Reflections on “Addicts Who Survived”: Willis Butler’s Narrative

Editor’s note: Not every interview conducted for Addicts Who Survived was of an addict.  The work includes some fascinating oral histories of individuals with notable roles in the modern history of addiction and the drug war.  Among these, Dr. Willis Butler, who operated one of the most notable narcotic maintenance clinics opened around the time of the Harrison Act and closed soon thereafter.  We’ll have commentary to Dr. Butler’s oral history tomorrow.


Willis Pollard Butler was the most celebrated and controversial of all the early clinic doctors. Born in modest circumstances in Gibsland, Louisiana, in 1888, Butler moved with his family to Shreveport in 1899, where he took a summer job as a drugstore delivery boy. (Ironically, his chores included the delivery of dram bottles of morphine to the local addicts.) He eventually worked his way through Vanderbilt Medical School, graduating in 1911. Returning home, he applied his talents as chemist and bacteriologist for the Shreveport Board of Health, until he was elected parish physician and coroner in 1916. He served in that capacity for no fewer than forty-eight years. When interviewed in 1978, he was over ninety years old.1

            Butler was above all else a superb politician. He was handsome, charming, articulate, and on a first-name basis with everyone who counted in Shreveport. That, together with the efficient and discriminating manner in which his clinic was run, assured local support and temporarily frustrated the designs of interloping federal agents.

            Although Butler’s memory was phenomenal for a man of his years, it should be borne in mind that his is only one side of the story, that the agents who hounded him and the doctors who turned on him can make no rebuttal. As Butler himself observed, “I don’t know anybody connected with it—top, bottom, or middle—still living except me.For the sake of confidentiality, the names of addicts mentioned by Butler have been changed, as have the names of those who may have violated the law.

I was health officer, medical examiner for this district, and parish physician. One day—it was the third of May, 1919—Dr. Oscar Dowling, president of the state board of health, came to Shreveport. As usual, he called me, because I was representing the state board of health up in northern Louisiana. He asked me down to the hotel to make a culture of his throat—he had a sore throat. I went down there to see him and, as we walked out of the hotel, he said, “Butler, you having any problem up here with addicts?” I said, “Yes. I don’t know about particular problems, but we got a lot of them. I’m having trouble with them in jail, and there’s an awful lot of thievery and that sort of thing going on, and the police say that a lot of them are responsible.” He said, “Well, we have opened up a clinic down in New Orleans, under Dr. Marion Swords. I suggest that you come down there and see how it’s being done, because we have the approval of the government and the Treasury Department Narcotic Division. Maybe you could start the same thing up here.”

Well, I went to New Orleans. I knew Dr. Swords quite well; he was secretary-treasurer of the state board of health. He had this clinic right across from the courthouse on the corner of Conti Street; it looked like a little alley down in the French Quarter. What I saw was a bunch of derelicts coming in, and they were giving them a little vial—it looked like it might hold 15 or 20 cc. He said that they were putting morphine in there, a certain amount according to what they wanted them to start with. The next day, they would put in a little less, but the same amount of water. They were going to get them off of it by reduction. I said, “You don’t know much about addicts if you think that you can fool them as to whether they’re suffering or not.” I said I’d have nothing to do with that sort of thing at all, and I told Dr. Dowling that I did not want to assume any such responsibility.

So they called a meeting of the board of health in New Orleans. Governor John M. Parker was there-he was a running mate of Theodore Roosevelt for vice president. At the meeting I could see that the governor knew nothing about addiction at all. When I told him of the seriousness of the situation he said, “Well, why not just send them all up there to you?” That was ridiculous, of course. I said, “Governor, have you had any experience with addicts?” He said, “Well, I’ll tell you what happened to me as I was getting on the train this morning in Baton Rouge. A lady, a rather nice-looking lady, came up to me and said, ‘You’re Governor Parker?’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ She said, ‘I demand that you give me permission to get some morphine. I’ve got to have it; I’ll die without it.’ I didn’t believe it and said, ‘What would you do to get it?’ She said, ‘If necessary, I’d cut your throat.”’ Then he said to me, “It must be sort of serious.” I said, “You’re just beginning to learn.”

I came to Shreveport, and in the meantime I thought, “Well, this is not such a big proposition. I’ll write prescriptions.” For a short time, for each one that we examined once we had our organization set up, I wrote prescriptions and had them filled at one drugstore, the Shreveport Drug Store, by a Mr. John Scott, so we could keep the records straight. Well, I saw in no time that that was impractical. Then, just by trial and error, I worked at it and devised what finally developed into the outpatient and institutional treatment. Dr. Dowling gave his strong affirmation of the work—although he lied later and stated that he did not do it.

Some interesting complications came up because many very prominent people here didn’t know anything about narcotic addiction; all they knew was “dope fiends” and street characters and “hopheads” and that sort of thing. They didn’t know that, out of the sixteen hundred patients that I had, that many of them were the very most prominent people—financially and socially and politically-in this whole community, including two previous United States district attorneys, preachers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, real estate people … All of these were kept secret. I didn’t want to hurt anybody that would be on the clinic by exposing them to people who didn’t understand what it was all about. So I allowed them to sign their right name in a locked book that I kept secret, and to use an alias on the public register every time any dispensation of drugs was made. And, by the way, this dispensing was in order to prepare them to be placed in an institution that I established here, in which we detoxified over four hundred. Now, that was unless they were aged, infirm, or incurable. They all had a doctor’s certificate-and I had seven doctors sign, as a rule.

Our federal judge for the western district of Louisiana, George Whitfield Jack, came out and looked into it personally, because he was a very close friend of mine. Judge Jack said, “Well, I’ve never had anything quite like this, but it’s humane and it’s right. Looking over the names of these people, some of them that you have here, I’m thoroughly amazed.”

One day I was in the police station on some sort of business. Captain Bob was commissioner of public safety. He was a very wealthy oil man, elected to office as a plaything, more than anything else for him. He said to me, in the presence of two rather prominent local men, “Doc, you know I think it’s a shame the way you’re taking care of these hopheads, drug addicts, and scum around here in Shreveport. Tell you the truth, I think every one of them ought to be run in the river.” Well, I made no comment, except, about that time, these gentlemen excused themselves and went ahead. I said, “Cap’n Bob, let me speak to you personally in your office.” We walked into his little private office, closed the door, and he sat in his desk chair and I sat in another. I said, “Now, Cap’n Bob, you and I have been friends for many, many years. When I make a promise of secrecy, I do my best to keep it. Sometimes an occasion arises when you’ve got to apparently violate that promise. You said that all these people on my clinic ought to be run into the river.” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Well then, would it surprise you to know that your mother has been on that clinic for two years?”

He dropped his hands and looked at me. He said, “Doc, do you mean that?” I said, “I don’t say it if I don’t mean it, Cap’n Bob. You want to see the record—you’re entitled to it. It’s private, but if that’s what it takes … ” He said, “No, your word is good.”

After a few minutes of silence he said, “This startles me. Did anybody know this?” I said, “Yes, four people: me, your father, your mother’s family doctor, and John Scott, who’s a pharmacist that dispenses it. The other names I can’t give you, because she buyed it from bootleggers, in the alleys and so forth.” He said, “Well, that clarifies something in my mind. My mother is a wonderful, wonderful fine Christian woman. I’ve never given her any trouble. I’ve taken care of her, and I’m proud of her, and I love her. Just to think that she’s been going through this and I didn’t know it. And I have wondered—although it didn’t bother me—I have wondered why she had needed so much money in the last few years. She had no expenses.” I said, “Well, she’s been getting this money to pay bootleggers from one to three dollars a grain for codeine, mostly.”

He said, “I want to say something to you. From now on, if there’s anything in the world I can do for you, if you ever need help, you can call on me.” I said, “You mean that?” He said, “Yes, I do.” I said, “I’ll tell you what I want right now. Captain John Hudson is your chief of detectives. I want him assigned to my clinic as an inspector. I’m going to select Ted Voight of the health department as the other. I want these two men to work together and investigate, with any help they want, every person on that clinic.” He said, “No more said than done,” and up the hall we went. He got John Hudson—Cap’n Hudson, he was—and said, “You’re working for Dr. Butler from now on.” He got Ted Voight and told him the same thing. And I’ll say that every morning when that clinic was open those two men were there. They checked on everybody—no matter who, good or bad—in the first place, to see if they were sick, if they were legitimate, needed medicine, and so forth.

One way I checked on them, I fingerprinted every single one of them. We took their histories, we fingerprinted them. At that time, the FBI wasn’t organized like it is today; it was in Leavenworth, Kansas. I sent as many as six hundred sets of fingerprints up there at one time and got a report on every one of them-to see if they were wanted anywhere, you know. The first time I sent a batch off to Leavenworth, by the time I got the report back, fourteen of my patients had left town. Every one of them was wanted somewhere. That’s the way we cleaned up transients from coming through here. Then we limited it to our own citizens, unless there was some reason.

We learned pretty early in the game that Shreveport was sort of being made a mecca to bring them in from other states here. That’s why I instituted the fingerprints and got the investigators on the job. Not only did they investigate them, but they went to verify if they worked where they said they’d worked, lived where they said they’d lived. They gave me reports—not always written—but if there was anything wrong they’d always let me know and we’d take action. If they weren’t wanted somewhere, we’d take them on at the clinic. Until, until—I don’t know what date—but later on we did limit it to Louisiana. But I wouldn’t be too sure we weren’t imposed upon. You know, it’s pretty hard: somebody comes here to Shreveport and lives here and they’ve got a residence and somebody’s going to tell you that they’re there … In all of this time, remember, I didn’t have one solitary single dime from the government to run this thing with. I was buying the medicine from a St. Louis wholesale house; I was paying about two to three cents a grain for it, and I was letting them have it at five or six cents—it varied. Well, that little difference in there is what paid running the clinic.

Now, in combination with this clinic, and as a very essential part of it, was a venereal disease clinic. A tremendous number of people had venereal disease. Syphilitic aortitis was just as common … we don’t see it now like we used to. I was one of the three in the whole United States that had charge of Salvarsan and Neosalvarsan when Ehrlich discovered it. I started using it here in Shreveport—nobody’d ever done a Wassermann before I came here. It could have been that some of these people came to be treated, not only for their drug addiction, but for their venereal disease. But, anyway, whether they did or not, we found out whether they had it. Every single one of them had a VDRL or a Wassermann test made on them. If we found that they had a disease of one kind or another, we didn’t try to take them off the drug. We let them have it until the remedy was there. Then, when they had no other reason, you could take them off with the expectation they’d stay off.

The clinic started on May the third, 1919, and ended on March the

thirteenth, 1925.2 They ordered me to close it two or three times and I said, “I’m not going to do it.” The crooked narcotic inspectors came here with the deliberate purpose of doing what their superiors had told them to do, “Go there and get Butler. He’s got the only clinic left. We’ve ordered him closed. We’re going to stand behind that order, right or wrong, and he’s got to be closed.” I just didn’t knuckle down and close. I fought it for two years, until I got down to twenty-one incurable, old, infirm patients. I turned all of them over to their own family doctors to take care of and then I deliberately closed the clinic myself.

The situation got so bad here after I closed the clinic—it was worse than before it opened. I didn’t try to follow it up too closely, but the police told me and the papers had reports about thievery and robbery. And I recognized plenty of the names.

The majority of the inspectors sent in here were just such crooks and scum and scalawags and downright . . . well, there was nothing they wouldn’t do. And I caught one or two of them. As an illustration, there happened to be a Dr. Wilcox in New York, who was a friend of Dr. Terry’s.3 Wilcox was a man evidently of some means and standing. He had by carelessness and self-medication gotten himself to where he needed help. He didn’t want to go to somewhere in New York City to do that, so Sidney Howard4 and Dr. Terry got me to let him come down here. When I met him he had the credentials to show who he was. He proved to be a legitimate doctor and a very nice man, younger than I was.

When he got here he had a glass jar with a ground glass top full of white powder-I would say there were about six ounces in there-which proved to be morphine sulfate. So I took that. Everything we confiscated we labeled, saying where we got it and what it all was. Then, after I had weighed it and measured it and knew exactly what it was, I turned it over to the federal district attorney, so he’d give it to some inspector.

In a few days, an inspector came by to pick all of this up from the district attorney. Well, this inspector happened to come into my office one morning—his name was Cutler. He had with him a state narcotic inspector and another federal narcotic inspector. He introduced himself, showed his credentials, and told me who these other gentlemen were—they sat silently there. He said, “I want to look through all of your records.” I said, “All right, it’s about ten o’clock in the morning now.” This was at the Schumpert Sanitarium, where I had my clinic. I watched him and he looked through things carefully. The other men said nothing. Finally, as the morning wore on, I noticed him getting a little bit shaky—he was using a pencil and a tablet to write things down on. After a little while he said, “Well, Dr. Butler, it’s time to go to lunch. We’ll go to lunch and come back.” I said, “No sir, it won’t be convenient to me at all. You stay here till you finish, whatever time it takes. It’s open to you now, but it won’t be open all day long. I can’t do that. We’ve got work to do here, patients sick, and so forth.” He said, “Well, all right.” He got a little bit more shaky, and I saw then that he was in the withdrawal symptoms.

I said, “Mr. Cutler, you have asked me an awful lot of questions. You went over to Miss Skelton’s home—she’s a hunchback, cripple, incurable; and you went to Mr. Meyer’s home—Mr. Meyer owns the Meyer Building, he’s one of our most prominent and wealthy citizens; and you went to others and you demanded that you would be able to inspect their homes and see what they had in there with no warrants or anything. I want to tell you that I resent it. Now I’m going to ask you something: how much morphine do you use a day?”

Well, he shook and dropped his pencil and pad on the floor. He picked them up and he said, “I won’t stay here and be insulted.” I said, “Insulted, nothing. I just asked you a plain question. I know you’re an addict. I know that you’re taking it; you’re in withdrawal symptoms now—that’s why you want to leave. And you’re not leaving here till I’m satisfied about it.”

Now, I spoke awhile ago about this Dr. Wilcox coming from New York and bringing his morphine with him, and how I measured it and it was later picked up. The district attorney had gotten it back, and when I measured it again, it was about a dram and a half short. I knew this when Cutler was sitting there in my office. I accused him of being an addict,  then I asked him, “What happened to the medicine? I’d like for you to know that I measured it before I turned it in, and we’ve got it back and there’s a dram and a half gone out of it. Nobody had it but you.” Cutler said to the other two, “Come on, fellas,” and out they went. Just as they were leaving, my secretary and bookkeeper and some of the technicians who were training there said, “Dr. Butler, we’re afraid you’ve made a big mistake.” I said, “No sir, I know better. We’ve got a jail full of that sort.”

About that time the phone rang. I answered it and said, “Dr. Butler.” The speaker said, “This is Mr. Ernest. I’m one of the men with Mr. Cutler. You don’t know how glad we are of what you told that man. You’re right. If it becomes necessary, we’ll back you up in it. But you’re completely right.” I said, “I feel sure, and I appreciate it and I thank you about it, and I’m going to get a warrant out for him if I can catch him.” And I notified Attorney General Palmer in Washington about it. But the attorney general didn’t do a thing in the world except transfer him to Indianapolis, Indiana.

I got no support from the federal government at all. Now, they did send one man here named Fraser. This man Fraser was, I think, next to Colonel Nutt.5 He came down here—he proved to be a perfect gentleman in every way. I drove him around and he told me about little things that might happen that would be all right but could cause me trouble. He was really very helpful. He showed that they did at least have one man who was honorable and honest and all. But, unfortunately, he left here and they moved him to Pensacola or Jacksonville, Florida, and his wife shot him in a post office. [Laughs.] I don’t know what that was all about.

Huey Long and I were pretty close together for a long time, till I learned him. If he couldn’t use you, he didn’t need you anymore. But, anyway, we were strong friends and supporters for a long time. Huey Long walked into the federal courtroom one day and told me, “Doc, why don’t you tell your friends when you’re in trouble?” I said, “What do you mean, ‘in trouble’?” He said, “I’ll tell you: the federal grand jury.” Well, I thought about that. I went on downstairs to the elevator and there was a man standing there. He said, “Dr. Butler, my name is Knight”—a well known family up here from Benton—”I’m not supposed to say anything about this, but somebody’s trying to pull off something pretty dirty against you. I just wanted you to know about it.” Well, I didn’t know what it could be, and I went on home still wondering.

About seven o’clock the phone rang: “That you, Doc?” I said, “Yeah.” “This is Huey. Can you come down here?” I said, “Who’s there with you, Huey?” He said, “Alice Lee.” Alice Lee Grosjean was his secretary and lady Friday—at least.

When I walked in there, Alice Lee went into her own office, but I saw an old gentleman sitting there. I don’t mean this in a derogatory sense at all, but you could see he was “rural”—he was roughed up a little. Huey said, “Mr. Ewell, this is my friend Dr. Butler. I want you to tell him just what you’ve told me. You can trust Dr. Butler. You tell him.” Mr. Ewell said, “I’m a member of the federal grand jury, and I know I’m not supposed to talk, but Dr. Dowling has come up before the grand jury and brought a whole lot of stuff, all against you. I just told my friend Huey here, and Huey said you were his friend.” I said, “Well, I don’t know what’s going on.”

Huey said, “I’ll tell you what you do. You’ve got all your records, haven’t you?” I said, “Sure, I’ve got them exactly as best I can up to date.” He said, “Well, you get your records all together and turn them over to Tom Hughes”—Tom was sheriff, and I guess my closest friend—”and ask Tom Hughes to give them to Phillip Mecom”—the district attorney—”in the morning. I’ll take it from there.” Well, I called Tom Hughes and told him what Huey had said and gave the records to him. Tom Hughes took them over to give them to Phillip Mecom. Then, next thing I knew, the case was thrown out.

Dr. Dowling got on the corner post office steps there and publicly stated, where a dozen people heard it, that he was mad that Shreveport was full of addicts and there were not more than twelve doctors here who were not involved in it [overprescribing]. I didn’t hear it, but a lot of people heard it. Rupert Peyton, who was a Louisiana representative, but also a reporter, came and told me. I went to the president of the medical society and told him. He called a meeting for that night of the medical society to expel Dr. Dowling, or give him a chance to make an explanation why he’d make that statement. He did his darndest to crawfish out of it. He also purposely and deliberately got up before the meeting and stated that he had never endorsed this clinic’s work. I produced twenty-two letters right there, signed by him, where he had endorsed it. I had very little to say except, “Gentlemen, this is the record: one or the other of us is a liar, and you can determine which one it is.”

One hundred and six members were there. It had to be unanimous to expel him, but he got one vote, so he wasn’t expelled. Dr. Dowling’s partner, Dr. John Scales—one of the finest Christian men and friends that I had-wouldn’t vote against him. Dr. Dowling said to me, “I’m going to see that you’re sent to Atlanta if it’s the last thing I ever do”—there happened to be a penitentiary there. From then on, the poor man, he had a stroke and fell off of a train on a ferry crossing the Mississippi and was crushed to death.

Dr. Dowling was my friend—I thought. He had been in my home, and we had talked about things, being alumni of the same school. I just can’t understand it. But, in my own mind, I feel real sure that, when Dr. Dowling got the word that the headquarters up in Washington had made up their mind that they were going to close the clinics, he switched just like that and later denied that he had supported it. Dowling was scared of Washington-that’s the whole thing.

I don’t think I was treated fair, but I’m glad I went through it. I remember coming home one day to my wife, bless her heart. I’d been to this medical meeting where Dr. Dowling stated he was going to send me to Atlanta if it was the last thing he did. I didn’t know what a character like that might do-if they indict you, they don’t expect to convict you; if they can just stir up something, they’ve done the damage. My wife was on the bed, and I said, “Well, I’ll tell you, this thing’s just about gotten out of hand. I don’t know how much longer I can take it.” I said something about “sending me to Atlanta.” And her remark was, “Well, if you go, I’m going with you.” To me, that gave me one of the biggest boosts. I decided then that neither one of us was going. I hadn’t left anything over there in Atlanta, and I wasn’t going back for it.


1. This was not the first time Buder had been interviewed. Portions of a previous interview appear in Dan Waldorf, Martin Orlick, and Craig Reinarman, Morphine Maintenance: The Shreveport Clinic, 1919-1923 (Washington, D.C.: Drug Abuse Council, 1974).  The anecdotes related in the two interviews are generally similar, although details and sequences occasionally vary. Anyone wishing to explore the Shreveport episode further should compare both versions, as well as the account in Musto, The American Disease, 167-75.

2. The dispensing of drugs actually ceased on February 10, 1923. Only the detoxification facility remained open until 1925.

3. Charles Edward Terry, an authority on addiction who admired and supported Butler’s work.

4. A journalist and dramatist who published a favorable account of Butler’s clinic, “The Inside Story of Dope in this Country,” Hearst’s International 43 (June 1923), 24-28, 116,118–20.

5. It is possible that Buder misrecollected this name. We have been unable to verify Fraser’s position in the Prohibition Unit. Buder is correct, however, in identifying Nutt as the head of the

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Joe Spillane is Professor of History at the University of Florida. He has authored Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States (Johns Hopkins Press, 2000) and co-edited Federal Drug Control: The Evolution of Policy and Practice (Haworth Press, 2004).  More recently, he authored Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014). His current drug-related research agenda includes: the history and development of drug abuse liability assessment; reflections on the nature of drug epidemics; and examinations of drug war “harms” in historical context.

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