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Vin Mariani ad, via The Atlantic

5 Forgotten Drug Fads

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Vin Mariani ad, via The Atlantic

Some drugs have dynamite PR. Methamphetamine pervades pop culture, iconized by a scowling Walter White and his pork pie hat. Crack cocaine, a mainstay of big-city life since the 1980s, remains in public consciousness with the help of hapless Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Even bath salts and their designer-drug consorts got some well-earned name recognition two summers ago, as sensational headlines howled of faces eaten and an imminent zombie apocalypse.

Other drugs are less fortunate. They wilt into obscurity, remembered only in the footnotes of old news articles. Let us take you through five of the world’s most bizarre and forgotten drug fads.

1. Vin Mariani

Before purified cocaine seeped into the American market in the late 19th century, a cocktail of red Bordeaux and coca leaf extract called Vin Mariani gained popularity across the United States and Europe. Pope Leo XIII awarded the coca-infused wine a shiny gold medal from the Vatican and the drink garnered celebrity endorsements from Thomas Edison, Jules Verne, and Frederic Bartholdi, the French sculptor who designed the Statue of Liberty. Ulysses S. Grant even relied on that little extra kick while writing his post-presidential memoirs. (It obviously worked—Mark Twain lauded the memoirs as a “literary masterpiece.”) The original version of Coca-Cola, introduced in 1886, similarly touted itself as “the ideal brain tonic” thanks to its cocaine content.

2. Jimson Weed

Wikimedia Commons

Also known as Datura stramonium or "locoweed," Jimson weed has its roots in the fine arts. In Homer’s Odyssey, the nymph Circe poisons Odysseus’ crew with a potion of “malignant drugs,” which modern scientists have hypothesized to be stramonium. In the Léo Delibes opera Lakmé, the titular character uses Jimson weed in her suicide. And in Sandro Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, one historian argues, the slumbering Mars might actually be stoned from the Datura stramonium that appears to be painted in the corner. The plant, also used in ancient Chinese and Indian rituals as well as for asthma treatment, causes fever, dry mouth, and vivid hallucinations, all of which could last for hours or even days. Though Jimson weed isn't a popular drug in the 21st century, hospitals occasionally have to treat someone who has fallen for its spell.

3. Mescaline

Wikimedia Commons

Use of mescaline today is nowhere near as widespread as it once was—it’s difficult to synthesize and unable to compete with the more popular LSD. The psychedelic drug is the active amphetamine in the peyote cactus, which grows in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico and has held deep cultural significance for Native American groups for thousands of years. Each button on a peyote cactus contains a very small amount of mescaline and can be chewed, ground into powder, or soaked in water to produce a liquid. And though mescaline has abundant side effects—among them numbness, muscle twitches, intense nausea, and violence—it was popular amongst a wide spectrum of creative types. The drug has captivated everyone from Aldous Huxley to George Carlin to Melissa Joan Hart. Clarissa, explain yourself.

4. Toad-Smoking

Cane toad, via Wikimedia Commons

The compound bufotenin, found in the milky venom of many Bufo genus toads, can be converted into a form of the psychedelic compound DMT. These toads secrete their venom as defense against predators, but applying pressure to their parotoid glands on the back of their heads can also release the bufotenin, along with other toxic compounds. At certain concentrations, the venom can be fatal.

Australia imported the cane toad from Hawaii in 1935 to destroy rampant, destructive beetles. Decades later, daring Aussies began licking live toads to test their psychoactive potential. Americans also developed a taste for the dangerous secretion, particularly that of the Sonoran Desert toad, before discovering a far more efficient way to get high—by smoking its dried venom from a pipe. A 1994 L.A. Times headline sums up this fad neatly: “The quest for new highs has led some seekers to a new low.”

5. Quaaludes

'The Wolf of Wall Street,' Paramount Pictures

Quaaludes owe a big thanks to Martin Scorsese and The Wolf of Wall Street for lobbing them back into the national conversation this winter. Created in the 1950s by Indian researchers searching for a malaria cure, methaqualone offered a safer alternative to addictive barbiturates and became a popular sleeping pill marketed under various names. Quaaludes—a portmanteau for “quiet interlude”—was one such brand.

By the late 1960s, a black market flourished as college students began to abuse the drug. A decade later, Quaalude users began combining the potent drug with alcohol to “’lude out”—a practice which at best reduced stress and lowered inhibitions and at worst could lead to liver failure, respiratory arrest, or death. Indeed, the drug had tragic consequences: The beloved Freddie Prinze committed suicide under its influence and it was one of many substances found in 42-year-old Elvis Presley when he died. The DEA finally labeled it a Schedule I Controlled Substance in 1984.

Bonus: The Bananadine Hoax

If the prospect of scraping, boiling, and drying the insides of banana peels to yield a psychoactive drug called “Bananadine” seems like a real stretch, that’s because it is. Theories on this hoax’s origins vary, but most agree that its first written account was in a March 3, 1967 editorial for the Berkeley Barb, a Bay Area underground weekly. Columnist Ed Denson wrote that he had been “turned on to bananas” during a trip to Vancouver, offering up the instructions for extracting Bananadine as his “recipe of the week.” “This recipe has been hinted at in earlier literature, and the high is thought to be something like an opium high,” he wrote. That same issue of the Barb also contained a letter to the editor from an anonymous reader who claimed to have seen the Berkeley police “narco squad” sniffing around the produce section for suspicious-looking banana buyers.

Mainstream media outlets fell hard for the hoax. The University of Michigan’s student newspaper ran a story headlined, “Cheap ‘Trip’ Ticket, Students Say: You Can Fly High on Banana Peel.” By late March the New York Times and Wall Street Journal chimed in, reporting that an alarming number of hippies were tripping on banana peels. Finally, the FDA mounted what it called a “very complex” weeks-long investigation of Bananadine’s possible hallucinogenic or euphoric qualities, only to find that it had none. Subsequent studies, to the surprise of many, confirmed the placebo effect. Case closed.

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P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 an essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said.  He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all-time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

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