The Black Candle
Judge Emily Murphy
A review by Nate Hendley
"When coming from under the influence of (marijuana), the
victims present the most horrible condition imaginable. They are
dispossessed of their natural and normal willpower, and their
mentality is that of idiots. If this drug is indulged to any great
extent, it ends in the untimely death of its addict."
Or so believes Judge Emily Murphy who wrote the forementioned
passage for her book, The Black Candle. Published in 1922,
Murphy's amazingly inaccurate account of drug addiction has the
power to amuse even today's most staunch prohibitionists through
its overblown rhetoric, biased sources and totally unqualified
claims. In fact, the book reads almost like a satire of a modern-day
anti-drug tract. Murphy's opus could be considered highly entertaining
reading, except for the fact that The Black Candle was
taken deadly seriously in its day and led directly to criminalization
of marijuana in Canada back in the '20s.
Emily Murphy was a Police Magistrate and Judge of the Juvenile
Court in Edmonton, Alberta when she decided to write the Black
Candle. Hopefully, she knew more about law than drugs because
her descriptions of substance abuse probably would have embarassed
the producers of Reefer Madness. She attributes symptoms
more akin to amphetamine use to pot smoking, thinks snorting cocaine
makes people invulnerable to pain, and feels the chief negative
side-effect of opium addiction is promiscuity.
Perhaps sensing that her own first-hand knowledge of drug use
was a little weak, Judge Murphy thoughtfully provided commentary
from qualified medical physicians. A certain "Dr. Warnock"
writing in the Journal of Mental Sciences for January,
1903, is quoted by Murphy as saying smoking hashish leads to "a
mild, short attack of excitement to a prolonged attack of furious
mania, ending in exhaustion or even death."
Besides the incredibly inaccurate medical descriptions of drug
use, The Black Candle also shows its age by revealing a
"drug abuse problem" so minute it is beffaling that
Murphy thought enough to write about it. In 1921, Murphy notes,
"fifty-four persons were convicted for using or peddling
(marijuanaor "Indian hemp" as she calls it) in Los
That said, the book also reveals a raw sense of racism that might
not have been out of place in the 1920's but seems viritrolic
by today's standards:
"Many Negroes are law-aiding and altogether estiminable,
but contrariwise, many are obstinately wicked persons, earning
their livelihood as freeranging pedlars (sic) of poisonous drugs."
Actually, compared to media descriptions of black crack gangs,
Murphy's comments about "Negro drug pedlars" doesn't
seem quite as dated as her Charlie-Chan like depictions of Oriental
Orientals at first get off lightly, and Murphy is quick to point
out that "compared with the Hindu" or "Negroes"
for that matter, "The Chinese, as a rule, are a friendly
people and have a fine sense of humour." A few pages later,
Murphy lets her true feelings slip and describes Chinese people
as "black-haired beasts in our human jungle."
Towards the middle of her book, The Black Candle stops reading
like an anti-drug tract and begins to sound like a Ku Klux Klan
manual for protecting Anglo-Saxon supremacy. Indeed, it becomes
apparent that Murphy's chief concern about drug use is not the
threat of addiction or death, but the fear that "aliens of
colour" will "bring about the degeneration of the white
race" through traffick in various drugs.
Murphy makes completely unsustiantied claims about "hundreds
of (white) girls living with Chinamen" and black men who
"boast how ultimately they will control the white man."
The implication is obviousdrug use will weaken the will of
white girls, making them receptive to the rapacious advances of
Chinese men while drug use in general is part of a broader conspiracy
to allow non-white people to enslave Caucasians.
Taken from this perspective, The Black Candle can be viewed as
one long, racist argument for tighter immigration controls. Murphy's
position, certainly, is clear. "Aliens of colour" use
drugs and push them on white people. Therefore, the obvious solution
is to "insist on (people of colour's) exclusion from this
continent." To do otherwise, laments Murphy, "would
only be a demonstration of broken-headed ineptitude."
Broken-headed or not, marijuana was made illegal in Canada in
1923, one year after Murphy's totally misinformative but highly
influential book. Racist controls on immigrants were also imposed
in the 1920s, a reflection of Murphyand other prejudiced Canadians'belief
that multilcuturalism somehow spelled moral degeneracy and expanded
Like a watered down version of Mein Kampf, which was allegedly
about Germany's condition after World War One, The Black Candle,
allegedly about drug use, is one long racist screed against people
Murphy doesn't like.
To bad so many Canadians back in the '20s read it without cracking
a smile and viewed it is a serious piece of medical-political
literature, not as racist trash.
Nate Hendley is a Toronto freelance writer.
His work has appeared in several alternative weeklies including
Montreal Hour, Ottawa X-Press, Detroit Metro Times and id magazine.
He has also been published in High Times magazine, Cannabis Canada
and The Addiction Research Foundation Journal.