Editor’s Note: In a “ripped from the headlines” post, guest blogger Adam Rathge historicizes the recent episode of the Florida face-eater, drawing parallels between the contemporary panic over bath salts and 1930’s-era alarm over “reefer madness.” A PhD candidate in History at Boston College, Adam is at work on a dissertation entitled “The Origins of Marijuana Prohibition, 1870-1937.”
On May 26, a 31-year-old man named Rudy Eugene tore off the clothes of a homeless man under a highway in Miami, Florida and then ripped off parts of the victim’s face with his teeth. According to witnesses, when a uniformed police officer shouted at him to stop, the attacker allegedly looked up, growled, and then “kept eating the other guy away.”The officer then shot Eugene at least five times before he fell dead on the scene. The damage, however, was done. Much of the victim’s face was gone; his skin ripped away, nose bitten and his eyes gouged. Given the horrific nature of the event, news reports immediately spread around the country, with most observers wondering the same thing: what could possibly make a person eat someone’s face? The answer, of course, was drugs.
Reports from the Miami Herald show that local police initially theorized the attacker might have been suffering from “cocaine psychosis,” a drug-induced craze that bakes the body internally and often leads the user to strip naked to try and cool off. Speculation on the internet suggested it was a mix of hard drugs, or perhaps a bad batch of LSD, or even the beginning of a Zombie apocalypse. Just days later all of these theories were put to rest when the head of the Miami police union publicly speculated that Eugene was actually on “bath salts” – a range of synthetic stimulants that mimic the effects of marijuana, cocaine, and other illegal substances. Though bath salts had previously been blamed for psychotic episodes and wild hallucinations in other cases around the country, the gruesome nature of the face-eating case helped fuel a growing fear and hysteria of these legally available substances. Instantly, and for weeks after, police speculation on Eugene’s alleged use of bath salts became fact, firmly solidified in the national media as other shocking stories about this new and horrific drug emerged.
To the general public much of this information undoubtedly seemed as novel as it was shocking. As a drug historian watching this story unfold, the developing narrative actually sounded pretty familiar: a sensational story, a new more-dangerous-than-ever-before drug, and law enforcement officials clamoring for strict laws to combat it, all combining to drive a nationwide panic.