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The Smoking Gun

At the turn of the 20th century, the country’s most famous antismoking crusader was a sharp-tongued, stern-faced zealot from Chicago who nearly succeeded in achieving a statewide ban on cigarettes. Now, as a new antismoking law takes effect in Illinois, her nearly forgotten story gets a fitting coda.

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A 1907 New York Times article describes Gaston as the “enemy of the cigarette.”

Gaston was already turning her wrath upon the cigarette, which had been gaining popularity since the invention of an efficient rolling machine in 1881. (In the early years of the last century, cigarettes were still seen as something of an oddity compared with cigars, pipes, and chewing tobacco.) Gaston founded the Anti-Cigarette League at the end of 1899, working out of the Woman’s Temple, a grand castle of an office building, which also housed the WCTU, at the southeast corner of LaSalle and Monroe streets. Within two years, Gaston claimed to have signed up 300,000 members. She published a magazine called The Boy, aimed at persuading boys that cigarettes were a danger to their health, minds, and morals. “Boys who use cigarettes are like worm apples,” Gaston said. “They drop before their time.”

It was already obvious to many that cigarette smoking harmed the body, but it would be decades before those concerns were verified in scientific studies. “Smoking was often associated by physicians with respiratory problems and problems of the heart,” Brandt says. “The problem was, How do you go from those kinds of clinical observations to systematic understandings of risks and causes?”

The vagueness of those early worries about cigarettes led to some dubious claims. Gaston’s league handed out a pamphlet with a story from the Evanston Index recounting how a doctor demonstrated the ill effects of cigarettes to a young smoker: “The cigarette fiend bared his pale arm, and the [doctor] laid the lean, black leech upon it. The leech fell to work busily, its body began to swell. Then, all of a sudden, a kind of shudder convulsed it, and it fell to the floor dead. ‘That is what your blood did to that leech,’ said the physician. He took up the little corpse between his finger and thumb. ‘Look at it,’ he said. ‘Quite dead, you see. You poisoned it.’”

Brandt says Gaston faced a fundamental problem: Tobacco companies guarded their recipes for cigarettes as proprietary secrets. Even today, the government does not regulate cigarettes as a drug, and so, much about them remains a mystery. “Gaston was on to something important,” Brandt says. “The cigarette is a very complicated device. And so it would be difficult to know exactly what elements . . . were creating the harms that we now understand cigarettes to produce.”

Gaston and her allies believed cigarettes also damaged a smoker’s mind and moral character. An Anti-Cigarette League pamphlet quoted Thomas Edison as saying, “I really believe that it often makes boys insane.” These worries provided fodder for the eugenics movement. The “race” seemed to be degenerating, some people said, and cigarettes were one cause of this decline. Gaston was present in January 1914 when followers of this theory gathered at cereal magnate John Harvey Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium for the first National Conference on Race Betterment. One speaker, Melvil Dewey, of Dewey decimal system fame, called cigarette smoking “a thing that is pulling down the race.” Without addressing racial theories, Gaston gave a straightforward plea to rouse children against cigarette use. “We are not giving the boys and girls today a chance to have their blood stirred by any great splendid, heroic moral reform,” she said.

Gaston attracted children to her cause by hosting dances, sponsoring basketball teams, and awarding prizes for essay writing. In 1902, she presided over a ritual destruction of tobacco inside the Woman’s Temple. Boys marched and sang, “Hurrah! Hurrah! The cigarette, you know. Hurrah! Hurrah! The cigarette must go!” Playing the devil, a Hyde Park boy in red tights, horns, and hooves stirred up a pot of cigarettes with a pitchfork. The cigarettes were set ablaze, filling the room with smoke. Children sneezed and rubbed their eyes. Gaston explained that she’d wanted “to make things smell bad.”

One Chicago boy who signed the Anti-Cigarette League pledge was Cyrus LeRoy Baldridge, later a well-known artist. In his memoirs, Baldridge recalled enlisting “under the spell of a Sabbath school lecture by Miss Lucy Page Gaston. Though smoking had never tempted me, its immorality and dangers had been so vividly described that gladly I had signed the pledge to refrain from cigarettes until twenty-one.” (Actually, the pledge included no expiration date.)

In 1900, Gaston persuaded some Chicago companies to bar cigarette smoking by employees. Montgomery Ward & Co. was one of the first to adopt the policy—which applied both during and outside of work hours. Business owners believed that smoking harmed young people’s brains. “The new generation is growing up utterly incompetent,” one said. Employers checked the hands of job applicants, saying, “Hold up your mitts!” and looking for cigarette stains.

Once, when Gaston nabbed a messenger boy and demanded his arrest for breaking the state’s law against smoking by minors, a crowd surrounded her. “I thought I was going to be mobbed,” she said. “A man came up to me, shook his fist in my face, and dared me to have the boy arrested.” The Chicago Police deputized Gaston for a while as a special officer with the power to arrest underage smokers.

Rather than prosecuting young smokers, Gaston preferred to recruit them as informants. She sent her boys into shops and reported on the merchants who sold cigarettes to minors. When the Anti-Cigarette League used this tactic in Washington, D.C., in 1900, newspapers criticized her for “corrupting the schoolboys by setting them at the meanest and most contemptible industry conceivable—that of the informer and the spy.” Gaston, who preferred to call her boys “detectives,” said, “This is the only way to get evidence.”

Gaston promoted various cures for cigarette addiction, including a fruit diet. After nabbing a 16-year-old boy smoking a cigarette in 1911, she remarked, “If Joe will only eat fruit, he will lose his taste for cigarettes in two or three days.” Gaston claimed that chewing the root of the common flowering gentian plant had a similar effect.

As early as 1900, Gaston recognized that a growing number of girls and women were smoking. And it wasn’t just girls from “the vicious and evil classes,” Gaston said. In fact, she believed lower-class women were taking up the habit after seeing actresses and society ladies smoking. “They adopt it because they think it is smart,” she said. Gaston and other moralists of her era viewed cigarettes as a gateway drug that led to alcoholism, crime, and sexual promiscuity. These concerns were especially apparent in their comments about female smokers.

Gaston led a band of reformers on a “slumming trip” into Chicago’s red-light district in 1907. Minna Everleigh welcomed Gaston into the legendary Everleigh Club and allowed her to interview the prostitutes. “Miss Gaston, you’re a good fellow,” Everleigh said. “You can come down here and bring your clubwomen whenever you want. If you can get one of my girls to leave me or if you can keep any from coming here, I want you to do it. But you’ll never succeed, Miss Gaston, never as long as the girls are young and pretty and fond of fine feathers.” Gaston couldn’t help herself from asking a prostitute if she smoked. As Gaston wrote in a Tribune article about the visit, “The subject of cigarets [sic] always is uppermost in my mind.” The prostitute told Gaston that she had never smoked and that she didn’t drink wine, either. “So much in her favor,” Gaston wrote.

Gaston often made a point of urging public figures to set a good example by avoiding cigarettes. When Theodore Roosevelt was president, Carry Nation saw a picture of him on the wall of Gaston’s office and exclaimed, “Don’t you know he’s a cigarette smoker? Let me tear that picture up.” Refusing to believe it, Gaston wrote to the White House. Roosevelt’s secretary, William Loeb, replied: “The president does not and never has used tobacco in any form.” Later, Gaston wrote to Britain’s Queen Mary after reading an
article about Her Majesty’s fondness for cigarettes after lunch.

Some people thought Gaston’s abrasiveness was counterproductive. When Gaston confronted a group of tobacco company executives in 1904, one of them said: “By advertising the cigarette, Miss Gaston, and by publicly proclaiming its ‘devilish character,’ you have made it attractive and increased its smoking among boys who otherwise would not have thought of experimenting with it.”

 

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