Lately it seems like opioid addiction is in New York City’s newspapers nearly every day. New Yorkers, alongside Americans around the country, are inundated with story after story after story about the United States’ ongoing opioid crisis, and for good reason. Decades in the making, the crisis is only now reaching its grim fever pitch. In 2017, more than seventy thousand Americans died of drug overdoses, and most of those deaths involved heroin, fentanyl, and other opioids. That adds up to more overdose deaths in a single year than all American deaths in the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined.
The media frenzy surrounding the opioid crisis tends to frame the problem as unprecedented. Situating today’s opioid crisis in its long historical context, however, reveals that while the staggering number of deaths is extraordinary, the opioid addiction crisis itself is anything but new. Indeed, New Yorkers have been plagued by addiction to opiates since before the Civil War. New York City’s exceptional historical records, including its prolific newspapers and long-running, extant coroner’s reports, provide a harrowing portrait of the opiate addiction crisis that stalked antebellum New York City.
By Jonathan S. Jones
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