The Commercialized Criminalization of a “Chinese Opium Fiend” From a Postcard Postmarked 8 March 1906

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, alcoholism and drug use were significant issues in Los Angeles and broadly in the United States, with the former lending a major impetus to the temperance movement that culminated in Prohibition in 1920, while the latter raised an enormous amount of concern in American society, especially as highly addictive narcotics such as morphine, cocaine and opium were commonly used in patent medicines.

A main reason why the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Theodore Roosevelt at the end of June 1906 was because of the public outrage generated by Upton Sinclair’s best-selling novel The Jungle, relating to the horrible conditions of Chicago meatpacking houses, as well as other food-production issues, but the standard use of addictive drugs was also key.

Los Angeles Herald, 6 March 1906.

Having watched over the weekend a documentary about crack cocaine that, among other elements, made some powerful points about the criminalized stereotyping of Blacks through media and popular culture representations of the crack epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, tonight’s highlighted artifacts from the Homestead’s collection, picked out before seeing the film, take on a greater connective resonance. These objects include a postcard and the cabinet card photograph from what it was produced, showing a “Chinese Opium Fiend” in Los Angeles in the early years of the 20th century.

The postcard was published and commercially sold by Oscar Newman, who issued a huge number of these at the time, and presumably it was Newman, who when assigning the image the identification number of 2507 also bestowed its title, which dehumanizes the anonymous subject by labeling him as a “fiend.” The card was sent to a woman in Mechanicsberg, Pennsylvania by a man only identified as Clarence, who wrote:

Have been in several of these joints and seen these people lying all around smoking opium.

One wonders how “Clarence” managed to see several of the so-called “opium dens” that were said to have been endemic to the Chinatown area, then located in the area occupied by Union Station. From the time the Chinese came in numbers to Los Angeles to build the local Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad and for other reasons, it was common for newspapers and others to decry the criminal enterprises, real or imagined, that took place within the community, which coalesced in the Calle de los Negros, just off the southeast corner of the Plaza, and where the terrible massacre of 19 Chinese males took place on 24 October 1871.

Los Angeles Record, 6 March 1906.

By the early 20th century, the Chinese community, limited by the federal exclusion of further immigration from China after the early 1880s, was viewed more through the gaze of a milder form of racism and exotica, if not the vicious violence made emblematic through the massacre. There were even organized tours of Chinatown and commercially sold photographs (many showing the Chinese averting their eyes and covering their faces in response to such blatant intrusions on their persons.)

A tour pamphlet in the museum’s holdings, and likely from the time of the postcard and photo featured here (and which will be highlighted in a separate post at another time), proclaimed “We Actually Show you the Following Sights” and listed “The Opium Den” along with a a Joss house and temple; musicians; workers of various crafts; “Chinese Families in their Home;” and “curio stores;” along with a visit to the “Old Spanish Plaza” and the “Church of the Angeles,” or Plaza Church, as part of the itinerary.

Los Angeles Times, 7 March 1906.

As to the photo, which is an unmounted cabinet card, it is not attributed, though there is an inscription on the reverse reading “Return to Mrs. A.S.C. Forbes” and giving her address near the University of Southern California. Harrye Rebecca Piper Smith Forbes (1861-1951), who was known publicly by reference to her husband, was a Pennsylvania native who came to Los Angeles in the mid-1890s. She quickly became widely known in women’s club circles, being a prominent member of the Ebell and Friday Morning associations,

Forbes also had a passion for history, albeit the romanticization of pre-American California that held so many Anglos, a good many of them recent arrivals in the Angel City, in thrall from roughly the time of the 1884 publication of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona onward. Forbes was best known for her leadership in the El Camino Real Association and was described in 1928’s Women of the West as having “directed the work of establishing [the route of] El Camino Real, [and] designed and placed the bells along this highway.” The author of works relating to that route and the missions, she also had a significant interest in Chinese history, including the Boxer Rebellion.


The image is unsparingly disturbing, showing a barefoot middle-aged man lying with his kneees drawn up on a thin mat laid out on the floor and a pillow cradling his head. In his right hand he holds a long wooden pipe and the paraphernalia for preparing and smoking the drug is laid out on a dark tray on the floor next to the man, whose eyes are closed. It appears, moreover, that he is missing most of his left arm. A coat, pants and shirt hang on the wall behind him, indicating that he changed into a robe, while his legs are partially covered by a sheet. A couple of implements hang on the wall over his head and a tattered piece of paper is affixed next to him. By any standard, the scene is degrading, dehumanizing and dispiriting and the commercializtion of this man’s condition is appalling.

It wasn’t as if, it needs to be said, there weren’t many white people (or those of other ethnicities, for that matter) who were alcoholics and drug addicts, and, in fact, the month this card was sent there was some news of white opium users. Just two days prior to the postmark date, for example, there was brief coverage in the Los Angeles Herald of a divorce case in the Superior Court in which Mary Buck sued for separation from her husband, George. Their daughter, Fay Le Roy, however, testified for her father and not only stated that her mother, who charged her spouse with cruelty, was an alcoholic but “she also accused her mother of being a victim to the opium habit.”


Four days later, the Los Angeles Record published a lengthy story about a pretended Russian countess in Chicago, who was reported to have testified in a proceeding that she downed two bottle of vodka a day and “also took quantities of morphine and opium.” In mid-March, the Los Angeles Times reported on a wealthy Bostonian working in San Francisco who began forging checks on his firm and was arrested, it being added that “one cause of his undoing was that he acquired the opium habit in Chinatown.”

On the 20th, the Record ran a piece on a “half clad woman” named Mrs. F.E. Phillips, said to be “in a demented condition,” as she wandered from the well-known Van Nuys Hotel downtown two miles to a South Los Angeles home (quite close to Forbes’ residence). A former hairdresser, Mrs. Phillips was reportedly “known to the fashionable white opium smokers of the city as the proprietor of a ‘club’ that ran smoking rooms for both men and women” in an unnamed downtown hotel. Notably, it was reported that she “has Chinese blood,” though nothing more was said about her purported ethnicity.


The Record had, in its advertising columns at the time, one from a Chicago woman who promised a “harmless permanent home cure” for addictions to cocaine, morphine, laudanum and opium. Meanwhile, the Times had ads from the Bartlett Sanatorium, situated on Seventh Street east of Westlake (now MacArthur) Park, and which existed “for the cure of alcoholism, opium, morphine and all other drug addiction.” Other advertisements for patent medicines were sure to state that there was no opium (and, often, no morphine or other narcotics) in their products. Though early March featured articles on Congressional hearings concerning the pure food and drug legislation, a representative from Massachusetts proposed an amendment

There was other news of a related nature, revealing the deep-seated racism that was openly manifested against Asians, as the Record, also on the 6th, ran a detailed article headlined “Chinese and Japs Insult the Flag” and which reported that “small American flags were targets for a crowd of Chinamen, who riddled the stars and stripes with bullets from small rifles.” It was added that “trading upon the war sentiments of the Chinese against the American people, crafty Japanese who operate the shooting galleries at 614 and 707 N. Alameda st., devised the insult to the flag.”

Los Angeles Times, 11 March 1906.

The article went on to assert that

Chinamen from the opium dens, from fan-tan games and the haunts of the Celestials, gave up $1 a shot for the privilege of sending bullets through the little banners of red, white and blue. The scene was one of wild disorder. Strange oaths and curses mingled with yells of fiendish glee as the flags were shattered. The Jap proprietors urged on the sanguine sentiments of the patrons by crafty suggestions. Suddenly, it was stated, two police officers arrived and closed the place down delivering the flags to their superiors at the station. The city’s police chief submitted a report to the police commission recommending revocation of the enterprise’s business license and it was revoked.

This account, however, could not be independently verified.

Notably, the next article was completely different, as the Southern California Baptist Ministers’ Association requested of a church federation “to investigate the treatment of Chinamen in this city by the federal authorities in the matter of deporting the American born.” One pastor told the paper that “a very serious injustice is being done to American born Chinese in this city and vicinity. Some of these Chinese are Christians” and it was averred that the situation was making relations between the United States and the Chinese empire more difficult. The pastor added, “if they don’t find friends among the church people, where are they to look for them?”

Los Angeles Record, 20 March 1906.

As for the pure food and drug bill, it was reported towards the end of March that “proprietary medicine manufacturers were granted a hearing” by a House sub-committee on interstate and foreign commerce on an amendment offered on the manufacturers’ behalf by Representative William C. Lovering of Massachusetts that would allow for the “use of a limited amount of alcohol, opium, cocaine and other poisonous substances in patent medicines without stating on the labels that they are contained in the preparation.” After considerable wrangling by manufacturers and politicans, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed with labeling requirements for such ingredients as opium that had immediate effects on the production and sale of such medicines.

Los Angeles Express, 24 March 1906

The postcard and photo are artifacts reflective of a number of important aspects of early 20th century Los Angeles life, including race and racism, stereotyping and profiling, the criminalization of drug users by etnnicity, often conflicting perceptions and attitudes about illicit and legal drugs, and more. And, as noted at the beginning of this post concerning the watching of the documentary on crack cocaine, some of these have not changed as much, 115 years later, as we might want to believe.

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