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Inspector Boden Burns It All: The Story of a Pioneering California Drug Warrrior, 1907–1927

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Sarah Brady Siff, a visiting assistant professor at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, in affiliation with the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC).

What a time to be a historian. An embarrassment of digitized newsprint has made it possible to pursue all sorts of angles and stories, to chase all kinds of people not just down a rabbit hole but all around a rabbits’ warren. Fred C. Boden is one such person who has always caught my eye. A corpulent and bombastic city cop, Boden became one of California’s, and thus one of the nation’s, first state drug enforcement officers. From the passage of California’s state Poison Act around 1907 until his death 20 years later, Pharmacy Board Inspector Boden traveled the state to enforce the prohibition on selling and possessing opium and morphine without a doctor’s prescription.

Boden’s arrestees were overwhelmingly Chinese immigrants—a community that had long been targeted by the state and by California cities with various licensing and regulatory laws that brought fines and other criminal penalties. White doctors and pharmacists, presumably those who refused to be licensed according to the new law or who persisted in writing opiate prescriptions, were arrested in lower numbers.

Surprise mass raids, often involving posses of local police and deputized citizens, were common. In 1910, Boden led a raid that ended in the arrest of twenty-four Chinese immigrants in Bakersfield where he had been made a sheriff’s deputy. The following year Boden was in San Diego where a newspaper reported that under his direction “the police drag-net has captured seventeen Chinese and two prominent physicians” with more arrests of both “expected daily.”

Left: Clipping of Inspector Boden burning drug contraband from LA Times January 5, 1912.

Boden seems to have frequently pushed the envelope during his enforcement actions. One target, Joseph Langdon, accused Boden of choking him and breaking furniture during an arrest. After raiding “several Chinese laundries” in Los Angeles in late 1911, some of the proprietors sued Boden for warrantless searches. He retained a state senator for his defense and proclaimed that the suit was motivated by revenge. “To date,” Boden bragged, “I have prosecuted and convicted sixty-one Chinese for trafficking in opium,” several of whom, he pointed out, were parties to the lawsuit.

One reason that Boden emerges as an archetypal drug law enforcer is his ongoing presence in the sources. He deliberately cultivated reporters and was happy to spout off as an “expert” in almost anything, claiming, for example, to know all the ways that smoking opium was smuggled, concealed, and sold clandestinely.

Boden in court in 1913 (LA Express); his obituary photo of 1927 (LA Times).

An inveterate promoter, it seems that Boden might have personally pioneered the spectacle of the public drug bonfire. The early-1912 LA Times clipping above captures the burning of so-called drug contraband—which actually also included some valuable confiscated family heirlooms. The accompanying article focused on the “mournful” Chinese observers. This formula was adopted in other press coverage, and, overall, it exemplified the larger partnership between drug enforcers and the press to reassure white voters that drug laws were not targeted at them, but, instead, at the hated Chinese.

Early on, Boden also connected another emerging drug to a different immigrant group. In 1919, according to one report, he and San Bernardino police:

“raided two marahuana farms … and arrested two Mexicans and seized the crop. About a dozen stalks 10 feet high, bearing enough of the marahuana to have set half the Mexican population crazy, were brought to the police station.”

Boden gave himself credit for the state legislature’s 1913 addition of “hemp, or loco weed” to the verboten opiates listed in the Poison Act. In 1916, Boden arrested Jesus Ersilch in Los Angeles. According to new reports, the inspector:

“appeared in the back yard where the plants were thriving, pulled them up, and arrested Ersilch on a charge of having violated the State poison law by growing marahuana, the weed desired by Mexicans for its narcotic effects.”

By his own account, during World War I, Boden became a “special agent” of the United States. He assisted the U.S. Marshal in chasing down dissenters to the war, draft dodgers, and citizens of German descent reportedly suspected as spies. He returned to drug enforcement after the enactment of national and state drug prohibition, reportedly taking a job with the internal revenue office in Los Angeles in 1918 and “confining his duties to the enforcement of the Harrison anti-narcotic law.” However, by 1919 he was again a pharmacy board inspector.

One remarkable account of Boden’s views (right) went viral as a wire service story in 1921, the year he was photographed by the LA Herald with this tall, unidentifiable plant—reputed to be “a Big Marihuana Plant.”

Claiming the “underworld” was in a “narcotic panic” due to effective enforcement of alcohol and opiate prohibition, Boden turned his attention to pulling up plants and arresting Mexican laborers. He also espoused a connection between urban musicians and cannabis, calling it the “jazz weed.” As seen in the above wire service story, Boden made extensive claims about the dangers of marijuana, saying:

“Eliminate marihuana and crime among the laboring class of Mexicans will be appreciably reduced … Prevent persons from planting and growing the weed and much wickedness will be spared in the world.”

By 1922 Boden was reported to have a “professorial and police knowledge” of marihuana, although he was certainly wrong on several botanical and physiological facts.

Throughout his career, Fred C. Boden did his best to associate opium with Chinese immigrants and marihuana with Mexican immigrants. And to arrest them whenever he could. There is much more to learn about this unheralded character in our early racialized drug wars. Boden is easy to find in my favorite newspaper databases, and he has already briefly appeared in some of my scholarly work like Burn, Sell, or Drive (a history of forfeiture) and A History of Early Drug Sentences in California.

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