Houston 101: Opium-Addled Hookers in Old Houston's Red Light District

Drug busts on the Mexican border are nothing new. At the El Paso / Juarez crossing in 1910, the feds seized a huge shipment of Texas-bound opium, at least some of which was believed to be headed to Houston.

That was the theory of George McCann, at any rate, one he expounded on at length in an April 29, 1910 Houston Chronicle story headlined "Opium Smoked in this City: Government Agent Finds Traces of Slaves to the Black Pipe." (Since there was neither an FBI or a DEA in those days, McCann was described only as a "secret agent.")

"There is opium in Houston in large quantities and lovers of the seductive pipe are not a few," opened the article, before quoting McCann to the effect that one of the men snagged in the El Paso bust had once lived here before his fateful trip to the border and then to the federal pen at Fort Leavenworth.

McCann told the paper that though they had seized a large amount of the celestial drug, much more had slipped through their dragnet and made its way here, where, the Chronicle intoned, there are many "reckless and degenerate who delight in a pull at the pipe." (What is it about opium that turns all reporters into pseudo-Coleridges? We succumbed ourselves to this weird tic not two months ago.)

McCann said that most of the opium in Houston was not smoked, but consumed in either tablet or liquid form, which was evidently a-okay. And he was at great pains to point out that there were no purpose-built opium "joints" or dens in what was then known as the Magnolia City. On the other hand, there were certain bordellos in the "Reservation," Houston's early 20th-Century red-light district, where the ladies were quite fond of the stuff.

"There's one house where practically every girl in the place takes an occasional pull on the seductive pipe," McCann told the Chron. "Not only are the girls addicted to the use of the drug, but their immediate 'gentlemen' friends do not hesitate to take an occasional wander into dreamland through the medium of the little black stem."

And McCann was just getting started on his alluringly depraved portrait.

"In fact, this particular place, which is one of the largest houses in the Reservation, is, as far as its inmates and their degrading habits are concerned, a veritable Oriental palace. Each girl who uses the drug at all has her room furnished in a style so that she can smoke and dream the dreams that only opium can produce in luxury."

Still, that didn't make it an opium den, McCann said. It was just a whorehouse where everybody smoked opium all the time. And that was almost okay, apparently.

Okay, two things. McCann seems to know a lot about both smoking opium and the individual habits and boudoir layouts of each and every one of the denizens of that particular palace of sin. Might one suppose that his "investigation" might have been a little more, shall we say, participatory, than modern police standards would condone?

And Lord, imagine you are a horny young bachelor in pre-sexual revolution Houston. Thousands of guys who read McCann's lurid description of easy, blissed-out sex must have been mortified -- that they had not yet found that veritable Oriental palace. (Which, by the way, sounds so much better than modern-day equivalents like pre-crackdown Treasures. Not that we would know.)

And then McCann told the whole city where this fleshpot was and helpfully narrowed down which to look for among the many in the area.

Maybe this "secret agent" worked in PR and not for the government and this whole article was a plant placed in the Chron by the madam of the establishment, an early form of fiendishly clever advertorializing for her stately pleasure dome. Hell, maybe this "McCann" was the madam herself.

At any rate, according to the article, the only penalty for being a "hop-head" was having the cops tell you to beat feet outta town. Beats a lifetime as a felon and months or years in the slammer.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax