Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Secret Leprosy of Modern Days

The Secret Leprosy of Modern Days: Narcotic Addiction and Cultural Crisis in the United States, 18701920

TIMOTHY A. HICKMAN
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 208
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vk8xs
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Secret Leprosy of Modern Days
    Book Description:

    Although the topic of habitual narcotic use first surfaced in the United States during the 1820s, it was not until after the Civil War that it became a subject of widespread public attention. Beginning in the 1870s, an increasingly urgent discussion of what some described as a national epidemic of "drug addiction" could be found in both medical journals and the popular press. Today, nearly a century and a half later, the term is so commonplace we speak of people being "addicted" to just about anything. Yet as Timothy A. Hickman argues in this revealing interdisciplinary study, the meaning of addiction has always been as much cultural as scientific and never fixed. In The Secret Leprosy of Modern Days, Hickman resituates the idea of addiction within its original late nineteenth and early twentiethcentury context. Through close readings of a broad range of literary, medical, and legal texts, he shows how Americans of that era conceptualized the dangers of drug addiction in terms of other preoccupations and fears. Anxieties about the accelerating pace of technological change, the loss of personal autonomy, and the degeneration of society attributed to both foreign influences and a decline of manliness all fed into a widespread sense of cultural crisis—a crisis of which the spiraling "drug problem" was seen as both contributing cause and consequence. Not surprisingly, Hickman points out, deeply held assumptions of class, race, and gender also figured into the popular understanding of addiction. While white middleclass addicts were often depicted as helpless victims of the social and economic pressures of modern life, their less privileged and nonwhite counterparts were regarded as morally weak. Over time the distinction between "addict as patient" and "addict as criminal" came to be accepted by the emerging medical establishment and codified into law, eventually finding expression in the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, the first national antinarcotic legislation in the history of the United States—and the basis for much thinking about addiction and drug policy ever since.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-107-6
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction: The Modernity of Addiction/The Addiction of Modernity
    (pp. 1-14)

    DESPITE ITS ASSOCIATION with Asian cultures, narcotic addiction gained little public attention in the West before the publication of ThomasDeQuincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eaterin 1821.¹ DeQuincey’s text was popular on both sides of the Atlantic, and its conclusions about the “pains” derived from breaking off regular opiate use were echoed by frequent reports from nineteenth-century physicians whose otherwise cured patients were sometimes unable to stop taking their narcotic medications. Nonetheless, few antebellum Americans felt themselves or their society to be particularly threatened by narcotics. The vast publicity created by the antialcohol campaigns of the various temperance...

  6. CHAPTER 1 Opium Eating and Political Subjectivity before 1870
    (pp. 15-32)

    OPIUM IS AMONG the very oldest medications, and descriptions of its early history are abundant. Egyptian physicians recommended it to quiet crying babies and to relieve headaches as early as the sixteenth century BCE. Theophrastes and Dioscorides noted its ability to bring sleep and relief from pain to their ancient Greek patients. Opium was well known to the physicians of Rome, and after its introduction by Arab traders in the thirteenth century, it became a mainstay of late-medieval European medicine. Since the beginning of medical practice, the opiates have never dropped out of the world’s medicine cabinet.¹

    There was, however,...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Narcotic Addiction: ʺThe Secret Leprosy of Modern Daysʺ
    (pp. 33-58)

    WE HAVE SEEN THAT a variety of mid-nineteenth-century scientific and popular writers noted that narcotic use was potentially habit forming, but their texts failed to generate the intensity of public concern produced by widespread discussions of many other social problems, particularly those associated with heavy drinking. Beginning in the 1870s, however, the narcotic habit became much more visible. As I discussed in the introduction, this emergence can partly be explained by the increasing use of narcotic medication, especially after the popularization of the hypodermic syringe in the 1860s. Likewise, a gradual shift in the makeup of the drug-using population, away...

  8. CHAPTER 3 Subjects of Desire: Race, Gender, and the Personification of Addiction
    (pp. 59-92)

    IN THE LAST CHAPTER, I argued that the addiction concept both reflected and helped to produce the broader sense of modernity as cultural crisis that resonated across much of America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In this chapter I turn toward what was perhaps the chief means by which many addiction experts gave more tangible form to that concept. By identifying and naming certain people as “addicts,” writers were able to give human shape to the otherwise vague sense of dependence signified by the modern term “addiction.” Though there were nearly as many ways to personify addiction...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Legislating Professional Authority: The Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914
    (pp. 93-125)

    BY THE FIRST DECADE of the twentieth century, a growing coalition of reformers had come to believe that the federal government ought to take decisive national action to control what they described as an escalating drug threat. As we have seen, both the popular and the professional presses had framed narcotic use as a problem for over forty years, and this, combined with Progressive Era faith in legislative cures for modern social ills, helped to create a favorable climate for some form of federal intervention. Progressive journalists, sometimes called “muckrakers,” also chimed in, enjoying a great deal of success in...

  10. CHAPTER 5 The Saved and the Damned: The Medicolegal Solution to the Double Meaning of Addiction
    (pp. 126-154)

    IN THE INTRODUCTION I argued that a paradox lies embedded in the definition of the word “addict”: that the word holds both ajuridicalmeaning—an archaic legal usage that stood for the assignment by the court of a duty or status—and avolitionalone, which is the more common usage that means simply to devote oneself to a preferred practice or object. Various turn-of-the-century experts struggled with this paradox in their attempts to define what was, in their estimation, the growing threat of an obsessive desire, held by some people, for narcotic drugs.

    This struggle to define narcotic...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 155-178)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 179-190)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 191-192)