Opium, New Orleans and Hard Work!

Helen and Mary RWA NYCBack in the lair today and loving it.

What makes a hero? He’s got to be sensitive, handsome, good with children and animals and, you know, mind-bogglingly rich. Having a title doesn’t hurt, either. Duke, Earl, Count, Viscount—any and all will do—especially if the hero is generous with his tenants while he improves life on the estate, making it even more profitable.

However, when you write historical fiction set in New Orleans in the 1880s, as we do (mother/daughter writing team Ursula LeCoeur), our hero can’t be a duke or an earl. American men, even if their families were wealthy, worked. Yes, we said that odious word in the world of happily-ever-after: work.

But as what? A bond trader, an accountant, a shopkeeper, a streetcar operator? Yawn. The challenge is to find a plausible profession that connects our characters to and sheds light on the Victorian Age. Ben Merritt, our male lead in The Devious Debutante—Book III in the Love in New Orleans Series—is an attorney specializing in admiralty law, a totally acceptable profession for a virile young man. Just not very exciting.

We turned to newspapers, magazines and medical texts of the period and within a few hours found the perfect side project that also related to his career. Yes, he’s an admiralty attorney, but he also works undercover for the U.S. Treasury Department, investigating opium shipments smuggled into the port of New Orleans.

As most readers know, opium was legal in America in the Victorian era and served as the go-to drug of the age. One statistic suggests opium usage increased four-fold fromUrsulaLeCoeur_TheDeviousDebutante_800px the 1840s to the 1890s. Druggists mixed opium with alcohol to make laudanum, which they sold in great quantities over the counter. This bitter liquid relieved pain, suppressed coughs and calmed cranky babies, not to mention easing everything from women’s troubles to cardiac disease. Most patent medicines, which were neither patented nor properly medicinal, contained opium or alcohol or both. Add recreation to the uses of the drug and it’s clear opium held a central place in Victorian life.

But why? Some historians implicate the Industrial Revolution. Heavy labor and long hours in factory jobs in the cities encouraged the use of narcotics by workers who enjoyed the listless contentment in the evening. Mothers needed to keep their babies, often left alone in the house, quiet while they went to work. And because of the grueling work, unsanitary conditions and poverty, people were ill, suffering from toothaches, fevers, backaches, and so on.

Whatever the reason, men of all classes flocked to opium dens in cities across the United States. Women, too, frequented public dens in some cities, though more often they owned their own pipes and smoked in their sitting rooms.

New Orleanians delighted in opium’s effects perhaps more than other Americans. An article in the August 3, 1889 edition of the New Orleans weekly, The Mascot, declared, “More people in New Orleans are addicted to the enslaving and totally demoralizing habit than in any other city of the union. Here opium joints flourish in all parts of the city and are patronized by all classes.”

MascotOpiumDen3Aug89While newspapers railed against opium, no serious moves were made to outlaw it. In truth, the U.S. government needed the money raised by import duties on the drug. Opium was taxed at 15 cents a pound beginning in the 1830s, but as demand grew, so did the tax. By 1880, the tax was $6 dollars a pound (swelling the U.S. treasury by more than 10 million dollars). Civil War debt still lingered, however, so in 1883, the government raised the tariff to $10 dollars a pound (nearly $17 million a year for the treasury).

With the new tax, legal opium imports plummeted, and smugglers were quick to take up the lucrative trade. Throughout this period, opium smokers and dens increased. The biggest ports of entry for illegal opium were New York, San Francisco and New Orleans.

Could there be a better time or place for Ben Merritt to be a hero? By day he’s an attorney, poring over contracts. By night he skulks around the docks searching for smugglers. A champion swimmer, he’s also trained in judo, house-breaking and safe-cracking. He’s armed with a pistol hidden in his jacket and a knife in his boot. And when his investigations lead him to suspect the woman he loves, he must walk a tightrope of dangerous desire to uncover the truth.

An attorney, yes. But not a dull one.

 So how about you? Other than courting his lady love, what occupation and hobbies would interest your ideal hero?

Those who comment below will be entered in a giveaway. The winner may choose an e-book or print copy of The Devious Debutante.

Ursula LeCoeur is the pen name of Mary and Helen Scully, a mother/daughter team who set their romances in New Orleans in the 1880s. Book I, The Willing Widow; Book II, A Christmas Kiss; Book III, The Devious Debutante. http://amazon.com/dp/B015ERZOTA

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  • Ki says:

    This is one book I definitely have to grab. It sounds amazing! Living two different lives, especially if one’s a spy for the government is definitely adventurous yet difficult when a loved one is marked as a suspect.

    My ideal hero is always a spy, undercover of course, and is always the least expected one. I suppose that’s what makes him great at his job. He’s the bookish type or a scientist. He may even be a writer or just a soldier/lieutenant. But he’s definitely a quiet one and lover of art and literature, even poems and what we call classic playwrights. Oh, and I can’t forget that he likes working with his hands, so being in the stables is one past time he enjoys. Yeah, I should keep this as an inspiration for a book. =)

  • Mary Preston says:

    After reading this post I can practically smell the opium. Fascinating thank you.

  • Helen says:

    Hi Ladies

    I have the first one in this series and I am looking forward to reading them but I am so snowed under at the moment I need lots more hours in the day 🙂

    As for what a hero could do there would be a lot estate owner newspaper man ship builder maybe

    Looking forward to these stories 🙂

    Have Fun

  • Heathercm2001 says:

    This sounds fantastic! I love that you didn’t just stick with the lawyer, but gave him a really cool twist. All the opium information is fascinating. I wish I learned stuff like that back in history class when I was in school.

    I really enjoy the spy heroes. My favorite, so far, is probably Chuck from the TV show “Chuck.” I love that they took a nerdy, down-to-earth, guy next door, and made him a super spy. I think nerds are my weakness. 😉

    • LOL – Love the “nerds are my weakness” line, Heather. That belongs on a t-shirt 🙂

    • Heather,
      We love the line, too (as Donna wrote): “Nerds are my weakness.” We wanted a man of action and his occupation gave us that. If a man’s sitting behind a desk 10 hours a day, it’s tough to make him exciting. You have to get him out of the office.

  • Elaina says:

    What a fascinating post, wonderful feature and interesting novel which sounds intriguing and unique. An ideal hero would be a universal handyman with strength and values to match.

  • Hi Ladies –

    Your post brought back so many memories! At one point in my Casanova Code book, I was weaving in a subplot with an Opium addicted character. I had visions of a smuggling scheme, importing opium from China, and then I realized that the darn stuff was legal ! All that research for nothing. Oh well, that’s the plight of an Historical author. 🙂

    Mega luck with the Devious Debutante! Love the New Orleans setting.

    • Thanks, Donna. Yes, legal opium did make it tough to have a smuggling plot until we discovered the enormous import duty on the stuff. In today’s money, $10 a pound equals $220 a pound, so the smugglers saw a great opportunity.

  • Anne says:

    This novel would be a treasure to read and be unforgettable and special. Thanks for this interesting and informative post. My hero would be an talented entrepreneur with many and varied talents.

    • Anne,
      An entrepreneur would make an ideal hero. He’d be hard-working and passionate. We’d hope he would be a kind boss who respected his employees and paid them fairly.

      If I’m replying twice, I’m sorry. I’m confused.

  • Ellie says:

    A most interesting historical which I would savor. Thanks for this great information and the novel which would be a unique reading experience.

    • Ellie,
      We hope you enjoy reading The Devious Debutante. The New Orleans setting makes writing novels easy. There’s so much going on in the city. There’s always something intriguing.

  • Sally Schmidt says:

    What an interesting bit of history. I knew opium was legal at one point but not those other fascinating details.

    Well, I would like the hero to enjoy reading 😉 but that’s not very exciting, is it?

    • Sally, we like heroes who enjoy reading, too.
      It could be very exciting if he reads poetry to his lady or he engages her mind with thoughtful discussions about what he’s reading.

  • catslady says:

    Wow, I didn’t know any of that. Fascinating. And very pertinent to today’s battle over marijuana. I enjoy variety so I usually happy with almost any profession – especially since like in your story, the characters can be doing other things besides their job. Sounds like something I would enjoy reading ;0

  • Catslady,

    I agree that the opium question is timely. They are now saying that doctors are prescribing too many drugs with opium in them for people who aren’t in serious pain.

    As for professions, they say writers should write about what they know or what they’d like to know. My daughter and I know New Orleans, but we didn’t know much about opium until we started reading up on it. We found it fascinating