Opium once pervaded campus life at Harvard: Throughout the 1800s, its black smoke kept the university’s veins flowing with green and its faculty and students perpetually dazed.
Many of Harvard’s 19th-century heroes and villains were inextricably linked to the drug. In “The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War,” historian James Bradley shows that many of Boston’s elite families—Cabot, Lowell, and Kirkland included—sustained their wealth through the opium trade.
Of all the families implicated in the drug trade, Bradley argues, the Cabot family was the most nefarious. The Cabots profited from the slave trade. They sent privateers to attack ships from imperial powers and sell their spoils. Finally, while operating in China, they caught wind of the lucrative opium export business. Elated, they brought the trade back to Boston. Within a few short decades, the Cabots had formed an empire, cementing their status as Boston’s elite, the Boston Brahmins.
In “Treason in America: From Aaron Burr to Averell Harriman,” Anton Chaitkin writes that the syndicate had grown to span across several additional notable families including the Coolidge family, descendants of Thomas Jefferson; and the Forbes family, ancestors of former Secretary of State John Kerry.
Chaitkin also reports that these families had become deeply embedded in the Harvard hierarchy. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, members of these families were treasurers for Harvard, directors for the Harvard and the Massachusetts Bank, and even the president of Harvard College. Though Harvard students may not have been frequent users of the drug, the disreputable businessmen of its trade were ever-present.
From Harvard, the opium trade spread throughout New England. According to Bradley, Yale University’s infamous Skull and Bone society was funded by the Russels, the most successful family of opium dealers in America. Columbia’s Low Memorial Library was also named after a key member of the family. Even Princeton’s first large benefactor, John Green, funded his contribution through the opium trade.
Even undergraduates were eager to deal themselves into the lucrative opium trade. In “The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control, David F. Musto” reports that student-run opium “joints” began opening from Boston to New York.
In 1888, Harvard freshman Frank Mills told the Boston Daily Globe that “Life at Harvard would not be complete until [he] had experienced some of the effects of opium.” The interview marked the perfect zenith of opium’s reign on Harvard’s campus.
Then, the opium trade boiled over. Almost immediately after Mill’s interview, he overdosed on the drug. His death became public news, and public sentiment began to shift.
Newly concerned about safety, undergraduates began to police one another for signs of opium usage. By 1906, “Good Government Clubs” had spread across the New England area. One such club, at Syracuse University, launched a three-month operation that ultimately disbanded several opium dens and spurred 13 arrests. Other campuses, including Yale and Harvard, sent anti-opium delegates directly to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
On July 1, 1908, President Roosevelt elected Hamilton Wright as the first United States Opium Commissioner. Wright’s job: To target the few opium dealers and pharmacists still remaining in the Unites States.
Unfortunately for the Cabots, the Lowells, and the Kirklands, Harvard’s appetite for opium would neve recover.