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While I was researching the United States Narcotic Farm, I came across this music video for a song named Prisontown by the band the Malefactors of Great Wealth. The history of the Narcotic Farm, its residents, staff, philosophies and experiments is enthralling. There’s so much to confound and surprise we could start any place, so we might as well start with this music video.
The Malefactors are a contemporary band whereas this footage clearly is not. The band here is Pacific Gas & Electric playing in 1970 at the National Institute of Mental Health & Clinical Research Center. (The U.S. Narcotic Farm was renamed the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital and later the National Institute of Mental Health.) Throughout all of it’s iterations, residents and staff just called it ‘Narco’.
Lexington Narcotic Hospital, 1935. Credit: University of Kentucky Archives
The Narcotic Farm was established to treat drug use and addiction as a health issue and not a criminal issue. Ostensibly, the residents were considered patients, not prisoners. They were thought of not as deviant but as sick.
The administration wanted to rehabilitate as and when it could but, in those times, society, science and the public had a lot to learn if they were to successfully treat addiction. Bear in mind, manufactured heroin had been in the public realm for less than 40 years up to that point, and from its introduction to market in 1898 until 1910 it was advertised as a non-addictive morphine substitute and cough suppressant.
The Narcotic Farm had several types of resident. One third had been sent there in lieu of custody in other federal prisons. Two thirds, however, were volunteers wanting to kick drugs. They checked themselves in and could leave any time, though most stayed for extended periods.
As much of the work was trial and error (literally experiments in laboratories) the farm’s levels of success in its treatment of drug addiction varied greatly. The context to all the work was the rural setting. Away from the iniquity of the city, patients worked in the fields, harvesting crops and milking cattle. Sports, group therapies and music were all encouraged as healthy outlets. The walls were relatively porous; local softball teams played patient-teams in the courtyard. No users went cold-turkey, instead the doctors prescribed methadone and other replacements to wean patients off heroin. Hundreds of the best jazz musicians passed through the farm in the 40s and 50s. Concerts and jam sessions were a mainstay.
So why this footage? Well Malefactors band-member J.P. Olsen is also an author and filmmaker. He directed the fantastic documentary The Narcotic Farm, and co-authored the accompanying book The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts. The Prisontown video was made with footage that Olsen did not use for the documentary. The band is Pacific Gas & Electric, an American blues rock band known for their biggest hit Are You Ready? in 1970. I highly recommend the documentary Olsen made with Luke Walden and Nancy Campbell. You can watch The Narcotic Farm in full on Vimeo.
Under its many different titles, the United States Narcotic Farm carved a fascinating history. It’s generally thought it failed to rehab patients (90% of residents returned to opiate addiction after their stays) but much of our knowledge about the chemistry and physical effects of addiction stems from research carried out there. Not all research was ethical by todays standards though. Volunteer patients would sign up to take various drugs–from LSD to barbiturates to marijuana–so that they might be monitored during withdrawal or medical interventions.
The Narcotic Farm succeeded in unmasking many prescription drugs and tranquilizers as addictive when they’d only been marketed previously as positive agents. To give you a sense of the open and relaxed approach to research see this brief clip:
Some of the payments to volunteer-patients in these trials were made in drugs–heroin, methadone included. The patients could even put these drugs “in the bank” so to speak, so that they might, at a later date, go to the dispensary, claim and imbibe them. If it sounds crazy it’s because, in all honesty, it is.
Five years after the band footage (top) was made, the institution was designated as a federal psychiatric hospital. All volunteer patients were moved out and the Addiction Research Center was closed down. It is now the Federal Medical Center with an adjacent minimum security camp and 1,900 prisoners in total.
The United States Narcotic Farm represents a fascinating, surprising chapter in American medical and correctional history. There’s many great resources online which I encourage you to read: an academic history of the farm by Erin Weiss; a brief history of the farm by the Alcohol and Drugs History Society; an interview with Narcotic Farm book author Dr. Nancy Campbell by the Public Library of Science; some reflections by documentary maker Luke Walden; an interview with Olsen and Campbell on NPR; a feature on Kentucky Educational Television; a slideshow of images from the farm on Scientific American; and a slideshow on the website of the Lexington Herald Leader newspaper.
To close, I went on an Internet joyride scouring for images from the farm and dump the most intriguing here. Note, several made by Arthur Rothstein are staged promotional shots, which you can read more about here.)
Intake. Credit: Unknown.
Courtesy of Nancy D. Campbell, JP Olsen & Luke Walden. Credit :Arthur Rothstein, Kentucky Historical Society
Courtesy of Nancy D. Campbell, JP Olsen & Luke Walden, “The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts”, Kentucky Historical Society
At its peak, the institution’s award-winning dairy herd numbered more than ninety cows. Credit: Unknown.
Nurses clip patients fingernails. Manicures and pedicures were part of the early program to improve patients’ personal hygiene and were considered part of “the cure”. Circa 1940s. Credit: Kentucky Historical Society
‘Narcotic Farm at Lexington, Kentucky, Circa. 1950.’ Furniture was made in the institution’s woodshop was used throughout the prison and was also sent to various federal agencies, including the Treasury Department and, in later years, NASA. Credit: Arthur Rothstein, Kentucky Historical Society
Male and female patients perform a Latin dance accompanied by Marco’s big band. Former patient Eddie Flowers recalls: “We used to put on a big extravaganza with sets and everything. It was one of the good times down there in Lexington, Kentucky. And everybody came to the show-the females, the personnel, the males, you know. For that couple of hours we were just in a whole other space and time.” Courtesy of Nancy D. Campbell, JP Olsen & Luke Walden, “The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts”
This photo from 1939 was one of scores made by Arthur Rothstein used to promote the “disease model” practiced by doctors at Lexington. Drug use was seen as an illness not a inherently criminal behaviour.
‘Narcotic Farm at Lexington, Kentucky, 1939. Credit: Arthur Rothstein
Hypodermic syringes confiscated during admissions in 1939. Note one disguised as a fountain pen. Credit: Arthur Rothstein, National Library of Medicine.
The Darrow Photopolygraph measured a patient’s mental and physical reaction to slang references to drugs. In this 1939 photo, a researcher shows the addict words such as “dope” and “informer”, while monitoring the patient’s reaction. The patient is an actor posing for promotional material created by the government to publicize the Narcotic Farm. Credit: Arthur Rothstein, Kentucky Historical Society.
Even in the throes of addiction, Graham MacIndoe was able to take a relatively objective look at the visual culture of the drug trade. He collected more than 100 bags, in NYC, in which heroin was sold.
When other addicts emptied these little baggies, and after they’d cooked and injected the contents, what did they see? Trash? Incriminating evidence? MacIndoe saw the anthropology and informal economics of dealing.
Now, four years clean, photographs of the bags are collected in a new book All In: Buying Into The Drug Trade (Little Big Man Books, San Francisco).
For Wired, I wrote about the series, MacIndoe’s story and his thoughts about what the baggies might mean for us all: The Dark, Ironic Branding Drug Dealers Use to Sell Heroin
‘Steph’ © Tony Foushe
There’s two things I hope you’ll carry away from this post. Firstly, the importance of Live Through This a photo series resulting from a-two year collaboration between Tony Fouhse and Stephanie. Secondly, that Tony has established Straylight Press to get limited-edition books and zines in the hands of photo-lovers. Live Through This is Straylight’s first publication.
To regular readers, Tony Fouhse will not be a new name. I’ve always admired Tony’s honest, weekly updates about his ongoing work, emotions and process. In my capacity as a Wired.com blogger, I recommended his blog drool as a top read.
LIVE THROUGH THIS
Four years ago, Tony began shooting USER, portraits of crack and heroin addicts on a single Ottawa city block. During that time, he met Stephanie, noticed something different about her, and asked, “Is there anything I can do to help?” She said she wanted help getting clean.
From that point it’s a long story of great-strides, trauma, dope sickness, humour, sunlight and friendship. Often photographers may distance themselves from the world by saying they’re mere observers. In the case of photojournalism, so-called objectivity sometimes excuses camera-persons from getting involved in even small practical ways to help those they photograph.
Tony is not a photojournalist and he is no hero either; he’s a guy that offered to help someone whose needs were greater than most. If you want to venture into the drool archives, Tony has told the story in great detail. Alternatively, Tony wrote a five-part series about his and Steph’s journey for the ever-excellent NPAC blog [one, two, three, four, five].
In December, Steph had a wobble and ended up in jail. In January, when I read Steph’s words about her court hearing it was clear that Tony has had a life-changing effect on her life:
When I went to Halifax I sat in front of the judge and the crown was asking for 4-6 months and my lawyer asked for probation and sure enough I got it. Then, when I went to Pictou courts my lawyer asked for 6 months house arrest and he got it too […] if it wasn’t for my lawyer in Halifax I would of been fucked. He fought for me to do house arrest because I did so much in the last year, like, he brought up how when I lived in Ottawa I met this man named Tony Fouhse was gonna help me get into a rehab called the R.O Royal Ottawa but I never came to the rehab because I ended up growing a cyst on my brain and how Tony ended up helping me ween from using Heroin to 1 4mg dillie (Dilaudid) a day and sent me home to my family where I could sober up and become a clean mom and we did a project of my life on the street.
It’s a bit embarrassing it’s taken me six months to share my wonder. As well as being photo-rich, Steph and Tony’s journey is a really compelling story. Live Through This is one of the most interesting photography projects I’ve followed in recent years.
Live Through This is all the more impressive because Tony and Steph have taken it upon themselves to promote, produce and distribute it. Tony describes Straylight Press as a “vehicle to produce and disseminate printed photo matter.”
Future projects include the unflinching work of Scot Sothern and Brett Gundlock’s Prisoners (which I saluted in the past) so it is exciting times. The idea is that the success of one project feeds the next, so if enough copies of Live Through This sell then profits go into producing the next photographer’s book. It’s a pre-sales fundraising model. In addition, Straylight zines are fairly inexpensive and the intent is to produce 3 or 4 each year.
“Straylight is kind of like a Kickstarter, but with more long-term commitment to projects that aren’t just my own,” says Tony. “Kickstarter projects, while a good and interesting idea, seem to me to be too much about the individual. Not that I have anything against that, after all, you need an ego to be a photographer. But …”
Last month, Tony talked with the Ottawa Citizen about Straylight: Tony Fouhse opens photo-book publishing house – and web gurus be damned.
Tony is flogging prints, books and workshops to raise money for Straylight projects.