Watch: That Time the Mayor Burned a Cage of Opium Outside SF City Hall

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A smiling Mayor James Rolph on the steps of San Francisco's City Hall, with his coat slung over his arm. This image was taken in 1918, four years after the public opium burning.
A smiling Mayor James Rolph on the steps of San Francisco's City Hall, with his coat slung over his arm. This image was taken in 1918, four years after the public opium burning. (OpenSFHistory / wnp36.01798.jpg)

Picture, if you will, Mayor London Breed one day emerging from San Francisco City Hall to set fire to half a million dollars' worth of narcotics piled inside a massive cage constructed out of drug paraphernalia. And imagine if the main thing in that burning structure was opium, which gets you high if you set it on fire and inhale the smoke it produces.

Yeah.

In 1914, this is exactly what San Francisco's mayor James Rolph did, in front of a gathered crowd of 5,000 people. Rolph's stated goal was to send a very public message to local drug smugglers and dealers. (That message, to be clear, was supposed to be about zero tolerance, not the dangers of secondhand smoke.)

According to an article from the March 1914 issue of Technical World Magazine, "All the condemned articles were piled upon the stone ruins of the old City Hall. With the tins of drugs were mixed excelsior and other highly inflammable material, while the pipes were hung side by side on scaffolding erected for the purpose." The photo accompanying the story called the resulting bonfire "The Funeral Pyre of Dreams."

The photo that 'Technical World Magazine' used in its March 1914 report on the opium bonfire shows a plume of black smoke rising up, outside San Francisco's City Hall.
The photo that 'Technical World Magazine' used in its report on the opium bonfire outside San Francisco's City Hall. (Technical World Magazine, March 1914, P.392.)

This drug blaze was the result of an 18-month crackdown by California's State Board of Pharmacy. During that time, 1,200 people were successfully prosecuted on narcotics-related charges, a multitude of pipes and syringes were seized, and $20,000 (in 1914 money) of opium, morphine and cocaine (around "10,000 packages") was confiscated.

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At around 2pm, Mayor Rolph set all of it alight, including, according to Technical World Magazine, "several hundred pipes, centuries old, beautifully carved and ornamented with gold and jewels." (Thankfully, Rolph did make a last minute call to rescue “several pipes, known to be more than two hundred years old” to be sent to "the Golden Gate Museum.") The Chronicle later reported, "It was only a matter of moments ere the entire monument of potential degeneracy and vice was sending its smoke up to heaven.”

Thankfully someone had the good sense to capture it on film:

At the time of the burning, the State Board of Pharmacy had been holding public drug-related burnings for five years. A year earlier, one bonfire set to destroy 1,300 pipes ($25,000 worth) came dangerously close to igniting several buildings on the corner of Washington Street and Ross Alley. After that close call, the wide open space outside City Hall must have seemed like a much safer option.

These kinds of dramatic clampdowns came after decades of San Francisco mostly turning a blind eye to the opium boom. What started with the arrival of 52 boxes of opium in 1861 had created around 300 opium dens by the end of the 1880s. While the city served as the primary American gateway for drug imports from China, law enforcement was slow to do anything about it. Commissioner Jesse B. Cook, a former chief of SFPD and a sergeant of the "Chinatown Squad" before the 1906 earthquake, wrote in 1931 about his experience with opium in the city at the turn of the century.

“At that time nearly every store in Chinatown had an opium layout in the rear for their customers," he reported. "In those days the Chinese were allowed to smoke opium, provided they did not do so in the presence of a white man. If a white man was present it meant the arrest of all who were in the room at the time."

Cook said that some dens could accommodate as many as 100 opium smokers. "The opium smoke was sometimes so thick in those dens that the gas jets looked like small matches burning. Opium has a peculiar, sweet smell, not at all distasteful, and many times when coming home from Chinatown after going through dens, people in the cars sitting near me, would be sniffing, smelling the opium in my clothes and wondering what it was. When I got home it would be necessary to undress in an outer room and air my clothes to get the opium fumes out of them.”

At the end of the 19th century, messages about opium were fairly mixed, with some advocates viewing the narcotic as positively medicinal. One journal article titled "Opium Smoking" from March 5, 1892 quoted one enthusiast as saying: "Opium smoking is not only innocuous, but positively beneficial to the system. It is a complete preservative against drunkenness."

After the 1906 earthquake decimated much of Chinatown, many of the city's opium dens disappeared literally overnight. And by 1914, public attitudes to narcotics entered a major shift on a national level. In 1908, Hamilton Wright had become United States Opium Commissioner and launched a passionate and concerted campaign to stamp out opium. In March 1911, he told the New York Times:

Of all the nations of the world, the United States consumes most habit-forming drugs per capita … China now guards [opium] with much greater care than we do; Japan preserves her people from it far more intelligently than we do ours, who can buy it, in almost any form, in every tenth one of our drug stores. Our physicians use it recklessly in remedies and thus become responsible for making numberless 'dope fiends' … The habit has this Nation in its grip to an astonishing extent. Our prisons and our hospitals are full of victims of it.

Heeding Wright's warnings, America tip-toed into the war on drugs via the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914. The legislation imposed "a special tax on all persons who produce, import, manufacture, compound, deal in, dispense, sell, distribute, or give away opium or coca leaves, their salts, derivatives, or preparations, and for other purposes."

The act quickly reduced the amount of opium in circulation—without anyone having to publicly set it on fire.