Today’s post comes from guest poster Dr. Chris Elcock, an adjunct professor at the Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3 in Lyon, France, whom you might remember from his previous articles on the early years of cannabis activism and LSD in New York. Today he explores the first recorded peyote trip in Manhattan, which occurred in 1914. Enjoy!
Raymond Harrington had been enamored with Native American culture since he was a child. While he was still in high school, he successfully located an old camp site in Mt. Vernon, New York, and became employed by the American Museum of Natural History thanks to the then curator Frederick Putnam. He went on to study anthropology at Columbia University under the great Franz Boas and conducted ethnographic fieldwork with Indians in Oklahoma. One day, during the spring of 1914, he attended a party in Greenwich Village and regaled the attendees with his stories. But when the subject turned to an obscure cactus that had the power “to pass beyond ordinary consciousness and see things as they are in Reality,” everyone begged him to carry on, including the hostess, the eccentric socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan.
Luhan kept asking for more information and found that Harrington actually had some peyote with him. She became excited and proposed that everybody try it. But he balked and warned her that the peyote cactus was not to be trifled with. Indians used it in carefully constructed rituals in order to reveal their innermost selves unhindered “by the limitations of the senses we used every day.” They would need constant singing, a green arrow, eagle feathers, a fire, and a Path to enter the realm of the cactus. They would also need to fast before ingesting it.
Luhan and the other guests obliged, and so, around nine o’clock that evening, and under the guidance of impromptu Chief Harrington, the first ever peyote ceremony was underway in a West 9th Street apartment, with everyone chewing away at the nauseatingly bitter cactus. After a while, Luhan noticed a numbness take hold of her mouth and limbs combined with an irrepressible desire to laugh. Gradually, the group felt its self-consciousness dissolve under the peyote’s influence and experienced changing colors and morphing environments. One of them reported a “death of the flesh” and claimed to have found a short-cut to the soul, while another guest “saw the walls of this house fall away and […] was following a lovely river for miles through the most wonderful virginal forest [he] had ever known.” Another guest, an anarchist who had vowed never to get a job, simply smiled while staring into the void. Later on Luhan retired to her bedroom, but as she lay there, she became restless and realized that she was stuck with the effects of the peyote. To compound things, the ceremony was still going on in her living and there was nothing she could do about it. She went back to the group and found that one of the guests was nowhere to be seen. Fears of having to deal with the police took hold of her, but she then received reassuring a phone call from a friend who was taking care of the distraught lost guest.
Luhan’s fears were understandable. As a public figure, she could ill-afford to have the press latch onto the sordid details of a drug party, but more importantly Congress had just passed the watershed Harrison Narcotics Act that outlawed non-medical drug consumption. That peyote was used in Native American rituals mattered little: America’s war on drugs was underway and opium and cocaine were fast becoming a new scourge that plagued American cities. In the latter part of the 19th century, both drugs became tied with ethnic minorities and later the underworld. Morphine and the far more powerful heroin soon appeared on the drug market and came under intense public scrutiny. New York City was far from immune: the Tenderloin district became a hub for cocaine, which could also be found on the Lower East Side. In the interwar period Gotham became a national and international hub for heroin trafficking, while amphetamines and cannabis consumption also increased.
It is tempting to say that Luhan’s uncanny experimentation had occurred half a century too early, but this brief time-jump was nonetheless an accurate portrait of the scenes that took place in the metropolis, when many New Yorkers became interested in obscure psychedelic drugs like peyote, psilocybin, mescaline, DMT, and the iconic drug of the Sixties – LSD. The experiences that resulted from psychedelic drug use were described as awe-inspiring, disquieting, revelatory, life-changing, vision-inducing, and terrifying (or, more often, all that rolled into one), but never dull or uneventful. Greenwich Village, very much the most avant-garde area of the city (and some might say the entire country), was unsurprisingly where it all started before moving to the Lower East Side and renaming the area the East Village in the process. Bohemians, political radicals, musicians, poets, academics, and wealthy socialites like Luhan became fond of exploring the uncharted realms of their consciousness.
But while all this was going on, addictive drugs never disappeared from the city and those two scenes eventually had to compete to negotiate the urban space. Psychedelics, like most mind-altering drugs, also gradually gained notoriety and were ultimately banned, creating a new criminal class in the process. Luhan ended up moving to New Mexico, where she tried peyote again. Like her, many psychedelic enthusiasts realized that Manhattan was not the best place for journeys into other worlds.