Editor’s Note: Today we conclude the series with Amund Tallaksen’s piece entitled, “The Transatlantic Heroin Traffic and the City of New Orleans.” The other posts in this series can be found here, here, and here.
In 1968, the recently formed Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Criminal Justice concluded that: “there is no longer an organized narcotics syndicate in New Orleans. During the early 1950’s the Mafia left the narcotics business in this area. Since that time, the heroin business in this city has been almost completely taken over by several Negroes who are working independently and in competition with each other.”
Three interrelated events in the early 1950s transformed the patterns of heroin use and addiction in New Orleans: (1) the passage of a very strict drug law by the state legislature in Baton Rouge in 1951; (2) the conscious decision by the New Orleans Mafia to step back from the drug trade, and instead focus on less risky endeavors; and (3) the rise of a new cohort of African American drug dealers who would create interstate smuggling routes to New Orleans from cities like New York and Chicago.
Before World War II, the port of New Orleans had served as one of the United States’ most important entry-points for illicit heroin: some of it ended up in the veins of (the mostly white) local users; the rest was transported to cities across the South and Midwest. One researcher, who published a 1926 report about addiction in Louisiana, referred to New Orleans as the “hypodermic needle feeding the entire Middle West with illicit drugs.” World War II, however, largely ended commercial shipping across the Atlantic and, as a result, addicts across the United States saw their heroin supplies dwindle.
As heroin once again became available across the United States in the late 1940s, Baton Rouge decided to take legislative action. Louisiana’s 1951 drug law, which mandated a 10-year minimum sentence for first-time drug offenders, represented an unprecedented increase in criminal penalties. Intended to target organized crime (and the Mafia in particular), Louisiana’s 1951 law was initially hailed as a success.
Several Mafia figures were convicted under the new law, which resulted in 10-year sentences to be served at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The District Attorney of New Orleans, Raoul Sere, argued that “we broke the back of the syndicate in New Orleans with the mandatory 10-year sentence provision.” Similarly, the Mayor of New Orleans, deLesseps S. Morrison, claimed “Federal agents working with the City Police have cleaned out most of our narcotics traffic.”
Indeed, the port of New Orleans seems to have received only a “trickle” of heroin in the 1950s – at least compared to its prewar history. More importantly, from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, the French Connection supplied the vast majority of heroin to the United States: Turkish opium was shipped to Marseilles, France, in order to be refined into heroin; from the illegal laboratories of Marseilles, Corsican gangsters sent the refined heroin to New York City.
Dr. Harris Isbell, a New Orleans-educated physician in charge of the Public Health Service Narcotics Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, confirmed this trend when he noted that: “since the end of the Second World War the main port of entry of narcotics instead of being New Orleans seems to have become the city of New York.” This fact was also reflected in the price paid for heroin: in early 1951, the price in New Orleans was $2-3 per capsule; in New York it was around $1.
By the mid-1950s, a new pattern of heroin use and addiction began to emerge in New Orleans. Central City, a largely black neighborhood – home to both the Magnolia and Calliope Housing Projects – had become a central site for the city’s heroin economy. Heroin could increasingly only be found in black areas of the city, representing, in effect, a segregation of New Orleans’ heroin markets.
A review of the NOPD Narcotics Squad’s arrests from 1956 showed that a full 79.2% of those arrested on a heroin charge in New Orleans were black men, 13% were black women, and only 7.8% were white men – not a single white woman was arrested on a heroin charge in 1956. These numbers do not necessarily mean that whites were not using drugs (though their numbers were undoubtedly much fewer), but simply that they were largely shut out of the heroin markets, and the few remaining white users had found less risky ways to access their opiates.
One white female addict from Texas, Mary Ann, noted that she had been able to access heroin in both Houston and San Antonio, but in New Orleans she was forced to use hydromorphone, a semi-synthetic opioid analgesic, through prescriptions obtained from several physicians. Similarly, an anonymous white informant stated that she did not know “of any white fellow that have any [heroin] now, it is the colored guys who have it.”
While it appeared as though New Orleans’ heroin markets had moved out of the hands of the Mafia, in reality only the lower echelons of the market had been delegated to African Americans. In 1953, a tenant at the Magnolia Projects in Central City complained that “Italian grocery stores uptown bring ‘stuff’ in and negro boys peddle it.” Nevertheless, a relatively open market began to develop; those who were not supplied by the local Mafia increasingly chose to ignore this supply system entirely.
Instead, a growing number of New Orleans-based African Americans began to purchase heroin in the North in order to transport it back to New Orleans. As the Great Migration had sent thousands of black Louisianans north on the Illinois Central Railroad, Chicago emerged as the main source of New Orleans’ heroin in the mid-1950s.
In 1954, Robert Johnson, a thirty-two year old African American, was arrested for smuggling twenty-one ounces of heroin from Chicago to New Orleans – at that point one of the largest heroin seizures in the city’s history. Johnson’s role in the drug trade involved bringing ounces to New Orleans, “cutting” the product (two parts lactose; one part heroin), and selling individual ounces to local street dealers. Few African Americans could aspire to higher positions than this, and were therefore at much higher risk of arrest than the independent Mafiosi further up in the trafficking hierarchy. In general, the lower a dealer was in the overall hierarchy, the more exposed he was to law enforcement.
The street dealers, who would typically buy ounces from men like Robert Johnson, were at significantly higher risk of arrest. One such dealer, Walter Green, bought an ounce of heroin for $350 with the intention of cutting it further. At a “capping party” on Thalia Street, close to the Calliope Projects in Central City, Green both cut his original ounce of heroin further, and divided the heroin into 400 capsules. With one cap selling for about $3 in the early 1950s and $4 by the end of the decade, an ounce of heroin would normally produce a 300 to 400% return on the initial investment. Unfortunately for Green, he was arrested before he could realize these gains.
These interrelated events in the early 1950s led to a dramatic transformation of the way heroin was marketed and sold in New Orleans. Historically found in the French Quarter and peddled by Italians, heroin – and the city’s heroin markets – had by the mid-1950s moved into black neighborhoods where a new cohort of drug dealers arose. In fact, by the end of the decade, a small number of “Heroin Kings” would come to control New Orleans black underworld.
Bob Beach is a cultural historian interested in the history of cannabis in the United States before the 1960s. He’s written on marijuana history and folklore, drug war activism, and recently, marijuana legalization in New York State. He is a doctoral candidate in the history department at the University at Albany, SUNY. While writing for Points and finishing the degree, he adjuncts at Utica College, teaching courses in U.S. and drug history.