Thursday 4 November 2010

What Opium Smoking Feels Like

Here's a great piece of investigative jouranlism from the Pall Mall Gazette of 1893.

[For other reportage on opium dens, click here]

    My first visit to China Town, and my experience of opium then acquired, had whetted rather than sated my curiosity, and not many days elapsed before I found my way back again. I chose a Saturday again for my expedition, because I knew that Saturday was the day when I was most likely to meet the habitual frequenters of the Chinese boarding- houses in which opium-smoking goes on. Work is over early on a Saturday, and the Chinese sailors from the ships of the various lines trading to China come up from the docks, and stay at these houses over the Sunday. As soon as their marketing is over they take their purchases of rice, pork, and fowls to the saloons they frequent, and there get them cooked, cut up into small morsels so as to be conveniently eaten with chopsticks. On this occasion I refrained from trespassing on the hospitality of my former host, and succeeded in affecting an entrance into a larger "joint," which seemed to be doing a flourishing business.  As is often the case, the lower room was a shop, and the smoking was carried on in an upper room.
After seeing the accommodation of one or two of these places, I cannot but think that those who have spoken of them as low and filthy haunts of vice have either never seen them or must have been singularly unfortunate in the specimens they hit upon. The room I was in this evening was considerably larger than the one I had been in before; it was perfectly clean, and had a good many ornaments of various kinds about it in the shape of pictures, Chinese weapons, figures, and strange-looking musical instruments round the walls. The general arrangements were much the same as before - couches, tables, pipes, &c.; but in the middle of the room was a table, the use of which I soon saw, and some chairs. When I first went in there was no one but myself there, and before beginning my smoke I asked a few questions as to the cost of the pipe, &c. My host, who spoke English perfectly, explained that pipes varied very much in price; a common bamboo pipe might be had for eight or nine shillings, while others, examples of which he showed me, made of some special kind of dark cane, and ornamented with silver, were valued at from five to ten pounds. He spoke of having sold one to a lady, an American, so he said - who used at one time to go there regularly to smoke. I had some difficulty in believing this, but it was confirmed from another source. I also examined some of the musical instruments. They were very quaint : one was something like a banjo in shape, but looked as if it were made from the lid of a butter tub, and had four huge wooden tuning pegs; the strings seemed to be of wire, and it was played with a sort of plectrum. Another was a sort of mandolin, but with a very small body and very long neck; while a third was a fiddle with one string, which was played with the bow beneath it, after the style of a clown in a circus.
Sailors now began to drop in and looked at me curiously, but seemed take the fact of my being in the room as good proof that I had a right there. I thought it well to begin to smoke, to show that I was present on business ; so I lay down on a couch, and my host prepared my pipe for me. I watched the preparation of the opium more carefully than before, and was surprised to see how the tiny bead of opium at the end of the wire swelled up over the flame, and admired the skill with which it was rolled and shaped into a cone, and worked into the tiny hole in the pipe bowl. As I smoked I lay and watched the company ; they were a pleasant-looking, good-tempered lot, so far as I could judge by their behaviour. There must have been members of two or three different races ; they differed very much from one a other in physique, some being, as I had noticed on my first visit, very big, and some very puny. Many of them took a drink of tea from a kettle that stood there as they came in. I had a cup myself, but did not find it particularly good. I found that some of them did not object to a glass of whisky. It seemed to me a sort of club; some smoked opium, sumo tobacco ; some settled down at the table in the middle of the room, and started playing various games with Chinese cards —long, narrow strips of thin cardboard—Chinese dominoes, &c. The table was covered with "cash" and silver coins, but these may have been simply markers. Of the games I could make neither head nor tail, but they seemed to interest the players, who chattered and laughed as if they were having a good time. Sometimes a new comer would take down one of the musical (?) instruments and produce some discordant sounds from it, which I concluded were the Chinese equivalent for "Daddy wouldn't buy me a bow-wow."
I made a point of watching the effect of the successive pipes on myself carefully. As before, the first pipe had no effect at all ; after the second pipe I found I was beginning to perspire gently, and the skin was soft and relaxed, exactly as if I had been taking Dover's powder. From this it struck me that opium-smoking might be useful in muscular rheumatism. I smoked five pipes one after the other, and fancied that the action of the heart was slightly depressed ; but beyond this 1 felt nothing whatever. I had been chatting with my host as he managed my pipe for me, and had ascertained that there were no public restaurants, the cooking being done in the boarding-houses; nor was there a public "joss" house ; my host had his "joss " in a special room in his own house. As time was getting on I rose to leave, and received several friendly nods and grins from the other men there. After I had left the place about a quarter of an hour, I began to find that the opium was taking effect. My limbs felt as if they did not belong to me; I could control them, but they seemed to be a part of some one else. My brain seemed quite clear and very active, but I became aware that it was doing the thinking on its own account; I could not govern or direct the chain of my thoughts, which proceeded in the most grotesque order, the most irrelevant ideas following one another, and getting mixed up with the ideas called up by external surroundings. My sight, too, was affected ; I fancied there was a very faint haze over everything, and it seemed as if the power of adjustment was lost, and size and distance were difficult to determine. I had slight hallucinations also for instance, I was, for a moment, certain that a centipede about four or five inches long, with a chain round it, was walking up my leg ; at the same time I know it was only a vision, and that it arose from my having seen during the day a man in the street selling one of the reptile toys which run along and are held by a string. Soon after I found the greatest difficulty in keeping my eyes open, though my brain was still abnormally active; this passed on; and I felt no ill effects of any kind; and I may mention that next morning I had neither headache nor the least feeling of discomfort of any kind.
     Certainly this will not be my last trial ; the experience was sufficiently interesting to snake me curious to carry it a point further, and see what the dreams of the actual opium sleep are like. I think also it might be useful if the subject were investigated by medical men, to see if opium smoking might not be found a convenient way of administering the drug to patients who otherwise cannot take it without the stomach being upset. As for the so-called "dens," they seemed to me simply poorly fitted social clubs, and certainly as free from anything visibly objectionable as, to say the least of it, public-houses of the same class.
Pall Mall Gazette, 1893
What I do find interesting is that I've never come across a description of a West End opium den. They are invariable the cliché of a grimy back-street in Limehouse, run by the Chinese. It seems to me unlikely, prima facie, that they weren't some upmarket examples by 1900. In particular, there were no legal restrictions on opiates - you could buy opium for medicinal use in tincture or pill form - so organised recreational use by the upper-classes seems likely. The only examples I can find are foreign, and the shocked tone of the press articles perhaps suggests that such things would simply not be reported in London, even if they were discovered:



The New York papers describe a raid recently made on a fashionable opium-smoking den by Detective Casey. When admitted, Casey found himself in a veritable fairy palace. The room into which he was ushered was magnificently furnished in Oriental style. The windows were darkened by plush hangings, suggestive pictures hung about the walls, Turkish divans were arranged against the walls, and light was furnished by a shaded lamp that stood upon a table in the centre of the room and shed a sort of crimson twilight glow. Beside the lamp on the table lay a complete opium outfit of the most expensive character, the trays and lamps being of solid silver, richly engraved and ornamented, while the pipes were profusely mounted, with the same metal, richly chased. On two of the divans lay a man and a woman wearing rich dressing robes, and in a corner of the room sat a woman plainly dressed, and with a three-year-old boy on her lap. The detective was invited to take a seat, and the woman who had admitted him, taking one of the pipes from the table, lit it and took a position on a vacant divan, where she enjoyed the delicious ecstacy of the seductive drug.
The Blackburn Standard and Weekly Express, 1893

The writer, you will note, quite enjoys setting this scene of dissipation, so we might be a bit cautious at taking it at face value. More restrained is the following:


The police last week raided a fashionable opium den just off the Arc de Triomphe in the Rue de l'Etoile, Paris. The furniture was seized and the place closed. The proprietress, a French Woman, the widow of a recently deceased Chinaman, who held a high official position in Paris, was left at liberty. Eight ladies and gentlemen were found on the premises smoking opium and drinking laudanum. Their names and addresses were taken, and it is understood they are to be prosecuted. All are well known in society. The resort was the habitual rendevous of retired colonial officers, army officers, and others who had lived in the East, while it was also the custom of society women to make frequent visits to the place.
Illustrated Police News, 1900

I'm fairly certain that such prosecutions could not happen in London, except perhaps for 'keeping a disorderly house'. Anyone know anything about US or French 19th C. drug laws!?


  1. That's very interesting! I take it that the cliche opium dens were more frequented by poorer people?

  2. I think mostly sailors who knew opium smoking from trips to China.

  3. Ah Lee, that was exactly what I was looking for! Your blog contains so many gold nuggests! Thank you so much!
    Man, that were quite a number of exclamation marks...

  4. That was very interesting.

    - googled smoking opium