S-S-S-Smokin’! The long, sometimes humorous, debate over tobacco

A version of this article appeared in the Clarksburg Exponent Telegram August 22, 1998, as one of my “Once, Long Ago” columns that are now being reprinted in the West Virginia Histories book series.

“The cigarette,” ca. 1908. A Sioux (Lakota) Indian smoking a cigarette. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-101196

Tobacco use has a long and checkered history filled with legends of heroism, health warnings, and sometimes humor.

Two legends appear in Myths and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee by James Mooney. One says in the beginning of the world, there was only one tobacco plant. (Tsa’lu in Cherokee, according to Mooney.) It was stolen by the Dagul’ku geese and carried far to the south. Without it, the people were suffering greatly; one old woman was sickening to near death. Many animals tried to return the plant, but all were killed by the geese. Finally, fast, tiny Hummingbird darted in, seized the tsa’lu and made off with it before the Dagul’ku knew what was happening. Hummingbird revived the dying woman by blowing smoke into her nostrils.

A variant on the story says the people had used all their tobacco, resulting in great suffering. One man was so old he was only kept alive by smoking, so his son made the long journey southward to tobacco country. The son took a hummingbird skin from his medicine pouch and pulled it over himself, transforming into a hummingbird. He flew past the guardians of the mountain passes and returned with tobacco and seed. One draw on a pipe made his father well again. The people planted the seed and have had tsa’lu ever since.

Some readers may see early evidence of tobacco addiction in these legends, but the plant remains a sacred herb among the native peoples.

Some 19th century doctors, including Abraham Lincoln’s brother-in-law Dr. George Rogers Clark Todd, prescribed chewing tobacco medicinally to prevent pinworms and other problems, but American physician Benjamin Rush wrote about medical dangers of tobacco in 1798, “A brief history of smoking” on the Cancer Council website says. Rush’s publication came almost 200 years after some Englishman anonymously published “Worke of Chimney Sweepers,” which warned tobacco might cause some of the same lung problems found among chimney sweepers, chim-chim-cheree-hack-hack-cough.

The Clarksburg Independent Virginian newspaper on August 18, 1819, lifted an anecdote from the Georgian that read, “A skilful (sic) physician asserts that he never knew snuff to injure the brains, as is generally supposed—because, says he, ‘I never knew a man to take snuff who had brains.’”

By 1833, tobacco was becoming an important element in Kentucky’s economy though not as important as hemp, according to an Encyclopedia of Kentucky (Somerset Publishing, 1987). This book also says that as tobacco became scarce during the Civil War soldiers began rolling scraps of it in paper to smoke, and the cigarette craze was born. A similar story attributes the creation of ciggies to an Egyptian artillery crew in the Egyptian-Ottoman War of 1831–1833, however. The American Civil War did create the first Federal tax on tobacco, yielding about $3 million for the war effort, according to Gene Borio’s “Tobacco Timeline” on Tobacco.org.

On February 16, 1882, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported, “The cigarette has done so excellent service as a fool-killer that the delegate from Wyoming has introduced a bill to reduce the internal revenue tax on it.”

Wyoming? Yep, that territory had embraced the habit, as shown in the following tongue-in-cheek story from Detroit Free Press, reprinted in the New Dominion (Morgantown, W.Va.) on August 7, 1887.

“Of all the forms of using tobacco the small paper-covered tube known as the cigarette is the most deadly,” it began. It claimed the smoker could not know if what was inside the paper was pure tobacco or rubbish, and the paper itself was poisonous. “There is a wild hilarity which follows the smoking of paper that speedily breaks down the strongest nervous system.” Smoking had increased 500 percent in the previous four years the article averred, then exclaimed, “Yet there are people who scoff at the power of the press! It is only necessary to show conclusively that a certain thing is very harmful, in order to get thousands of people to test the question for their own satisfaction.

“The recent case of Mr. John W. Stebbins, of Wyoming will do much to open the eyes … The cigarette was insulated itself into the rural simplicity of Wyoming. Hitherto the inhabitants of that Territory have been a guileless pastoral people who occasionally indulged in scalping, cattle-raids and bad whiskey, enlivened by a murder now and then, but never has their worst enemy charged them with smoking cigarettes. Now, alas, all that is changed. It is no uncommon sight to see a gang of cowboys peaceably returning to camp after sacking a village, each with a cigarette in his mouth. True, some of the most noble of the cowboys stood out against the growth of this habit and shot a few of the smokers, but although this method of argument seemed to be conclusive in individual cases, yet matters of policy prevented its universal adoption.

“Stebbins fell an easy victim to the cigarette and smoked incessantly. The effect of the habit on him was not noticed until one day he fired at a tenderfoot from the East three times in succession and missed him every time. This alarmed his friends and they besought him with tears in their eyes to abandon a habit that was doing so much to undermine his usefulness and influence on the plains.”

After consulting a physician who told him cigarettes would kill him within six months, Stebbins “agreed to quit—next week. This is a peculiarity of the cigarette smokers. They are always going to quit some time in the future. That night there was a social card party in the shanty. Stebbins sat on the powder keg. He let a cigarette stump fall on the keg. The party instantly broke up. Stebbins and part of the keg were last seen going through the roof. As neither have yet come down serious fears are beginning to be entertained … Thus it is the doctor’s most sanguine expectations have been realized and the name of John Warrington Stebbins has been added to the already long list of the victims of the deadly cigarette.”

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