Strategic Suicide: The Birth of the Modern American Drug War:
In Germany and Scotland, in the sixteenth century, midwives were burned
alive for easing the pain of childbirth. The ostensible reason was that
the pain was God's punishment for Original Sin, and so to interfere
with it was heretical, causing great pain and hurt to Our Saviour (fascism
is always maudlin). The real reason was that these shamans challenged
the psycho-medical monopoly of the military-industrial theocracy.
Puritan Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts plainly asserted as
much in 1648, explaining why Margaret Jones had to be hanged: "she practising
physic, and her medicines being such things as (by her own confession)
were harmless, as aniseed, liquors, etc., yet had extraordinarily violent
effects." Other accusations included an understanding "beyond the apprehension
of all physicians and surgeons" and "some things which she foretold
came to pass accordingly; other things she could tell of (as secret
speeches, etc.) which she had not ordinary means to come to the knowledge
of." She sounds like a powerful shaman.
"Pregnancy," declared Dr. John Vaughan of Delaware, was "a diseased
state" requiring - guess what - bleeding, emetics and cathartics, that
is, chemical poisons. That was the overwhelming regular medical opinion
taught in the schools and advocated by the leading regular physicians
of the first half of the nineteenth century.
Dr. Evory Kennedy, in the Lying-In Hospital in Dublin, prescribed "tartar
emetic," antimony and potassium, for hundreds of women as a substitute
for the official ergot to "relax the pelvic muscles," which it did by
causing violent vomiting, something no midwife in her right mind would
ever consider; it also, incidentally, poisoned the baby and prolonged
the labor, the exact opposite of what ergot does. Antimony and potassium
are so poisonous that they are used today as insecticides. Kennedy's
procedures were brought across the Atlantic.
Due to the lack of aseptic conditions in many hospitals, something called
"child-bed fever," rare in home births, killed thousands of infants.
Semmelweiss demonstrated in the 1860's that this was due to the exposure
of the new-borns to the contagious diseases in the hospital, but asepsis
and segregation weren't effectively practiced in most hospitals until
the 1900's. There were some famous exceptions, like New York Maternity
Hospital, but well into the twentieth century many hospitals treated
new mothers to a high incidence of infant death and serious uterine
The very worst of the patent medicines contained the metallic and mineral
poisons that were, or had been, official with the regular doctors. These
included Chloro-Phosphide of Arsenic, Sulphur Compound Lozenges and
Storey's [calomel] Worm Cakes. "Calomel" is mercurous chloride, mercury
and chlorine, the toxic metal found in thermometers and the mineral
base of WW I's poison gases and many insecticides. De Valagin's Mineral
Solution was arsenious acid in dilute hydrochloric acid, and Donovan's
was iodide of arsenic and mercury; strychnine was also popular.
Obviously, the best of the regular physicians, and there were many,
bitterly opposed bleeding and poisoning. Robert Bentley Todd, in the
1850's, treated his patients to the traditional roast beef, brandy and
opium, without the poison, and no doubt did a great deal of good, but
not nearly as much as an experienced herbalist could do. Bleeding and
poisoning lost ground as American pharmacology became more sophisticated,
and that sophistication was due largely to Native American herbalism,
popularized over-the-counter. As Bourke's old comrade Buffalo Bill proved,
the reputation and mystique of Native America was worth a fortune back
East. Below, Bill with Sitting Bull, who liked the medicine-show man.
Doc Healy and Texas Charlie Bigelow's Indian Medicine Company, in the
1880's, had seventy-five Indian stage shows on the road at one time.
They peddled Kickapoo Oil, Kickapoo Salve, Kickapoo Cough Cure and Indian
Prairie Plant for Female Complaints.
Today's prohibitionist cliché is that this was all bunk, an empty hussle.
The actual fact is that many of these patent medicines were sophisticated
herbal recipes. Kickapoo Oil was a masterpiece of composition; it contained
ether, camphor, capsicum, clove oil, sassafras oil and myrrh. It smelled
sweet, tingled going on, felt hot, and got you good and happy, which
is the best, usually, that the regular docs could do with most complaints;
the soothing salve did a lot more good than harm.
In these days before regulation, of course, many patent medicines were
worse than useless, especially those containing the chemical poisons
of the regulars. Few of the herbal medicines were dangerous, but virtually
all made absurd claims and refused to reveal their ingredients.
The most famous of the bracers was Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound
For Female Complaints. Due to constant advertising and massive sales,
it was said that, aside from Queen Victoria, Lydia Pinkham was the most
famous woman of the nineteenth century.
Although a commercial superstar in later life, Lydia did indeed originally
compound her compound on her Massachusetts farm. Her formula, diffused
in 18% alcohol, included gentian, black cohosh, unicorn root, liferoot,
pleurisy root, dandelion, chamomile, licorice and Jamaica dogwood.
All had been official or semi-official in in the U.S. Pharmacopeia or
the U.S. Dispensatory for various female ills.
A 1958 chemical analysis confirmed the estrogen content and the quality
of the herbal extracts. So far from being bunkum, Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable
Compound was probably the best female tonic on the market, although
Lydia did go a bit overboard in claiming to cure all female ills, and
in advising customers to "write Mrs. Pinkham," avoid doctors altogether
and just guzzle Compound.
At the turn of the century 75% of the births in St. Louis were home
births attended by midwives, and in Chicago the figure was 86%. 78%
of Maryland's midwives were Black. Not only was culture a factor, but
the midwives' nominal fee, usually $15, including follow-up visits,
was deeply resented by many regulars.
The first federal drug law in American history is aimed specifically
at midwives, and the zeitgeist and legal language come straight out
of the Inquisition. A sanctimonious Connecticut Congregationalist named
Anthony Comstock joined the New York City YMCA's campaign against obscenity
in 1868. Financed by powerful Puritan merchants and supported by leading
Doctors of Divinity, Comstock was appointed to head the Y-connected
New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.
In 1873 Comstock engineered An Act for the Suppression of Trade in,
and Circulation of, obscene Literature and Articles of immoral Use -
"The Comstock Law": "That whoever...shall sell...or in any manner exhibit...or
shall have in his possession...any obscene book, pamphlet...or other
representation...or any cast, instrument or otherarticle of an immoral
nature, or any drug or medicine...for the prevention of conception,
or for causing unlawful abortion, or shall advertise the same for sale...shall
be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor...and on conviction thereof, he shall
be imprisoned at hard labor in the penitentiary for not less than six
months nor more than five years for each offense..." Comstock was made
a special agent of the Post Office Department with the power to open
the mail. His New York Society served as an army of private deputies.
Comstock's language and asumptions can all be found in the Malleus
Maleficarum, the official handbook of the medieval Inquisition.
As Pope Innocent VIII put it, in 1484, in pharmaco-shamanic language,
"...applying potent remedies to prevent the disease of heresy and other
turpitudes diffusing their poison to the destruction of many innocent
souls..." Does that sound like the Drug War to you? "Drug" "addiction"
is a "plague," an "epidemic," a "scourge" of "poison"; all that comes
straight out of the Malleus Maleficarum, which admits it's all really
In 1878 Comstock went to Madame Restell, a famous Cockney midwife established
at 52nd & 5th in Manhattan for years. Although she was 67 and retired,
she took pity on Comstock, who entrapped her by posing as a distraught
husband whose hysterical wife was unable to sustain yet another pregnancy.
On receiving medication, Comstock made his drug bust and threw the old
lady in the Tombs. Facing a certain five years at hard labor, the distraught
old woman cut her own throat. Comstock proudly told the papers she was
the fifteenth midwife he had driven to suicide.
Comstock's last case was his most famous. In 1915 he arrested Margaret
Sanger, below, for publishing her own magazine, Woman Rebel ("No Gods,
No Masters"), which dealt explicitly with female medicine, sexual repression,
labor organization and strike tactics. She was charged on nine counts
of obscenity, a possible 45-year sentence.
When Sanger got specific about gonorrhea, The Call was banned from the
mails: "It was at this time that I began to realize that Anthony Comstock
was alive and active. His stunted, neurotic nature and savage methods
of attack had ruined thousands of women's lives. He had indirectly caused
the death of untold thousands. He and a weak-kneed Congress, which,
through a trick, in 1873 had given him the power of an autocrat, were
directly responsible for the deplorable condition of a whole generation
of women left physically damaged and spiritually crippled from the results
of abortion. No group of women had yet locked horns with this public
enemy. Women in far western states who had fought for the sacred privilege
of the ballot and won it years earlier had never raised their voices
against the Comstock laws. Their own shallow emotions had not yet grappled
with so fundamental an issue as sex."
The shallow women to whom Sanger refers are the doughty prudes of the
WCTU and the more prohibitionist-minded of the Suffragettes, whose roots
were in the old Rush-inspired Temperance movement. Their anti-sacramentalism
was firmly rooted in the Hundred Years War. Insisted Mary Livermore,
president of the Massachusetts Union: "no Catholic should hold office
in our country whose political allegiance is to the Pope, first. It
is high time there was agitation."
Working with Anthony Comstock, the WCTU got obscenity laws in
most states which criminalized the teaching of real sexual biology and
contraception, even by physicians. They helped Comstock criminalize
Sanger. The church ladies even acquiesced when the AMA engineered midwifery
licensing tests in most states and then refused to test qualified midwives.
Below is the comment of The Masses, September, 1915, "Your honor,"
says Comstock, "this woman gave birth to a naked child!"