Emily Wharton & The Opium Trade in Victoria, BC

Image of French nude opium smoker on postcard from Peachridge Glass retrieved Feb. 25, 2013.

A most fascinating insight into the opium dens of the era was presented by Emily Wharton, a young lady with what was described as "a well-educated background". Miss Wharton was 20 years of age, had been an opium addict for approximately four years, and was what was termed a "fast woman". She outlined her reasons for using opium in the following manner:

Q: What is your name?
A: Emily Wharton

Q: What age are you?
A: I am twenty years of age.

Q: How long have you been an opium smoker?
A: About four years.

Q: Did you learn to smoke opium in Victoria?
A: No; I learned in San Francisco.

Q: Why did you commence to smoke opium?
A: Why do people commence to drink? Trouble, I suppose, lead me to smoke. I think it is better than drink. People who smoke opium do not kick up rows; they injure no one but themselves, and I do not think they injure themselves very much. I know opium-smokers who are sixty-five and seventy years of age. There is a man over there who has smoked opium for thirty years.

Q: Have you read De Quincy's Opium Eater?
A: I have.

Q: Had that book anything to do with leading you to become an opium-smoker?
A: No; I was an opium-smoker before I read his book. I believe he has drawn more on his imagination than on experience.

Q: Do you realize the pleasures and visions he dilates on?
A: No: nor I believe does any opium-smoker. I believe De Quincy's book is a pack of lies.

Q: If it does not afford you any such pleasure as that author describes, why do you smoke?
A: Because I must; I could not live without it. I smoke partly because of the quiet enjoyment it gives, but mainly to escape from the horrors which would ensure did I not smoke. To be twenty- four hours without smoking is to suffer worse tortures than the lost.

Q: But does not the smoking make you wretched, just as the drinking would?
A: No; I require about twelve pipes, then I fall into a state of somnolence and complete rest. When I awake I feel all right, and can attend to fixing up the house. I am brisk, and can work as well as anybody else. I do not feel sick or nervous, neither have I the inclination to smoke more opium.

Q: Then why do you return to use of the drug?
A: Ah! That's it; there is a time when my hands fail me; tears fall from my eyes; I am ready to sink: then I come here and for a few bits have a smoke which sets me right. There is too much nonsense talked about opium-smoking. Life without it would be unendurable for me. I am in excellent health; but, I suppose, everyone has their own troubles, and I have mine.

Q: I do not want to be offensive, but are you what is called a fast woman?
A: I am. But you would be greatly mistaken if you imagined that all women who come here are to smoke are of that character. In San Francisco, I have known some of the finest people visit opium houses, and many respectable people here do the same.

Q: Are women of your class generally addicted to opium-smoking?
A: No; they are more addicted to drink, and drink does them far more harm. Drink excites passion, whereas this allays it; and when a fast woman drinks she goes to ruin pretty quick.

Q: You have for four years been accustomed to go to opium dens such as this, how have you been treated by the Chinamen whom you have met in such places?
A: They never interfered with me in the least. Waking or sleeping, one act of rudeness from a Chinaman I have never experienced. In that respect, they are far superior to white men. Unless you speak to them they will not even speak to you; and, indeed, after the first whiff of opium you have no desire to speak. You rather resent having to speak or being spoken to; and when you want the smoke the desire to get your pipe ready is far too earnest a business to allow of any desire for idle talk. But I have known Chinamen who were not opium-smokers, and I believe they are far more certain not to offend or molest a woman than white men, especially white men with a glass in...

Q: You express yourself well, you have been well educated?
A: Yes; I was well educated, but that is neither here nor there now. We will not go into that. Of course I have not given you my real name.

Q: Have you anything else to add bearing on opium-smoking in connection with the Chinese here in Victoria?
A: No; I will say this, though: that if opium houses were licensed as drinking saloons are one need not have to come into such holes as this to smoke. There would be nice rooms with nice couches, and the degradation would be mitigated. At all events I think the government that will not license an opium saloon should shut up public houses and hotels where they sell vitriol for whiskey and brandy, and where men kill themselves with a certainty and a rapidity beyond the power of opium.

Q: Is there anything else?
A: No.

- from "A Historical Review of Canadian Drug Legislation" in Drug Offences in Canada: Second Edition by Bruce A. MacFarlane, B.A., LL, B. (1986), with expansions from A Report of Canada Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration: Report and Evidence (1885)

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