Opium – The Intoxicating Poppy

BROKEN BLOSSOMS was my last book with Leisure Books, but it was the most fun to research.  The title is taken from a 1919 silent movie starring Lillian Gish, a popular film star at the time.  The film is a tragedy, set in the slums of London, and portrays the gentle romance between an opium-addicted Chinese man and a 15-year-old waif (played by Gish), who is eventually killed by her bigoted father.

While my book is far from a tragedy–it is a romance, after all!–the story depicts how opium had begun to grip the nation in its addicting fists.  Opium smoking was first introduced to the West in the 1850s by European travellers, sailors and Chinese laborers who brought their habit to our shores.  It didn’t take long for artists, writers and the wealthy to fall prey to the drug . . . or prostitutes, drifters and other low-lifes to follow suit.

Cocaine, hashish, ether, chloroform and absinthe became fashonable and exotic as society relished their new-found freedom to imbibe and experiment.  Poets and novelists claimed opium stirred the muse and freed them from inhibition.  Cinema exploited the craze and cashed in at the box-office.  And so, too, did detective novels and true crime exposes, titillating their audiences by weaving danger and seduction into their tales.

Of course, in real life, opium has a darker side, and there were few places more dark than Chinatown in San Francisco in the mid- to late 1800s.   Newspapers and government reporters painted horrific pictures of the poverty and filth in the opium dens.  One hotel, the infamous Palace Hotel on Jackson Street, housed some 400 addicts living with a woeful shortage of privies, all contributing to the stench and deplorable conditions, veiled, of course, by the fumes from the ‘heavenly demon’ they lived for.

At this time, opium was not illegal–yet–but the drug was subject to stiff import taxes.  Customs officials fought a never-ending battle to control the sheer volume of the shipments sliding into the San Francisco ports, and smugglers turned creative to maximize their profits.

And right about here is where BROKEN BLOSSOMS begins.  Carleigh Chandler is the pampered daughter of a powerful and corrupt San Francisco judge who blackmails government agent, Trig Mathison, to keep his secret.  The judge knows how to play dirty, and Trig puts up a good fight.  Caught in between them, of course, is Carleigh, who does indeed learn her father’s secret and runs away to see for herself the woman she’s always been denied.  Her mother.

Readers who delve into Trig and Carleigh’s story will see how opium consumed–and destroyed–lives.  Trig learns that his fight against the evils which overpower the weak will never end, and Carleigh discovers there’s far more to life than comforts and money.   They cling to the love they’ve found in each other and know there is little more important than that.

I’ve recently released BROKEN BLOSSOMS as an e-book, available now for only 99 cents!  I can’t promise that price will last forever, so click here to buy a copy from Amazon for your Kindle!


So there you have it.  A little history on opium in the 1800s.  Believe me, I’ve barely scratched the surface, and maybe there’s a future blog about it, but for now, let’s talk opium.  Do you know of any writers who were opium addicts?  Can you give some of the slang for it?  Seen any movies about it?

Join in the discussion!  I don’t have author copies for BROKEN BLOSSOMS, but I’ll pick a winner for any of my backlist of Harlequin titles.

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Pam has written 30 romances, most of them historical westerns, but her newest releases are contemporary sweet romances featuring the Blackstone Ranch series published by Tule Publishing. Stay up on the latest at www.pamcrooks.com

18 thoughts on “Opium – The Intoxicating Poppy”

  1. I guess im out of the pocket more than I thought,,dont know a slang word for it,,,maybe”hit”,,gosh now I feel old…or maybe thats a good thing huh,that i dont know an havent watched any movies that I can remember that had someone hooked,,saw a few tv shows that had it,,

  2. Hi Pam,

    Very interesting post! A couple slang terms I know are hop and midnight oil (I know this because of research, I swear). :o)

    I also remember in the movie TOMBSTONE Wyatt Earp’s wife being addicted to opium and drinking a bunch of laudnum to get her fix, of course that’s why laudnum was so dangerous.

    Loved BROKEN BLOSSOMS, it’s a great story!


  3. I wondered what it is that drives people to destroy their lives. Opiun, alcohol, meth, peyote–every culture and continent has some way to get high and it’s all addictive and destructive.

    A very strange, difficult part of the human condition and the wasted lives, the cost ot the human race. Just terrible and it seems…unstoppable.

  4. Interesting post! Like everyone else I don’t know much about Opium or any slang words for it. I guess I just don’t keep up with the world of drugs.

  5. Very intriguing blog, Pam. I did a lot of research on opium for a very early book, CHINA SONG, about the Opium War (not what most people assume–Western merchants were selling opium to the Chinese, and the Chinese tried to stop them; the Chinese lost and ceded Hong Kong to the British). A San Francisco opium den is featured briefly in HIS SUBSTITUTE BRIDE.
    It’s a fascinating subject, still an issue today, since it’s used to make heroin, as well as morphine and other painkillers.
    Your book sounds wonderful. When will it be available?

  6. Great slang, Cindy and Kirsten–the big O has more than one meaning (ahem!) and it’s funny how the words even come to be. It all stems from the mind set of those who use the drugs, I suppose, and then they stick.

  7. Of course, opium is rooted in laudanum which was hugely used for a long time as a pain killer. People still get addicted to pain killers today.

    Hashish, I recall, was big in the 60s, and cocaine is rampant still today.

    Not ether as much, I don’t think. Anyone remember going to the dentist and having that mask go over your face? LOL.

  8. Exactly, Mary. People are driven to addiction for a variety of reasons – boredom, peer pressure, depression, a need to escape the realities of the world, if only for a little while.

  9. Every time I read about opium (and writing this blog brought back so much of the research that had engrossed me), I can’t help thinking how strong the cravings must be for the body, so strong that one is driven to satisfy it, at the cost of so much that they hold dear. Losing families, jobs, the grocery money . . .

    And I think my craving for Diet Pepsi is bad . . .

  10. In addition to Big O, Black stuff, Block, Goma, Mud, and Tar evidently are part of the current street slang for opium.

    “Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180), author of the philosophical classic Meditations, regularly enjoyed opium,” per http://opioids.com/red.html

  11. I remember reading one or two historicals that talked about opium addiction, but sadly at the moment I can not recall the books…

  12. This is so interesting. The only person (and he’s fictional) that I can think of was Sherlock Holmes. But I’m sure more than a few actors/actresses of the silent movie era used opium.

    Good luck on your new e-book. I love that cover. Wishing you much success.

  13. The original formula for Coca-Cola had cocaine in it. Not large amounts, but some and it was phased out by 1929 or so. I remember reading years ago that in the mid and late 1800’s doctors would commonly prescribe it for women’s “nervous disorders.” Housewives and mom’s taking their “happy pill” daily to cope with life spending the day happily drugged out. Scary thought.

    As far as movies or authors, at the moment the only movie character I can think of that had a problem was Sherlock Holmes.

    Thanks for the interesting post and good luck with the release of BROKEN BLOSSOMS in both E and print form.

  14. Edgar Allan Poe was long thought to be addicted to opium. His work reflected that, but there was no documentation to prove it.

    Oscar Wilde is another one addicted to the stuff.

  15. I’d heard about Coca-Cola having cocaine in it, too, Patricia. Hard to believe. Not only did housewives get addicted, but babies, too. Mothers gave their children ‘medicine’ for teething, coughing and stomach ailments, thinking the medicine helped them, not realizing when the symptoms went away, the little ones were actually half-stoned. Yi-Yi-Yi.

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