Editor’s Note: Today’s timely Mardi Gras-themed post comes from contributing editor Sarah Brady Siff, a visiting assistant professor at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, in affiliation with the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC).
The place: Paris. The year: 1850. “It was mardi-gras, and copious libations of flaming punch had prepared the natives for anything or everything.” So began a tale reprinted widely by newspaper editors across the globe.
(Here in the United States, Mardi Gras 2021 surely will be the soberest on record, New Orleans itself having condemned “superspreader” crowds, called off parades, shuttered bars, and banned most alcohol sales.)
In 1850, though, the local Parisians were the type to spend a lot of time hanging out at a café. So that’s where they were on Mardi Gras, drinking punch (likely made of rum) at a café just up the block from an apartment where a physician lived with his family.
This physician had received an excellent imported shipment of cannabis extract, and he was keen to share it for recreational use on this most celebratory and hedonistic day. The drunken revelers were willing participants—”adventurous tasters”—living in the same city at the same time as that famous literary circle, the Club des Hashischins. The doctor showed up with 15 grains, or about 1 gram, to distribute at the café. “Not more than a single grain was given to each,” read the article. Some swallowed it like a pill, while others smoked it or smeared it on a cigarette paper to smoke with tobacco. One grain was dissolved in a glass of Curaçao for the “master of the house; [but] his two young and handsome daughters were forbidden to taste of the drug.”
Of course one of the daughters found a way to sample the cannabis; it would hardly have been a story otherwise. After about 45 minutes, the girl shrieked and “was suddenly struck with delirium and hysterical movements of a very alarming appearance,” according to the article, which went on to describe her ordeal:
“Consciousness was only half obliterated, and the mind seemed to make supernatural efforts to escape from the chain about to be thrown around it. The shrieks were rapid, most violent, and of a peculiar kind. The girl felt conscious that she was raving, and earnestly entreated all around her not to conclude that she was mad; each appeal being terminated by a heart-rending scream. Some internal sensation also compelled her to cry, every now and then, that she was dying. With great difficulty, she was conveyed to bed, where the delirium continued for four hours, all her little love secrets, &c., being revealed to the astonished auditors.“
“In the majority,” the article reported, “the hemp merely produced intoxication,” and the worst effects suffered by the rest of the party were hysterical laughter and passing out in public.
Thanks to the wonders of text searching, the newspaper article described here may not be new to many people reading this post. Many identically worded versions of “Indian Hemp in a French Café” exist. In 1850, newspapers were growing more numerous due to increasingly accessible printing and paper technologies, and—in an early form of content sharing—editors frequently exchanged or appropriated articles from periodicals they received in the mail. Searching the phrase “adventurous tasters” in newspapers.com thus yielded seven instances of the same story printed in London (March 13), Dublin (March 16), Washington, DC (April 1), some Pennsylvania town (April 18), some English burg (May 29), and Sydney (October 26); and finally appearing, on Fat Tuesday 1851, in Honolulu’s weekly business rag, The Polynesian.
The growing, increasingly global print readership held new possibilities for, on one hand, rapid consensus building and even democratization. On the other hand, the editorial scramble for enticing content sometimes suggested that discourse had been cheapened along with the medium. Drug effects are a great example of this. People have long seemed to enjoy reading about other people’s drug experiences, but the accuracy and reliability of such pieces runs the gamut.
The story of the café party might have been faithfully reported, but it is abridged by half. It had first appeared full-length in the Medical Times of London, a broadsheet “journal of medical science, literature, and news,” attributed to a Paris correspondent—an Englishman, a bantering nationalist. French doctors, he intimated, resisted all sorts of good remedies, including “Indian hemp, coming as it does, like the cholera, from the banks of the Ganges, far beyond the seas.” This product was to be distinguished from the inert medicine the French already used, which he called “a bastard kind of bang, called Hashish, which comes from Africa, and of which one might take a hatful … but the true Cannabis, I repeat, is still a stranger here.”
The correspondent went on to relate what he called the first case of the use of this genuine Indian hemp on a patient with severe stomach pain. In short, the extract relieved her pain. But it also caused delirium, violently vocal outbursts, and hysterical laughter approximately 45 minutes after ingestion—the same fate that had befallen the physician’s daughter on Mardi Gras—as well as a “strange hallucination, peculiar to Indian hemp.” And the patient took it again the next time she had stomach pain.
It would be hard for me to agree that the reported effects could be caused by cannabis alone, yet I don’t think they are fabricated. There is a way to reconcile this problem by assuming the veracity of the effects and using circumstantial information to identify what substances the women actually took.
I’m new to this method, but I’m going to hazard a guess. I think the Indian hemp ordered from London and tried out in Paris was cannabis extract adulterated with another plant, possibly a nightshade containing the alkaloid scopolamine. Doctors would soon discover that one such plant, datura, was effective at not only easing the pains of childbirth but also wiping out the mother’s memory of her experience. Some of them would note the tendency of some such patients to unburden their innermost thoughts, which led to later efforts to use scopolamine as a “truth serum.”
Datura extract was a deadly poison in large doses, and it caused a pronounced delirium and unpredictable hallucinations. Datura had been used entheogenically in India for a millennium, grew like a weed in some South Asian climates, and its active parts could be extracted into a resin.
The names of plants and products were not terribly standardized in the nineteenth century. Although historians now consider most references to “hashish” to mean cannabis extract, there are examples of recipes and descriptions of hashish that included various roots, spices, and other plant matter.
And finally, adulteration of medicinal ingredients was certainly a problem at this time; the US Congress passed a law in 1848 to deal with large-scale importation of impure and fraudulent ingredients.
I’m interested in learning more about the recorded effects of plants—especially those attributed to cannabis that now seem outlandish—and trying to match those with other possible plant alkaloids. I hope this approach will eventually shed some light on the eternal mystery of reefer madness.