Academic journal article Journalism History

Dens of Hell in the Cities of Zion

Academic journal article Journalism History

Dens of Hell in the Cities of Zion

Article excerpt

Newspaper Coverage of Opium Abuse in Territorial Utah, 1869-96

Life was hard for Chinese laborers in the American West, and many smoked opium to forget their troubles. When this habit arrived in the Utah Territory in 1869, it alarmed and offended Victorian values and religiously-based moral sensibilities, and even worse, non-Chinese residents began adopting the habit. This article used traditional historical methods to identify and interpret newspaper articles published in Salt Lake City and Ogden, Utah, about people smoking opium. The purpose of the study was to understand how editors and writers interpreted the growing habit and its affect on society, and hegemony theory, based on the writings of Antonio Gramsci, was used to interpret the findings. The article argues that newspapers discouraged opium use and pressured the government to suppress and control its sale in support of community values.

Albert "Pet" Reggel was only eighteen years-old in 1879 when he overdosed in a Chinese opium den. A reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune, the city's largest independent newspaper, was shaken by the death. "Pet" was a nice boy from a good family with a bright future ahead of him. Why had he been down there? Why was he permitted? Was there not somebody to blame? The reporter arranged for a secret tour of the city's dens to see what had drawn the boy there and where he had died. While his findings will be explained later, his conclusion was that something had to be done about the dens.1

Opium dens had opened in Utah with the arrival of the Chinese at the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Throughout the 1870s, the local newspapers repeatedly reported with obvious alarm on the spread of the habit and the dens in which it was smoked. Reggel was only one of many victims of the drug, but the issue was additionally scandalous because Utah was supposed to be the land of saints. It was not just another western territory full of prospectors, homesteaders, and fledgling industrialists. Utah was supposed to be the land of Zion. These differences in how the area was settled, governed, and conceived meant that reactions to the dens differed from neighboring areas.

The peculiarities of Utah's history have often been ignored by historians because the territory's oddities make it inconvenient for inclusion in studies of the Great Basin region. Ironically, another reason that more attention has not been paid to Utah is that some researchers believe the experiences of the frontier farmers, miners, and railroad workers in Utah were not different enough to deserve special attention. This article argues that journalists in northern Utah reacted to the spread of opium dens in a unique way and directs attention to this specific issue.

Mormon editors ran stories about Chinese opium abuse as early as two months before the first Utah newspaper began publishing in the summer of 1 850.2 At first the stories were just that - stories - about strange happenings in an exotic land. The abuse of opium smoking became a domestic reality in the 1870s when it began affecting local residents, including women and youths. But editors and journalists in this Mormon-dominated area did not react to the Chinese and their opium in the same ways as their counterparts in neighboring regions. The unique newspaper coverage produced in Ogden and Salt Lake City between 1869 and statehood in 1896 demonstrated the active role that media can play in the peaceful assertion of hegemony. This study is about how Utah journalists contributed to the Mormon preservation of hegemony in their articles about opium abuse and the Chinese.

The Chinese in northern Utah were industrious and private, but they presented a unique problem to the Mormons: after hours of hard labor, the Chinese enjoyed relaxing in underground "dens" where they gambled and smoked opium. Anyone of any age, gender, or race willing to pay could participate. The problem was not unique to the Mormons; newspapers across the nation reported dens opening up anywhere there were enough Chinese. …

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