Historians understand marketplaces to be the kinds of "space" which illuminate social and economic relationships. Taken together, the diverse transactions of the marketplace show how terms such as "community" and "neighborhood" are given meaning through daily activity. Studies from diverse settings have also demonstrated that marketplaces are institutions which bring into focus the relationship of one part of a city to the larger whole. This article suggests that the same appears to be true for illicit drug marketplaces, which have been highly visible centers of economic exchange in twentieth-century United States' cities. Although contemporary drug markets sometimes appear to be defining features of modern urban life, the identification of drug selling with particular city neighborhoods is a phenomenon as old as legal prohibitions on specific substances.
Despite the obvious importance of drug marketplaces, the social scientific literature of the twentieth century paid insufficient attention to drug selling as work, or as economic enterprise. Instead, scholars have employed several traditional analytical frameworks, including: the sociological view of drug selling as deviant behavior; participation in the drug market as a manifestation of addiction and the addict's "hustling" lifestyle; or drug marketplaces as a reflection of individual and community pathology, or more recently, of "underclass" formation.(1) In each instance, drug marketplaces are meaningful only as extensions of certain moral, social, or ecological conditions. Even when the organization of drug distribution has been the object of historical investigation, prominent organized crime figures responsible for large-scale importation and wholesale distribution rather than retail level sellers have drawn the most attention.
Recent scholarly work from a number of disciplines suggests a new framework for historical analysis. One line of contemporary research employs a "market approach" which incorporates social and cultural context, and the ways they change over time. Vincenzo Ruggerio and Nigel South prefaced their 1995 study of European drug markets by describing illicit drugs "simply as commodities" which "shape and are shaped by demand and supply, exchange and consumption."(2) Another line of contemporary research takes an ethnographic approach to the participants in drug markets. Representative studies include Patricia Adler's work on upper-level drug dealers in California, and Terry Williams' more recent ethnographic study of street-level cocaine sellers in New York City.(3) Historical research into other forms of illicit enterprise also suggest ways in which drug markets might be apprehended. As Mark Haller observed, "in order to understand such activities . . . it is necessary to ask the same sorts of questions that would be asked concerning any other retail business activity."(4)
This article examines the evolution of drug distribution in Chicago between 1890 and 1940. Few legal restrictions on the drug supply existed at the start of this period, but growing concerns over the popular use of opiates and cocaine led to efforts at limiting access. By the first decade of the twentieth century, a broad coalition of Progressive reformers in Chicago were able to curtail sharply the legal supply of "dangerous" drugs. As the legal supply of opiates and cocaine shrank, public pressure and law enforcement drove the drug marketplace into Chicago's well-known vice districts. Here, a collection of independent entrepreneurs created underground drug distribution networks serving customers from throughout the city. For a few, drug selling yielded enormous rewards and a measure of status in underground Chicago. For most drug sellers, their occupation brought a small measure of economic reward, always tempered by the risk of victimization or arrest. With the closing of Chicago's "Levee" district, and the end of sanctioned vice, the drug trade moved into the Black Belt neighborhoods of the South Side. The concentration of drug selling in the Black Belt was not inevitable, but had much to do with choices made by law enforcement and city government that implicitly endorsed a containment policy for drug marketplaces.
Protecting Neighborhoods: The Origins of the Illicit Marketplace
Cities have long housed concentrations of "underground" trades in sex, drink, gambling, or bawdy entertainment. Most large cities of the nineteenth-century United States had clearly defined vice districts, such as New Orleans' Storyville or New York City's Tenderloin, formally or informally protected by public policy which aimed to contain and isolate illicit activity. Until the twentieth century, however, drug selling was only marginally related to these enterprises. The primary exceptions were the opium dens which flourished in most vice districts in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The social sanction on the use of opium for pleasure, its association with Chinese immigrants, and the desire of smokers themselves for close association outside of conventional society, combined to keep opium dens isolated. The other important link between drug selling and vice was the high prevalence of opiate use and addiction among female prostitutes.(5)
In general, however, few or no formal legal controls constrained drug distribution. Retail druggists were therefore free to dispense drug products to their customers, although a prescription requirement was increasingly common by the turn of the century. Over-the-counter medicines were widely available, any number of which might contain morphine or cocaine as a key ingredient. These same drugs were even available through the mail in some instances. Quite simply, the absence of formal or informal controls made specific underground markets unnecessary.
Underground drug selling did not appear overnight. The rise of "recreational" usage of cocaine and opiates at the end of the nineteenth century, especially among socially and economically marginal groups, created a sense of public crisis. Attacking health and safety concerns both real and imagined, a powerful coalition of forces sought to close off legal access to certain drugs. The old legal market gradually faded away, the victim of informal pressure and formal legal restrictions, and was slowly replaced by an underground market bearing most of the characteristic features of the contemporary illicit drug trade.
Events in Chicago mirrored these national trends. By 1890, the city had already developed well-defined vice districts, including the soon-to-be-famous "Levee" on the South Side. Herbert Asbury once wrote of the Levee that "the most disreputable superlative that could be imagined would fail to do it justice."(6) Yet, with the exception of a vigorous campaign against opium smoking in the 1880's, Chicago authorities still defined drug use as a private concern. Sensational stories of prominent individuals brought down by drug addiction emphasized the individual nature of the drug problem. Dr. Charles D. Bradley's story was representative: a compulsive cocaine user who initiated cocaine use at the height of his medical career, advanced to the use of one gram each day, subsequently lost his marriage, children, property and career, and was finally arrested for trying to kill a drugstore clerk who refused to sell him cocaine. Bradley's story may have been shocking, but it was not frightening. The unfortunate doctor was, at worst, a pitiable "victim of cocaine."(7)
After 1890, two trends came together in Chicago (and elsewhere) to redefine drug use as a public issue. First, the use of opiates and cocaine expanded among the residents of working-class, immigrant neighborhoods. Where drug use had once appeared to be a problem among the "respectable" classes, it now appeared to be prevalent among the socially and economically marginal. Second, Chicago's drug users were increasingly likely to be consuming for non-medical reasons, without much pretense of therapeutic necessity. Thus, the concerns over the characteristics of the city's drug-using population were joined by an equally strong distaste for their self-consciously pleasure-seeking behavior.
Cocaine was the first drug to become a major public concern. As in the rest of the United States, the popular use of cocaine in Chicago grew tremendously at the turn of the century. Readily available in pure form or in a variety of over-the-counter medicines, cocaine attracted many new consumers. In the immigrant neighborhoods of Chicago's West Side, young boys discovered the pleasures of cocaine's stimulant and euphoriant effects. As one youth described it, cocaine made him feel "as if I was going up in a flying machine" or "as if I was a millionaire and could do anything I pleased."(8) Concerned with their children s cocaine use, mothers brought the issue of drug sales from neighborhood pharmacists to the attention of Hull House. The Juvenile Court Committee reported a "restlessness and disposition to run away" among delinquent boys on parole from the John Worthy School which were "found to have their cause in the almost universal habit, among this class of boys, of using cocaine."(9) Officers of juvenile courts also observed a number of children whose parents used cocaine, and concluded that chronic use of the drug could lead to parental neglect. By 1908 the phrase "as crazy as a West Side dope fiend" had entered the lexicon of city residents.(10)
In 1904 Jessie Binford, who would later become the long-time head of the Juvenile Protective Association, had just moved to Chicago and taken up residence at Hull House. For her first project, Binford was assigned the task of investigating the cocaine problem, identifying the source of sales, and eliminating those sales. Over the next several years, Binford organized a remarkable coalition of public and private Progressive reform interests. The attendees of a 1904 Hull House conference on the cocaine question highlighted the breadth of Binford's coalition: Binford, Jane Addams, Julia Lathrop, public health pioneer Dr. Alice Hamilton, an attorney from the State Board of Pharmacy, several mothers of young cocaine users, local physicians, and representatives from the Chicago Bureau of Charities, the Chicago Police Department, and the Juvenile Court Committee. Binford was later joined by Municipal Court Judge Frank Sadler, and House of Corrections Superintendent John Whitman.(11)
The efforts of the Hull House coalition must be distinguished from the activities of the many moral entrepreneurs who crowded into Chicago decrying the evils of drugs and drink. While evangelists and temperance advocates marched through the streets, the Hull House reformers introduced two distinct and important dimensions to the anti-drug movement. For the first time, public and private interests worked …