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ADHS at AHA 2017

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

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Earlier this month, thousands of historians descended – or perhaps ascended – upon snowy Denver for the American Historical Association’s annual meeting. (Some attendees took to Twitter to make light of the inclement weather.)

The Alcohol and Drugs History Society was represented in the Mile-High City by three panels: “A Question of Intent: Alcoholic Insanity, Violence, and the Law in 19th-Century America”; “A Vicious Turn in Global History: Fighting Drinks, Drugs, and ‘Immorality,’ c. 1850–1950”; and a roundtable discussion, “Approaching Prohibition’s Centennial: Lisa McGirr’s The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State.”

But there were no shortage of other relevant panels throughout the weekend, including “San Francisco in 1967: The Summer of Love Reconsidered” and “What Historians Wish People Knew About the History of Licit and Illicit Drugs,” among others. (Search the program for a topic of interest.)

The abstracts and authors of each panel listed are copied below. In the coming weeks, some participants will also post thoughts from their presentations to the blog. Stay tuned!

A Question of Intent: Alcoholic Insanity, Violence, and the Law in 19th-Century America (Chair/Comment: Thomas J. Balcerski, Eastern Connecticut State University)

“Unintended Consequences: Delirium Tremens as a Defense to Murder,” Michele Rotunda, Union County College

This paper focuses on the ways in which the study of delirium tremens, also known as mania a potu, blurred the line between habit and mental disease and became a viable defense to violent crime.  In 1827, Alexander Drew murdered his second mate at sea, and in 1827, John Birdsell murdered his wife.  Both men had engaged in the excessive consumption of alcohol in the days prior to their crimes, and both men sought a defense based on insanity caused by delirium tremens.  In the early nineteenth century the law held that intoxication provided no defense to crime as it was viewed as a voluntary condition; however, a diagnosis of delirium tremens, a temporary form of insanity caused by heavy drinking, expanded the definition of exculpatory insanity.  Delirium tremens, it was argued, could provide a defense to crime because it existed as a form of insanity separate from a state of drunkenness as an unwanted and unintended consequence of intoxication.  The complicated sense of intoxication and responsibility in this period is reflected in the rich detail of these individual cases as well as in the very different verdicts – Drew was acquitted while Birdsell was found guilty.

“Much Like a Lunatic: The 1860 Pardon of William A. Choice and the Debate around His Alcohol Use, Head Injury, and the Murder He Committed,” Leah Richier, University of Georgia

In 1850, a young man in Rome, Georgia fell off a buggy and crashed into the ground, severely injuring his head. In subsequent months, the friends and family of William A. Choice noticed a significant change in his behavior, made worse when he became intoxicated. Ignoring all advice, Choice relocated to Atlanta and became a prominent stage actor. He lived in hotels, drank at hotel bars, and drew crowds to the stage. In late December 1858, he was approached by Calvin Webb, a bailiff who demanded an owed debt. The next morning, an insulted Choice drunkenly confronted Webb, shot at him twice, and struck him once, instantly killing him.

The next two years invited Georgia’s best lawyers, its state legislature, its Supreme Court, and its Governor into William A. Choice’s tumultuous head. Everything rested on Choice’s insanity: most believed that the actor had indeed suffered a brain injury but argued that he willingly chose madness by drinking. His ‘self-induced insanity’ was not excusable; even if he had a “inordinate thirst for liquor,” he should not have indulged “in such an appetite.” Choice’s supporters countered that alcohol was only the exciting cause; the head injury from 1850 was the real reason for the murder. He was convicted and sentenced to death, which the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed. Due to a legislature bill passed over the Governor’s veto, Choice escaped the gallows and entered the Georgia Lunatic Asylum. The debate over his alcoholism and head injury resonated in unusual ways in the state, both legally and politically. On the eve of secession, the murderer of a state official vanished among other suffering women and men. Choice’s life demonstrates the complex battles waged around violence and insanity in pre-war Georgia, and his death reveals that infamy can be subsumed in sectional crisis.

“Not Quite Suicide: The Inebriated Self-Destruction of John Michael in Late 19th-Century St. Louis,” Sarah Lirley McCune, University of Missouri-Columbia

On the evening of July 10, 1877, John Michael drank a great deal of whiskey and then, on his way home, lay down on the railroad tracks.  Although a passerby moved him, he lay on them again and was killed when a train hit him.  His persistence suggests that he committed suicide, but his intoxicated state raised questions by the investigating coroner, relatives, and the press as to whether or not he intendedto take his own life.  The coroner declined to rule Michael’s death as an accident or a suicide, a vagueness that reflects the medical and legal uncertainty about whether one could intentionally take his or her own life while inebriated.  Using coroner’s inquests, newspapers, and medical journals, this paper will explore the reasons that coroners and witnesses believed that Michael’s probable decision to kill himself lacked one of the key elements of a suicide verdict: intent.

Historians have studied suicide and alcoholism separately, but have not examined these two self-destructive deaths together even though both hinged on medical and legal understandings of insanity and intent.  Interestingly, while the coroner could not decide that Michael intentionally killed himself, he also did not consider him to be insane, perhaps a dipsomaniac, meaning someone who was “mad for alcohol.”  The coroner’s hesitation to deem Michael insane was typical, as evidenced by inquests into other into alcohol-related deaths conducted in St. Louis between 1875 and 1885.  Physicians who specialized in treating inebriety may have considered Michael to be suffering from a disease, but their knowledge seldom extended to the general medical profession, including St. Louis coroners.  The death of John Michael demonstrates that the distinctions between insanity and alcohol blurred, evident not only in an ambiguous verdict, but also the community’s and nation’s understanding of his death, insanity, and addiction.

A Vicious turn in Global History: Fighting Drinks, Drugs, and “Immorality,” c. 1850-1950 (Chair: Antoinette Burton, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Comment: David T. Courtwright, University of North Florida)

“Eradicating the ‘Scourge of Drink’ and the ‘Unpardonable Sin of Illegitimate Sexual Enjoyment’: M.K. Gandhi as Anti-Vice Crusader,” Harald Fischer-Tine, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at Zurich

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1874 – 1948) is one of the few political leaders from what used to be called the ‘Third World’ who has become an iconic figure in the West. Admittedly, he is mostly not known as an ardent crusader against the unholy trinity of drugs, drink, and debauchery in the first place, but rather as a spokesman and symbol of anti-colonial nationalism. Yet, from early on, Mohandas Gandhi started to cultivate a quasi-religious obsession with physical health and moral perfection that seems astonishingly close to the concerns of late 19th and early 20th century Christian purity crusaders. It made him engage in active campaigning against the very same ‘evils’ targeted by both the protestant international and advocates of a science based ‘scientific’ social hygiene’ schemes: alcohol abuse, the trafficking and consumption of opium and all forms of prostitution.

The paper revisits the Mahatma’s biography and writings to analyze this often neglected aspect of his ideology and work. The focus will be on his temperance activities, his campaign against ‘the opium evil’ as well as his fight against prostitution and sexual ‘licentiousness’ more generally. By doing so, Gandhi emerges as a truly cosmopolitan figure who – while ostentatiously drawing on Hindu traditions of chastity and renunciation – was also connected to global anti-vice networks and crucially influenced by a variety of contemporary Euro-American health and purity discourses.

“A Moral Quarantine: The FBI’s White Slave Division, 1910-17,” Jessica R. Piley, Texas State University

Responding to international and domestic moral reformers, the U.S. Congress passed the 1910 White Slave Traffic Act (Mann Act), outlawing the taking of women over state lines for “any immoral purpose.” Enforcement of this expansive anti-sex trafficking law fell to the young Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Drawing upon turn-of-the-century military experiments to monitor prostitutes at the edges of the U.S. empire—in the Philippians, Puerto Rico, and the Panama Canal Zone—the FBI established a voluntary corps of local white slave officers in cities throughout the country to supervise the mobility of over 30,000 female sex workers. The successful implementation of the White Slave Division transformed the FBI into a truly national agency, policing national crime while upholding “morality” by establishing what one U.S. attorney called a moral quarantine. This paper considers the activities of the FBI’s White Slave Division against a longer history of colonial regulation of prostitution, while at the same time attending to the spatial rational of the FBI’s moral quarantine by considering the connections between brothels, vice districts, and the prostitutes who worked in these spaces. The Mann Act was premised on a policing of territoriality and violation of this statute only occurred when borders and boundaries were trespassed for an “immoral purpose;” essentially the law established what one man who was prosecuted under the law in 1913 called “territorial morality.” Consequently, the FBI’s regulatory regime was premised on the sustained existence of vice districts; the very same districts moral reformers and their medico-legal allies sought to eradicate. Thus, state actors operated with their own rationales and agendas that ran at cross currents with reformers occupying other social arenas. This paper maps out the emerging conflict between the federal criminal justice state that sought to contain prostitutes and the civil society actors who sought to eliminate them.

“‘Hey GI, Want Pretty Flower Girl?’ Venereal Disease, Sanitation, and Geopolitics in US-Occupied Japan and Korea, 1945-48,” Robert Kramm, University of Konstanz

In postwar East Asia, the United States established occupational regimes in Japan and Korea in which prostitution became a contested and unsettling, but nevertheless effective, site for Japanese, Korean and US authorities. Fears of rape and other bodily-physical violence as well as rising rates of venereal diseases strongly encouraged the predominantly male desire to provide and regulate prostitution. Whereas Japanese and Korean administrators were eager to comfort the occupiers in order to protect their own populace from violation and “racial contamination” and to make an attempt to secure their sovereignty, the predominantly American occupiers were concerned about the discipline, health, and morale of the occupation personnel. However, there was a shared heteronormative logic that sexual intercourse would be inevitably connected to military masculinity and prostitution was conceived as a necessary evil: it was therefore hardly ever considered to generally abolish prostitution, but to regulate it with the aim to foster sanitized sexual relations. In order to channel and control the relationship between the occupiers and the occupied to their own needs, Japanese, Korean and American administrators re-invented and developed techniques to regulate prostitution according to their own previous domestic and overseas experiences—among them ideals of moral reform and concepts of social hygiene. The paper explores the multiple interventions in the regulation of prostitution to uncover historically specific constellations of cultural and social differentiations during the occupation period. While these regulatory practices and their discursive manifestations bear striking resemblances to previous colonial encounters, they also expose the transnational entanglements of the US-occupation of Japan and Korea in the formation of the Cold War in East Asia.

Approaching Prohibition’s Centennial: Lisa McGirr’s The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State (Chair: Scott C. Martin, Bowling Green State University; Comment: Lisa McGirr, Harvard University)

Michael Kazin, Georgetown University; Mirian Lynn Kingsberg, University of Colorado at Boulder; William J. Rorabaugh, University of Washington; Heather Thompson, University of Michigan

San Francisco in 1967: The Summer of Love Reconsidered (Chair: William J. Rorabaugh, University of Washington)

Michael W. Doyle, Ball State University; David Farber, University of Kansas; Gretchen J. Lemke-Santangelo, Saint Mary’s College of California; Sherry L. Smith, Southern Methodist University

This is a panel discussion about the thousands of wildly dressed, youthful hippies who suddenly congregated in San Francisco during the summer of 1967.  The episode became known as the Summer of Love, generated flashy media coverage, and celebrated easy sex, psychedelic drugs, particularly LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), and the rock and roll music of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin.

In one sense, the party ended as quickly as it had started, but in another sense the hippie counterculture spread outward from San Francisco to other cities, to rural communes, and gradually into mainstream culture.  Cultural change, in the larger sense, was in the air, and the Summer of Love proved to be an early indicator for a long-term revolution in American culture.  Society and politics also were changed, although perhaps in complex and subtle ways that took decades to be recognized.

This panel brings together four experts with diverse expertise about different aspects of the 1960s in order to explore the meaning of the Sixties counterculture and particularly the Summer of Love from distinctly different angles of vision.  Both the internal politics and political meaning of the counterculture have been highly contested, and the role of the counterculture in changing ideas about identity, including Native Americans and women, has been interpreted in different ways.  The panelists will explore continuities and discontinuities and sort through the many ironic consequences.  A freewheeling discussion with lively audience participation is expected.

What Historians Wish People Knew about the History of Licit and Illicit Drugs (Chair: David T. Courtwright, University of North Florida)

Isaac Campos, University of Cincinnati; Anne L. Foster, Indiana State University; Eugene Hillsman, Princeton University; Miriam Lynn Kingsberg, University of Colorado at Boulder; William J. Rorabaugh, University of Washington; Scott K. Taylor, University of Kentucky

This panel seeks to provide a global historical framework for the recent legalization of marijuana in Colorado, the conference site, and other current debates over the (il)legalization of drugs in the United States. In this lightning-round panel, historians of the U.S., Latin American, East Asia, and early modern Europe will discuss the history of drugs, attitudes toward them, and efforts to control them in diverse historical contexts, as well as the challenges of researching pleasure and vice in the past. Moderated by senior scholar David T. Courtwright, panelists will speak for five to six minutes each, followed by dialogue with each other and the audience. The panel defines “drugs” broadly to include alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and opium, as well as “soft drugs,” such as coffee and chocolate.

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