When ancient Egyptians began to grow opium poppies, it reduced their dependence on Middle Eastern opium. Two thousand years later, when India’s Mughal Empire encouraged farmers to grow opium poppies, it did the same. During the 19th century, when farmers in America made serious attempts to grow their own, they too were trying to free themselves from dependence on foreign opium.
Americans had first tried to create a domestic supply during the Revolutionary War, when supplies of the painkiller were cut off by Great Britain. In fact, injured soldiers were treated with homegrown opium from Charlestown, New Hampshire. Even Thomas Jefferson may have been involved. When not working on military and political strategies in the Virginia state government, he did his patriotic duty by growing opium poppies in his gardens, poppies that were still cultivated at Monticello until 1992, when they were pulled up and destroyed along with all seed packets of “Jefferson’s Monticello Poppies.” (There had been a drug bust at the University of Virginia, which was literally out the back door, and, spooked by the potential for bad publicity, Monticello’s board felt they had to take action. Jefferson’s invaluable poppies went from the endangered species list to extinction in a matter of hours.)
Contemporary writings after the Civil War point to growing interest in cultivation in America. In a special feature in 1810 of the American New Dispensatory—one of the few reliable sources of information about drugs for doctors at the time—James Thacher calculated that an acre of rich, well-cultivated poppies could produce 15 to 20 pounds of opium, and that the grower could earn about $70 per acre from it, making opium more profitable than most grains. He added that while it was a lot of work to collect the poppy juice, fortunately “by far the greatest part of the whole labour of the season, may be performed by women and children.” In conclusion, Thacher argued, “Every effort, therefore, to effect an object so truly interesting and important ought to be duly encouraged and rewarded.”
Beyond the money to be made, Thacher’s rationale for why Americans ought to focus on cultivating homegrown poppies was his concern that foreign supplies might be adulterated. He should have been equally concerned about domestic supplies. For example, during the 1860s, an enterprising Vermonter named Welcome C. Wilson claimed to be able to manufacture more than 100 pounds of opium per acre of poppies. He tried to leverage his success by selling his spectacular seeds and custom processing equipment. The scientists to whom he sent the samples for testing, however, determined that the opium he claimed came from his special poppies was laced with a good deal of already-processed Turkish opium. (Even now, in a good year, Afghani growers are happy if they can eke out a mere 25 pounds per acre.)
He wasn’t the only huckster making hyperbolic claims. Before Wilson’s downfall, one of his main competitors was fellow Vermonter Dr. Jonathan Moore, who used the opium from his garden to formulate Dr. Moore’s Essence of Life, an elixir recommended for “consumption, difficult breathing, quinsy, spitting of blood, flatulence, fits, and hypochondriac afflictions.”
One particularly interesting cultivation experiment in America took place at an unlikely place: the settlement in Mount Lebanon, New York, of the United Society of Believers, better known as the Shakers, a group known for their hard work, extraordinary craftsmanship, and religious devotion as well as their practices of communal living, celibacy, and pacifism. They believed in racial and gender equality and, most of all, giving their “hands to work and hearts to God.” Gardening was an integral part of Shaker life and faith. They believed they had a mission to transform the soil from “rugged barrenness into smiling fertility and beauty.” As it turned out, they were opium dealers.
The Shakers planted a total of 200 acres of medicinal plants in their communities, with 50 at Mount Lebanon alone, and processed almost 300 varieties of indigenous and imported natural ingredients. (There were more than two dozen Shaker communities founded in the 1800s, primarily in the northeast.) While famous for their seeds (which they were among the first to sell in printed paper packets), the Shakers earned as much if not more selling what passed for medicine at the time. Many of these remedies were single-plant extracts of everything from aconite to yellow bark. Others were cures for coughs, insomnia, asthma, even coloring gray hair. “Gray hair,” their label read, “may be honorable, but the natural color is preferable.” They also produced endless remedies for distressed bowels, which have evidently been the bane of humanity since ancient Sumeria—and for which naturally constipating opium would have been an excellent drug. But they saved their most exuberant claims—and their opium—for an elixir called “Pain King.”
In a country overflowing with tinctures and panaceas, the Shakers claimed the high ground with Pain King, the “Absolute Monarch of Distress and Suffering.” “The King of All Great Pain Destroyers,” Pain King provided “instant” relief for pain associated with sprains, burns, wounds, toothache, neuralgia, sore throat, diarrhea, and even diphtheria. According to one customer, “It not only gives relief, but it cures.” That customer was so enthusiastic, he asked for a double order, perhaps figuring that, like drug users throughout history, he could sell some to cover his costs and feed his own habit for free.
Reassuringly for such a high-powered product, its label said it was “perfectly safe,” and gave instructions on how to administer it for different conditions: gargle and apply externally to treat a sore throat; hold half a teaspoonful in your mouth for a toothache; and lie “on a wet cloth covered with cotton flannel for a backache.” Even if it would not pass today’s FDA guidelines, the Shakers followed a very precise formula that reflects careful research into the most effective ways to prepare the drug in order to benefit from its “active principle” along with other ingredients that they thought were complementary.
They describe the formula as “20 gal. water. 10 lbs. Witch Hazel bark stir every-day for one week. 20 gall. strong alcohol—oils Spruce Sassafras Peppermint Camphor gum, dissolve in separate portions of alcohol and mix altogether—Opium, reduce to a miscle condition with warm water and Masher till all parts are accessible to oil and water, after the former mixture has been put together and well stirred. Or find out by Dispensatory, or by The Pharmaceutical Journal what is the proper strength of Alcohol to extract the active principle of Opium and preceed accordingly then mix with the rest.” [sic]
The crop was an important part of the Shakers’ culture as well as finances. Shaker women collected the sap the same way Middle Eastern farmers had been doing for centuries. In 1906 Sister Marsha Bullard waxed eloquently about her memories of white-capped sisters “stooping among the blossoms to slit those pods from which the petals had just fallen. Again, after sundown they came out with little knives to scrape off the dried juice.” Sister Marsha also observed that its production was one of “the most lucrative as well as the most picturesque of our industries.”
If their consciences needed further balm, the Shakers could take some refuge in the fact that they filled a crucial need during the Civil War. Since they were pacifists, they petitioned President Lincoln to exempt them from serving in the military, which he granted reluctantly, grumbling that, given their strong character, they “ought to be made to fight [as] we need regiments of just such men as you.” Although they demurred, the Mount Lebanon Shakers did set aside 10 acres of poppies so they could supply opium for military doctors.
While in retrospect their involvement in the opium business may seem out of character for the Shakers and their contemporaries, it was just another ingredient, one of hundreds of the medicinal flowers and herbs they grew. While they were among the few Americans who found ways to grow poppies with a high enough morphine content to make a successful product, their crop still represented an insignificant percentage of the 50,000 pounds of Middle Eastern opium sold annually in New York City alone—an indication of just how lucrative domestic cultivation could have been.
Since opium had proven so effective in treating wounded soldiers in the Civil War, farmers continued to explore domestic cultivation—even after early reports of addiction among veterans began to appear. Scientific American, that most respected of science magazines, didn’t want earlier failures to discourage American entrepreneurs from trying to produce opium, and regularly wrote about ongoing experiments. The June 5, 1869, issue argued that poppy farming surely could succeed once farmers found the right soil and climate. One reporter said he’d seen it growing “spontaneously on every uncultivated spot” in Ohio and that, in Texas, “acres of poppies stood as thick as wheat in a wheat field; and yielded excellent opium” (July 3, 1869). Another issue that year remarked on the fact that the American Journal of Pharmacy had tested some laudanum made from Virginia opium and found it as good as any from Turkey, although they were fairly dismissive of attempts in Vermont.
But for a variety of reasons, American farmers never achieved sufficient economies of scale to attract enough investors to make opium poppies a major cash crop. Even after a farmer in Minnesota named Emil Weschcke grew Papaver somniferum that yielded a more than respectable 15 percent morphine, the Department of Pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin didn’t believe it was possible to grow it efficiently enough to make it viable (which is odd, since that compares favorably to Turkish opium). By the end of the century, Scientific American finally threw in the towel, placing the blame squarely on the fact that there wasn’t enough cheap labor (March 5, 1898). They were undoubtedly right. After all, even the much-admired Shakers had relied on child labor for the labor-intensive harvesting of the poppies, and in the late 1800s the increasingly powerful labor movement was finally beginning to make that source of labor a thing of the past.
Excerpted from the book Opium: How an Ancient Flower Shaped and Poisoned Our World by John Halpern and David Blistein, published on Aug. 13, 2019 by Hachette Books, a division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright 2019 John Halpern and David Blistein.