throughout the years when opium was quasi-legal, periodic local newspaper reports would betray a schizophrenic attitude toward the drug. On the one hand, it was purported to ruin your complexion, render you useless for the working life, and in the end, drive you insane—possibly murderously so. On the other hand, reporters couldn’t seem to refrain from making the smoking of opium sound incredibly appealing. They tended toward the poetic:

When a man begins to smoke opium it seems as if the very air he breathes was impregnated with a mild but most delicious perfume. He seems on a bed of veritable roses. His senses are given over to realistic vision of voluptuous and beautiful women.

A later article gushed, “…from many descriptions it is certain that one forgets troubles and care and that the sweetest dreams imaginable come when under its potent influence. Probably you imagine you are a millionaire, you can feel yourself driving along a broad boulevard in a handsome automobile. You go to a swell café for dinner, drink wine in the evening, are one of a party of theatre-goers or probably a little cruise about on a yacht is not out of your line. You see yourself wearing handsome clothes while costly jewels are within easy reach. All these things you see plainly and you are happy. Then you wake up.”  While the addiction would ruin you in the end, even a doctor could be found to say, “I have seen several opium eaters die a very pleasant death.”

Eventually, local underworld figures got into the opium den business, brothel owners in particular. By 1900, raids were turning up opium dens in boarding houses in the Tenderloin (now Canal Park) and under-employed black men joined the Chinese as obviously suspicious characters and presumed opium addicts who, by widely accepted stereotype, made it their business to lure young white people into vice and self-destruction. After that, raids seemed to target both Chinese and African-American establishments.

In August of 1900, two connected rooms in the Central House on Lake Avenue were raided. Three African-American men were arrested, and authorities confiscated five complete pipe kits and $50 worth of opium. The newspaper report noted that the “den” was nothing like the “luxurious” atmosphere traditionally expected, but that the rooms were totally bare, with just two blankets on the floor with some pillows. Most of its customers were reported to be St. Croix Avenue residents.

When Henry Holloway was arrested in July of 1901 for “frequenting an opium den” at a “small shanty” at 252 St. Croix Alley, the newspaper article recounting the raid made it clear just how difficult it was to charge people with a crime. The police reported having been “waiting to catch someone in the act of smoking.” When boarding houses were raided, the owners would not only claim ignorance that an opium den was in operation—a dubious claim since there was a distinct odor involved—but even claimed to not know the names of the room’s renters.

A 1910 feature titled “The Revel of the Duluth Pipe Dreamers,” claimed that “practically every Chinese laundry is an opium den,” but that there were also at least six “negro joints” in town as well. According to the article, some people were more comfortable being seen going into the “poorest rooming houses” rather than entering a Chinese-owned establishment.

Hide Your Wife! Hide Your Kids!

During the first two decades of the 20th century, more and more violent crimes included the addendum that the perpetrators were “opium fiends.” When Duluth’s First National Bank was robbed in 1907, thief J. E. Scott claimed he couldn’t remember the crime at all because of the drug. He asserted to reporters that he was from “a good St. Paul family,” and blamed his crime on opium addiction and unrequited love. He told the newspaper that he found a woman he knew in the red light district, and when he threatened to expose her “shame” to her parents, she humiliated him. When he was suffering from withdrawal in jail, a doctor gave him opium to “calm him.”

In 1907 a story out of Pittsburgh went viral around the nation. Reprinted in the Duluth News Tribune, the story detailed the purported kidnapping of the “beautiful young wife of a rich boiler manufacturer,” a Sunday school teacher who was purportedly tricked by one of her Chinese students into taking opium and subsequently “kidnapped.” As she told reporters later, “I do not remember leaving my house with him, but I distinctly remember being at the depot and boarding a train with him. It seemed to me to be the most natural thing in the world for me to do. I had forgotten my home, my husband, my mother and everything else, and I looked upon the world and everyone in it from the eyes of a Chinese. I can believe nothing else than that I was hypnotized.” Though there was no evidence the man was planning to hold her for ransom, the case against him would be “pressed to the limit.”

In 1908, Theodore Roosevelt appointed the first Opium Commissioner of the United States, Dr. Hamilton Wright, who said, “One of the most unfortunate phases of smoking opium in this country is the large number of women who have become involved and [are] living as common-law wives or cohabitating with Chinese in the Chinatowns of our various cities.” By 1909, the U.S. banned opium importation except for the purposes of medicine.

In 1912, just before the case of Mabel England came to light, both Duluth and Superior passed ordinances prohibiting the sale of opium by anyone but record-keeping druggists—and making possession a crime. Opium use, which had peaked in 1896, began to decline in 1914. That year, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act was passed, taking effect on March 1, 1915.

The Twin Ports underworld business of smuggling and opium dens continued, however. On January 10, 1921, Frank Insco, “the Dope King of Superior,” was arrested and his establishment raided. After detailing the thousands of dollars’ worth of confiscated drugs and jewels, the Duluth News Tribune reported, “From neighbors it was last night learned that women dressed in costly furs and gowns which told of their high social position had been seen to frequent the place at late hours of the night. They often came in taxicabs, hired liveries and sometimes in their own cars… The identity of the visitors could not be learned or was refused.”

It was now the Era of the Flapper, and not only did a flapper scandalously show her knees, she also was believed to smoke opium. In 1922, a “modishly gowned young woman” named Margaret Fisher was arrested on a Duluth-bound train in possession of $3,000 worth of the drug. The Feds called her “one of the cleverest woman smugglers in the United States.”

Attacking both alcohol and drug smuggling in the 1920s, however, was beginning to put a strain on the local federal enforcement agencies. In 1922, investigators were forced to admit they estimated only 30 habitual drug users in both Duluth and Superior. As so often happens in law enforcement, priorities and popular concern shifted focus. Though continuing to be a popular film trope illustrating the “Yellow Peril,” real opium dens faded into history.

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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.