Brow Beat

Here’s What Happens When You Smoke Marijuana, According to the Washington Post in 1905

Hands rolling a joint above a grinder full of marijuana.
Prelude to a murder spree? Lars Hagberg/AFP/Getty Images

In the spring of 1905, an anthropology professor at the University of Chicago named Frederick Starr decided to get high with his students. He had discovered marijuana while traveling in Mexico and brought a large quantity back to campus with him for further experiments in the still-growing field of getting blazed at college. After testing the waters with social influencers—according to one story, he smoked out a campus football star before offering weed to anyone else—he threw an on-campus party, promising students “a smoke sweeter than cigar, cigarette, or pipe tobacco, an originator of dreamland castles and green vales with daisies growing in them, a tonic, not a stimulant.” Although Starr was a man of his time in all the ways you’d expect an anthropology professor from the University of Chicago in 1905 to be a man of his time and a few you wouldn’t—he wrote a book in defense of King Leopold II’s conduct in the Congo, for starters—he was a visionary when it came to understanding the sorts of activities people might enjoy while under the influence of marijuana: The party featured unlimited ice cream.

A few weeks after the initial reports of Starr’s experiments, the not-yet-very-reputable Washington Post—this was the era when they were doing things like wildly speculating about whether or not a mummy’s curse sank the Titanic—used the story as a peg to publish one of the most fanciful descriptions of marijuana and its effects to ever see print. Although it’s not credited to a wire service, or to anyone at all, it ran on the same day in the New York Sun, and was reprinted widely after that. (The Austin dateline suggests it might have run in a Texas paper before the Sun and Post picked it up, but I couldn’t locate it.) After publication, the article showed up in trade magazines for pharmacists (The Spatula, Aug. 1905; Paint, Oil, and Drug Review, Nov. 29, 1905; Merck’s Report, March 1906), semi-reputable medical reviews (The St. Louis Medical Review, Jan. 20, 1906), and, of course, other newspapers, which not only reprinted the original article, but paraphrased and repeated its description of marijuana’s effects, complete with hallucinatory animals and murder sprees, for years to come.

If you’re wondering how long it took before the anonymous author’s claims about marijuana were used as a cudgel in the service of imperialism and white supremacy, here’s your answer: two days. On March 21, the Washington Post ran an editorial under the headline “Terrors of Marihuana” that extensively quoted the papers’ own made-up coverage from two days earlier, positing that marijuana was responsible for “the peculiar mental traits of Latin-American warriors and revolutionaries which lead them to view ‘North America’ as a monster of hideous shape and ungovernable appetite,” before admonishing Venezuelan president Cipriano Castro to “forswear marihuana and live cleanly, as patriots should.” Since it was Venezuela’s turn in the bucket, the Post claimed on the 21st that Starr had discovered marijuana in Venezuela, two days after reporting that he’d discovered it in Mexico. In the interim, they’d also decided to spell it “marihuana” instead of “mariahuana.” Here’s the Post’s original story about marijuana and its effects, as published on March 19, 1905.


Deadly Weed Being Smoked at University of Chicago


Prof. Frederick Starr Reported as Introducing it Among the Students—Its Use and Sale Forbidden by the Mexican Government—Habitual User Becomes a Raving Maniac—Terrible Visions.

Special Correspondence of the Washington Post

Austin, Tex., March 15.—There will be some remarkable and exciting things done by Prof. Frederick Starr, of the University of Chicago, and of the students of that institution if the published report is true that they have taken to smoking mariahuana. It is stated that Prof. Starr dotes on the weed, and recommends it as a substitute for tobacco. According to that published report, he brought back great quantities of it from Mexico on his recent visit to that country, and has invited the students to partake of it freely for scientific purposes.

Mariahuana is one of the most dangerous drugs grown in Mexico. The weed grows wild in many localities of the southern part of that country. Its wonderful powers as an intoxicant have long been known to the natives, and many are the wild orgies it has produced. So dangerous is mariahuana that in the City of Mexico and other Mexican cities the government keeps special inspectors constantly employed to see that the weed is not sold in the markets.

Produces Madness

A few years ago it was found that many of the prisoners in the City of Mexico were losing their minds. An investigation was started and the discovery was made that they were all addicted to the use of mariahuana, which was smuggled in to them by the guards, who had been bribed for that purpose. Since then strict orders prohibiting the use of mariahuana by prisoners have been enforced.

The poisonous weed also finds favor among soldiers, who mix it with tobacco and smoke it. The sale of the weed to the soldiers is strictly prohibited, and severe punishment is provided for anyone guilty of offense.

The habitual user of mariahuana finally loses his mind and becomes a raving lunatic. There are scores and scores of such instances in Mexico. It is said that those who smoke mariahuana frequently die suddenly.

The smoking of mariahuana is a seductive habit. It grows upon a person more quickly and securely than the use of opium or cocaine.

Leaves of tobacco bear a close resemblance to leaves of the mariahuana weed. The latter is smoked in cigarette form or in a pipe the same as tobacco.

The first effect of smoking mariahuana is a slight headache. It comes after the first three or four draughts of smoke. A marked dizziness then sets in. Everything seems to move around the smoker, this whirl becoming faster and faster, until all sense of his surroundings is lost.

Visions Full of Terror

The next step of his intoxication is full of terrors. Troops of ferocious wild animals march before the vision of the smoker. Lions, tigers, panthers, and other wild beasts occupy his vision.

The wild animals are then attacked by hosts of devils and monsters of unheard of shapes. The smoker becomes brave and possessed of superhuman strength. It is at this stage of the debauch that murders are committed by the smoker. Many mariahuana crimes are committed in Mexico.

A short time ago a Mexican of the lower class living in the City of Mexico smoked a mariahuana cigarette. He became wildly insane and attacked and killed a policeman and seriously wounded three other officers. It required the combined strength of six policemen to overpower the madman and take him to prison.

A few Americans in Mexico have experimented with mariahuana. A few years ago Henry Hommert, a former well-known citizen of San Antonio, purchased a large coffee plantation in Southern Mexico. He was induced to try smoking mariahuana. He became addicted to the habit, which rendered him insane and finally resulted in his death.

In another instance the superintendent of a mine in Mexico, who was an American, became the object of hatred of one of the men in his employ. This Mexican mixed mariahuana with the American’s tobacco. The latter was made wildly insane from smoking the mixture and made a vicious attack upon a party of miners. He was shot and killed in the affray.