The Needle and the Damage Done

I’ve seen the needle and the damage done
A little part of it in everyone
But every junkie’s like a settin’ sun.”  — Neil Young

Morphine may have been legal in 1910, but it wasn’t being distributed for free. If you were an addict, you’d still have had to find the money to pay for your drug of choice. Faced with the difficulty of obtaining the necessary funds, one creative Angelino devised an unusual plan.

The unidentified hophead spun an imaginative tale to the managers of several local plumbing establishments. He told the gullible men that he was representing a medical institute, explaining that it was headed by a New York physician who was planning to occupy an entire floor of the Alexandria Hotel!

According to the man, the doctor hadn’t yet spoken with the management of the Alexandria; however, he had been engaged to find a plumbing company that could handle the installation of several very large and extremely heavy bathtubs.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the “glib tongued drugster” then produced plans which called for the placement of the tubs, which were eight feet long, six feet wide, made of lead-lined iron, and described as “big enough to hold a dray horse”.

 Blinded by visions of a job worth at least one thousand dollars ($24,049.74 current USD) and some priceless publicity, the plumbers didn’t look too closely at the man who was pitching such a sweet deal. And they also never questioned the absurdity of operating a medical institute in the Alexandria Hotel! If they’d paid attention, they’d have seen what Mr. J.A. Hooser (of Hooser & Buchanan, 1302 South Main Street) ultimately observed.

Mr. Hooser admitted that he’d initially believed the man’s story. He told a reporter that “I fell for the song. He was a clean-cut fellow enough, and fairly well dressed, as far as I saw…but when he was on his way out, I noticed that the coat tails he wore were a bit frayed and that his shoes were laced with twine.” Mr. Hooser went on to say: “Right there I did not think much of the job and scolded myself for wasting time with a crank. But the next day I found out that this same fellow borrowed a two dollar tape from the shop after showing my tinner his arm full of hypodermic needle marks to prove that his New York doctor had cured him.”

Apparently the man had run the same scam all over town, “borrowing” tape from Hooser’s shop, tools from another – all of which he then sold for drug money.

Maybe the anonymous drugster should have used his ill-gotten gains and visited one of the many doctors in SRO Land who claimed to treat addiction. But then, the treatment that they used may have done more harm than good.At that time one of the most aggressively marketed treatments for morphine addiction was heroin!

Ironically, heroin (a derivative of morphine first successfully synthesized in 1897 by the Bayer Company) was thought to be a non-addictive substitute for morphine. Bayer’s intentions may have been good; but we all know what the road to hell is paved with.

Can a company seek redemption? If so, maybe Bayer has already been forgiven. Around the same time that they launched heroin, Bayer introduced another drug that would have an enormous impact on the world – aspirin.

Scandal at Highland Asylum for the Insane

Second and Spring Streets, ca. 1920
Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

F.E. Howard would have plied his trade as a druggist at Dean’s Drugstore on 2nd and Spring Street in relative anonymity if it weren’t for the outcry raised by nurses at his former workplace, the Southern California Hospital for the Insane at Highland.

Allegations of cruel and inhuman abuse of the inmates at Highland surfaced in the summer of 1903, after San Bernardino papers published a series of investigations into graft and financial irregularities at the institution.  The nurses charged that female patients were routinely operated on without the benefit of anesthesia, and were punished by “protective sheeting” or immobilization in their beds under sheets of heavy canvas, sometimes for weeks at a time.  The nurses also testified to the common punishment known as “giving the hypo”, hypodermic injections of apomorphia, a violent emetic that causes hours of agonizing cramps, followed by hours of vomiting and eventual collapse. The injections were repeated usually twice a day, for five days at a time, for such mild infractions as insubordination and “talking in excess.”

State Hospital at Highland
Image courtesy of USC Digital Archives

Before he signed on as an assistant at Dean’s Drugs, F.E. Howard worked for two years as the druggist at Highland, and kept written records from his tenure that supported the nurses’ testimony.  He supplied the names of over forty victims of the body-wrenching, organ destroying emetic punishment, as well as the date the drug was administered. He also testified that the drug hyosine was used to punish recalcitrant patients, a medication which works on the kidneys and puts the victim to sleep.  He alleged that at least one patient died as a result of a punitive hyosine injection.  

In addition Mr. Howard provided records that supported allegations of graft and fraud in the institution.  Highland’s Superintendent Dr. Campbell, and chief medical officer Dr. Dolan rewarded his whistle-blowing with swift law-suits, accusing Howard of stealing government records.  But they were unable to deflect the public outcry, or the findings of the investigation ordered by the Board of Directors of the state institution.  By the end of the Highland scandal, both men resigned under pressure. Anticipating his own dismissal, a lower level official committed suicide on the grounds of the asylum.  One year after leaving Highland, Dr. Dolan also departed this life.  Whether he succumbed to heart disease or died by his own hand remains a mystery to this day.

Drug Ring Agent Caught with the Goods on Main Street

410 S. Main Street, site of drug bust in 1919 Smuggling drugs into Los Angeles, then and now, is a risky profession. Ask Main street resident, Charles Whittaker, whom police busted for dealing morphine and other narcotics in April 1919. Police Detectives Canto, Vernand, Winn and O’Brien caught Whittaker with a small box, containing 1000 morphine tablets valued at $1000, in his possession. According to police, a drug ring in San Francisco had been mailing packages of narcotics to Whittaker at his 410 South Main Street residence. Investigators told the Los Angeles Times that four packages of 1000 tablets each had been delivered to Whittaker a month for the past year. Whittaker, a grocery salesman, claimed he had no knowledge of what was in the package in his possession and did not know the senders. Perhaps he was just holding it for a friend who had ducked into Marks-Fram Co. next door at 412 S. Main Street (pictured above) to pick up a few postcards. Illustration credit: Brent C. Dickerson’s A Visit to Old Los Angeles site