Time Machine

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On December 28 the evil specter of drug abuse reared its polychromatic head in the pages of the New York Herald . Under the headline WHOLE TOWN MAD FOR COCAINE appeared the sorry tale of South Manchester, Connecticut, where addiction was so widespread that “hundreds of persons have become slaves to the stuff.” The problem had begun when a local druggist compounded a cure for catarrh, a respiratory illness, out of cocaine (then a common nonprescription drug), menthol, lactose, and magnesia. The prescription worked so well that catarrh cases skyrocketed.

Soon devotees were congregating in dark corners to share a pinch of the precious remedy. Strangers stopped one another on the street to beg for a fix. Some “hard working and usually frugal mechanics” put five dollars’ worth—about half the typical wage—up their noses every week. One druggist complained that “well known men and women went to his house at all hours of the night and made him go to the store and get the stuff for them, threatening if he did not that they would break into the place.” A reporter said it was common to see a trolley conductor or motorman “take out a bottle, shake a white powder in his palm and then sniff it with intense satisfaction and a long drawn sigh of relief.” Some residents found in the newspaper’s report an explanation of the strange behavior they had been noticing. A schoolteacher “had known that some of her charges had a white powder, which they appeared to be playing with, but the nature of it was unknown to her until she read the HERALD .”

A few days later S. Weir Mitchell of Philadelphia, a sixty-seven-year-old doctor and novelist whom one critic has called “conservative to the point of reaction,” gave the Herald his account of a recent medical experiment. Mitchell, a distinguished physiological researcher, had gotten some New Mexican mescal beans from a colleague, and one day he took the extract from six and a half of them and recorded his reactions.

The earliest effects were “great gastric discomfort,” dilated pupils, “a slight sense of exhilaration,” and “a tendency to talk.” Dr. Mitchell continued his medical rounds, visiting and treating patients as he noted these symptoms. Later, while sitting at his desk at home, the doctor became aware of “a transparent, violet haze” about his pen point and felt “a certain sense of the things about me as having a more positive existence than usual.” Reading and writing became more labored, and he noticed “tiny points of light, like stars or fireflies,” as well as “fragments of stained glass windows.”

At this point the dogged researcher went upstairs and lay in a dark room, “hoping for still better things in the way of color.” He got them: floating chromatic films, another shower of white points, brightly colored zigzag lines, puffy clouds in vivid hues, and a spear that turned into an elaborate Gothic tower surrounded by statues and hung with jewels that dripped color. Next came a surrealistic landscape dominated by a gigantic bird claw, followed by a hundred-foot brown worm with flailing green and red tentacles that rotated “like a Catherine wheel” while two leather-clad dwarfs smoked long green pipes. Mitchell’s final vision, which for some reason he found the strangest of all, was “a beach, which I knew to be that of Newport,” washed by colored waves.

Mitchell predicted “a perilous reign for the mescal habit” if the drug became widely available. Commenting on the report, Harper’s Weekly admitted mescal’s “curious and interesting peculiarities” but doubted that it would ever “supersede the familiar exhilaration produced by John Barleycorn.”