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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.
It always a delight when you find gorgeous photographs. It’s a double delight when the photographer can write with genuine and compelling words. Sarah Hoskins – whose Girl’s School work I featured on Prison Photography in September – was recently featured on Roger May’s excellent Walk Your Camera website.
In presenting her series. The Homeplace, Hoskins recounts a car crash she and her daughter suffered this summer and the response of her subjects and new friends.
In the fall of 2000 I stood in the middle of Frogtown Lane map in hand, I didn’t know a soul. On June 11, 2012 I lay strapped down in an emergency room in Somerset, Kentucky a hundred miles away from that lane.
I had left the African American hamlets of the Inner Bluegrass Region that morning, where I had been photographing for the past week as well as the past twelve years. […] The residents of the hamlets arrived like the cavalry in Somerset within hours of the car accident, dropping everything to rescue my daughter and myself as well as all of our belongings including my cameras and film from the wreckage that was our car.
[…] I am being wheeled through the in the emergency room of UK hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. I am brought into yet another emergency room. I can still only look up. I see the eyes that are Derek’s, the same eyes his daddy had. He strokes my hair that is matted and covered in dried blood. His warm coal colored hand holds my cold pasty white one. The nurse says, “Only relatives are allowed in here. How are you two related?” I hear the smile in Derek’s voice, “It’s a long story.”
Heartfelt stuff. Read more.