7/6/12

Chinese Opium Smoking And Prison

         Opium use in China dates back to the Ming Dynasty when it was considered a 'luxury' among the elite.  However, by the19th century it had become a 'necessity' among the lower classes from which came a large number of the Chinese who immigrated to many countries in the last half of the 19th century. Their opium habit continued as many used it to cope with their difficult lives.  Fears of dangers to white women from the Chinese led to laws in the 1880s directed against opium smoking by Chinese although its medicinal use by whites was tolerated until the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914.
         Smoking opium became a federal offense that led to a prison sentence of a year and a day in a federal penitentiary, the earliest which were located in  Leavenworth, KS., McNeil Island, WA, and Atlanta, GA.
         Although I've seen several accounts about the widespread use of opium among Chinese, I have not yet found any discussion of what penalties Chinese received when apprehended until I ran across the 1919 prison file of Charlie Lee Onn,  a  54-year old, married Chinese servant who had been in this country for 26 years. Charlie was arrested for "concealing smoking opium" in 1919 and sentenced on June 24, 1919. Although he lived in New York,  he was sentenced for a year and a day and sent to the nearest federal penitentiary in Atlanta, GA where his sentence began on July 4, 1919.  He was eligible for probation on Nov.4, 1919, which was denied, but he did not have to serve his full sentence as he was released on April 23, 1920.  Note that on his file his "Color" was listed as "Chinaman." 


      Like other inmates, Charlie was allowed to exercise in the prison yard between 1 and 3:30 on Sundays, weather permitting, but he had to sign the form below agreeing to follow rules such as not trying to escape!  It seems quaint and naive today that prisoners would be expected to understand and accept the terms required in this agreement.
    During his imprisonment of about 9 months, Charlie received visits from only 4 or 5 friends, each lasting for 30 min.  He received seven pieces of mail, one of which was from his wife.  He wrote 11 letters, one to his wife.  It is fair to say, he had limited contact with the outside world.  



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