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Fish Stories: The Drug Wars’ Unreliable Narrator

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Given the Saturday Evening Post’s homogenous readership in 1926, we can forgive novice journalist Harry J. Anslinger for embroidering this lead into his article, “Tiger of the Sea”: “A moving picture with a South Sea scene is hardly complete unless the native hero, with a long dagger held between his teeth, balances his weight on the edge of a canoe to prepare for a dive to kill the shark that is between him and the precious pearl which he risks his life for to offer to the daughter of the white missionary whose beauty has captivated him.”

The reference to film is unsurprising, given Anslinger’s later fascination with Hollywood and his obsession with celebrity drug use. Students of American drug prohibition might also recognize this sort of dangerous interracial romance as an ever-present theme in Anslinger’s writing. But I want to discuss something more basic about Anslinger and his work: truthfulness.


The cover of the issue in which “Tiger of the Sea” appeared

The article goes on to describe how sharks have gained a mistaken reputation as killers of humans while actually, the vicious barracuda – a quick-moving fish with razors for teeth – is the real “tiger of the sea.” The shark, writes Anslinger, is actually “the scavenger of the sea … usually found hovering near slaughter-house drains. He invariably follows fishing craft homeward bound to gather the fish refuse cast overboard. … He is wary of live bait.” Barracudas are the real perpetrators, he writes, of many supposed attacks by “the innocent shark.”

Several dramatic stories follow. A fisherman catches a small barracuda in a net: “With a wild lurch he freed himself by tearing through the net, struck the fisherman in the abdomen, ripped the stomach open as though it had been paper, causing death in a short time.” A “native boy” swims off the coast of Venezuela and is found dead after a barracuda rips his leg off. A British police officer and expert swimmer is killed: “He fought the fish with his bare hands and eventually both arms were torn off at the elbows by the savage attacks of the fish. … Ligatures were employed to stanch the flow of blood, but his life ebbed away. The voracious barracuda put another notch on his knifelike tooth.” An American schoolteacher swimming near San Juan

went just out of her depth and uttered a long, piercing shriek. This is nothing unusual for the female of the species while swimming. Her friends laughed, but not for long. A young man rushed to her aid, pulling her away just as a vicious barracuda was about to attack again. Her side had been badly torn. She died within a few minutes.

Yet another American swimmer was rushed by a barracuda: “Before he could call for aid he was torn to pieces, death being a matter of seconds.”

It’s not yet clear to me how Anslinger wound up reporting from Asia for the Saturday Evening Post. The article appears to have been his first and last piece for the large-circulation, general-interest magazine. At the time of publication, Anslinger was serving as U.S. consul on the other side of the globe in Nassau, Bahamas, and was about to begin his first job with the U.S. Department of Treasury, as Chief of the Division of Foreign Control. Also in 1926, he represented the United States at an international Conference on the Suppression of Smuggling, held in London.

Portentously, Anslinger’s tales about death by barracuda were fabricated. A 1927 New York Times article about barracudas noted that “modern scientists disbelieve the man-eating qualities attributed to it,” and I could find nothing about barracuda fatalities during a cursory search of academic journals published between 1920 and 1940. As in much of Anslinger’s later writing on the enforcement of drug control by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, veracity takes a back seat to dramatic effect.

In books such as The Traffic in Narcotics, The Protectors, and The Murderers and in countless articles and government reports, Anslinger narrated the U.S. drug wars during his long mid-century tenure as Commissioner of Narcotics. His influence was so ubiquitous that even historians who know better have a hard time avoiding citing him—his statistics on drug addiction and many of his assertions about crime and international agreements are treated as fact in a number of contexts, including in my own work.

The problem is, he’s a classic unreliable narrator—by definition a narrator whose credibility has been seriously compromised. Anslinger saw truth as secondary to effect, as did many true-crime novelists and literary journalists who were his contemporaries. Unlike the barracuda stories, much of his later storytelling was widely amplified by the mainstream media with the effect that more people feared the effects of even relatively mild drugs such as marijuana. While Anslinger is often assessed as a bully and a blowhard, too little attention has been paid to how he created stories and statistics to support the drug wars.

Also of note, in my opinion, are the undertones of menace and authoritarianism in Anslinger’s early writing. Consider the conclusion of his barracuda article:

It is difficult for our plastic minds to discard the shark bugaboo and to fear the real enemy. For the advancement of undersea science I suggest a demonstration in a large swimming pool containing a monstrous, starved shark, a ravenous barracuda and a human being. Who will volunteer to be the victim for the benefit of science?

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