When Joseph Jarrow’s melodrama, “The Queen of Chinatown,” played at Heuck’s Over-the-Rhine theater, reviewers praised its authenticity. The Cincinnati Post [27 January 1900] claimed the play offered a “correct portrayal” of life in New York’s Chinatown. That portrayal involved a gambling joint, a slum mission, a Bowery concert hall and, of course, an opium den. Four Chinese actors were in the road cast that came to Cincinnati; more Chinese lent authenticity to the original Broadway show. The production was marketed with magnificent posters produced by Cincinnati’s own Strobridge Litho Company.
Cincinnati was all about opium dens around that time. Coney Island’s annual autumn festival in 1899 featured a replica opium den among the freaks and geeks on the midway. The Harris Museum, a sort of vaudeville hall inside the Robinson Opera House on the northeast corner of Ninth and Plum, announced “the most sensational comedy of the age.” This 1888 extravaganza featured an opium den and an exploding steamboat.
Opium dens had the exotic allure of far-off locations like New York and San Francisco. But Cincinnatians did not have to go to the theater to see an authentic opium den. For more than 50 years, from around 1880 into the 1930s, good, old-fashioned, Chinese-run opium dens offered dreams and delirium right here in the Queen City.
Cincinnati’s first real exposure to opium dens came in 1882 when somebody attacked William Todd in a “pipe joint” run by Sam Wing. Todd, no angel himself, had irritated some tough guys in a saloon out on Longworth Street, then retreated to Wing’s “rickety old structure” on Walnut Street north of Sixth to smoke. Three men rushed in, slammed a boulder into Todd’s head and stabbed him three times. Todd somehow survived and appeared in court to testify against his assailants. According to the Cincinnati Post [1 August 1882], Todd readily confessed to addiction:
“He said he had been ordered to smoke [opium] by a physician. Ever since he took the first whiff, he has had a craving for it, and is never happy unless he has it. He says he can smoke four to five pipes without feeling it in the least, and when it did affect him, the sensation was different from what other people say they experience. It does not make him delirious neither does he have pleasant dreams. It simply makes him stupid.”
That was not the reaction of a Cincinnati Post reporter who described [29 November 1883] his experiences in an opium den located “only two squares from the Grand Hotel on Fourth Street.”
“At first a dreamy sort of languor began slowly to steal over him. His eyes half-closed, and between the partly drawn curtains he could see the dimly lit hall, with the flowers and birds, and hear the tiny ‘drip-drip’ of the fountain. Then the hall changed, and it appeared to him to no longer be a room, but a garden fair in some far-off land.”
Police and city officials were far from entranced by the opium smokers in the city. Some of their hostility was racial, it is certain, because all the local dens had some connection to Chinese residents. Part of their frustration grew out of the legality of opium at this time. On the same page of a newspaper reporting a crime involving an opium den, readers could find a recipe for home remedies incorporating opium. Mostly, the city fathers just couldn’t abide “pipe fiends.” Here is the Cincinnati Enquirer [10 August 1884] reporting on opium smokers gathered on Longworth Street:
“They stand along the sidewalk, in front of the saloons and cigar shops, with a half-dozen pipes under their felts nearly all the time, and a sickening sight they are, with their sallow complexion and half-drunken appearance.”
In addition to the racial aspect, there was also a sexual component to the community’s concerns because opium had quite a following among the loose women of the town. The newspapers, missing no opportunity to titillate, made sure to play up this angle, as in this item from the Cincinnati Enquirer [9 November 1883]:
“Pulling aside a curtain made of common calico two females were disclosed lying on the bunks on either side of the little eight by ten ‘joint.’ One, the landlady of a Longworth street house of ill-shame, was stretched out on her back with one lower limb across the other. One of her kid shoes was off and lying on the floor. Her dress was opened at the neck, and a yellow faced heathen who was preparing her third pipe occasionally patted her red and seemingly burning cheeks with his dirty hands. The woman, under the effects of two pipes, was in such a condition as to lose what little modesty she ever possessed.”
But it was not only the foreigners, the criminal and the poor who “hit the pipe” in Cincinnati. Reporters made regular tours of the opium dens around town – such exposés made great copy and often reported that distinguished businessmen (who remained anonymous, of course) were present and puffing away. The Enquirer [1 November 1891] describes a prosperous merchant who rented a cottage on Court Street near Central where, every evening, he met one of his female employees, not for sex but for the “long draw” of opium.
A 1914 Post story describes the raid on an opium den at 133 Shillito Place – that’s the building housing the Cincinnati Athletic Club – in which three women and three men were involved. The men escaped through the basement. Two women were arrested, but one woman “connected with a well-known Cincinnati family” was permitted to leave, along with the six-year-old child she had brought along! One of the arrested women also had a child present.
By the 1930s, American names disappear from the arrest reports. Federal law now outlawed the drug and opium seems to have been exclusively consumed by Chinese residents. A 1930 bust found opium dens at 34 West Court Street and 917 Elm. A 1935 raid at 919 Walnut Street netted four smokers and $200 worth of opium as well as some opium ash used to brew a narcotic (and undoubtedly nasty!) beverage.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.