In 1904, a twelve-year-old boy was visiting his neighbor’s farmhouse in the cornfields of western Pennsylvania when he heard a scream. It was coming from somewhere above him. This sound — desperate, aching — made him confused. What was going on? Why would a grown woman howl like an animal? Her husband ran down the stairs and gave the boy a set of hurried instructions: Take my horse and cart into the town as fast as you can. Pick up a package from the pharmacy. Bring it here. Do it now. The boy lashed at the horses, because he was certain that if he failed, he would return to find a corpse. As soon as he flopped through the door and handed over the bag of drugs, the farmer ran to his wife. Her screaming stopped, and she was calm. But the boy would not be calm about this — not ever again. “I never forgot those screams,” he wrote years later. From that moment on, he was convinced there was a group of people walking among us who may look and sound normal, but who could at any moment become “emotional, hysterical, degenerate, mentally deficient and vicious” if they were allowed contact with the great unhinging agent: drugs. When he grew into a man, this boy was going to draw together some of the deepest fears in American culture — of racial minorities, of intoxication, of losing control — and channel them into a global war to prevent those screams. It would cause many screams in turn. They can be heard in almost every city on earth tonight. This is how Harry Anslinger entered the drug war.
“It sounded,” his internal memos said, “like the jungles in the dead of night.” Another memo warned that “unbelievably ancient indecent rites of the East Indies are resurrected” in this black man’s music. The lives of the jazzmen, he said, “reek of filth.” His agents reported back to him that “many among the jazzmen think they are playing magnificently when under the influence of marihuana but they are actually becoming hopelessly confused and playing horribly.”
Anslinger looked out over a scene filled with men like Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, and Thelonious Monk, and—as the journalist Larry Sloman recorded—he longed to see them all behind bars. He wrote to all the agents he had sent to follow them, and instructed: “Please prepare all cases in your jurisdiction involving musicians in violation of the marijuana laws. We will have a great national round-up arrest of all such persons on a single day. I will let you know what day.” His advice on drug raids to his men was always “Shoot first.”
He reassured congressmen that his crackdown would affect not “the good musicians, but the jazz type.” But when Harry came for them, the jazz world would have one weapon that saved them: its absolute solidarity. Anslinger’s men could find almost no one among them who was willing to snitch, and whenever one of them was busted, they all chipped in to bail him out. In the end, the Treasury Department told Anslinger he was wasting his time taking on a community that couldn’t be fractured, so he scaled down his focus until it settled like a laser on a single target—perhaps the greatest female jazz vocalist there ever was.
“It was extremely brave, when you think about it,” her goddaughter Lorraine Feather told me. At that time, “every song was about love. You simply did not have a piece of music being performed at some hotel that was about the killing of people—about such a sordid and cruel fact. It was not done. Ever.” And to have an African American woman doing such a song? About lynching? But Billie did it because the song “seemed to spell out all the things that had killed” her father, Clarence, in the South.
The audience listened, hushed. Many years later, this moment would be called “the beginning of the civil rights movement.” Lady Day was ordered by the authorities to stop singing this song. She refused. Her harassment by Harry’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics began the next day. Before long, he would play a crucial role in killing her.
Many agents in this position would shoot heroin with their clients, to “prove” they weren’t cops. We don’t know whether Jimmy joined in, but we do know he had no pity for addicts: “I never knew a victim,” he said. “You victimize yourself by becoming a junkie.”
He first saw Billie in her brother-in-law’s apartment, where she was drinking enough booze to stun a horse and hoovering up vast quantities of cocaine. The next time he saw her, it was in a brothel in Harlem, doing exactly the same. Billie’s greatest talent, after singing, was swearing — if she called you a “motherfucker,” it was a great compliment. We don’t know the first time Billie called Jimmy a motherfucker, but she soon spotted this man who was hanging around, watching her, and she grew to like him.
When Jimmy was sent to raid her, he knocked at the door pretending he had a telegram to deliver. Her biographer Julia Blackburn studied the only remaining interview with Jimmy Fletcher — now lost by the archives handling it — and she wrote about what he remembered in detail. “Stick it under the door!” she yelled. “It’s too big to go under the door!” he snapped back. She let him in. She was alone. Jimmy felt uncomfortable. “Billie, why don’t you make a short case of this and, if you’ve got anything, why don’t you turn it over to us?” he asked. “Then we won’t be searching around, pulling out your clothes and everything. So why don’t you do that?” But Jimmy’s partner arrived and sent for a policewoman to conduct a body search.
“You don’t have to do that. I’ll strip,” Billie said. “All I want to say is — will you search me and let me go? All that policewoman is going to do is look up my pussy.” She stripped and stood there, and then she pissed in front of them, defying them to watch.
Not long after, he ran into her in a bar and they talked for hours, with her pet Chihuahua, Moochy, by her side. Then, one night, at Club Ebony, they ended up dancing together — Billie Holiday and Anslinger’s agent, swaying together to the music.
“And I had so many close conversations with her, about so many things,” he would remember years later. “She was the type who would make anyone sympathetic because she was the loving type.” The man Anslinger sent to track and bust Billie Holiday had, it seems, fallen in love with her.
But Anslinger was going to be given a break on Billie, one he got nowhere else in the jazz world. Billie had got used to turning up at gigs so badly beaten by her husband, manager and sometimes pimp, Louis McKay, they had to tape up her ribs before pushing her onstage. She was too afraid to go to the police — but finally she was brave enough to cut him off.
“How come I got to take this from this bitch here? This low-class bitch?” McKay raged, according to an interviewer who spoke with him years after Billie’s death. “If I got a whore, I got some money from her or I don’t have nothing to do with the bitch.” He had heard that Harry Anslinger wanted information on her, and he was intrigued. “She’s been getting away with too much shit,” MacKay said, adding he wanted “Holiday’s ass in the gutter in the East River.” That, it seems, was the clincher. “I got enough to finish her off,” he had pledged. “I’m going to do her up so goddam bad she going to remember as long as she live.” He traveled to D.C. to see Harry, and he agreed to set her up.
When Billie was busted again, she was put on trial. She stood before the court looking pale and stunned. “It was called ‘The United States of America versus Billie Holiday,’” she wrote in her memoir, “and that’s just the way it felt.” She refused to weep on the stand. She told the judge she didn’t want any sympathy. She just wanted to be sent to a hospital so she could kick the drugs and get well. Please, she said to the judge, “I want the cure.”
She was sentenced instead to a year in a West Virginia prison, where she was forced to go cold turkey and work during the days in a pigsty, among other places. In all her time behind bars, she did not sing a note. Years later, when her autobiography was published, Billie tracked Jimmy Fletcher down and sent him a signed copy. She had written inside it: “Most federal agents are nice people. They’ve got a dirty job to do and they have to do it. Some of the nicer ones have feelings enough to hate themselves sometime for what they have to do . . . Maybe they would have been kinder to me if they’d been nasty; then I wouldn’t have trusted them enough to believe what they told me.” She was right: Jimmy told the writer Linda Kuehl that he never stopped feeling guilty for what he’d done to Lady Day. “Billie ‘paid her debt’ to society,” one of her friends wrote, “but society never paid its debt to her.”
Now, as a former convict, she was stripped of her cabaret performer’s license, on the grounds that listening to her might harm the morals of the public. This meant she wasn’t allowed to sing anywhere that alcohol was served—which included all the jazz clubs in the United States.
Harry told the public that “the increase [in drug addiction] is practically 100 percent among Negro people,” which he stressed was terrifying because already “the Negro population . . . accounts for 10 percent of the total population, but 60 percent of the addicts.” He could wage the drug war—he could do what he did—only because he was responding to a fear in the American people. You can be a great surfer, but you still need a great wave. Harry’s wave came in the form of a race panic.
To finish her off, he called for his toughest agent—a man who was at no risk of falling in love with her, or anyone else.
White had been a journalist in San Francisco in the 1930s until he applied to join the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. The personality test given to all applicants on Anslinger’s orders found that he was a sadist. He quickly rose through the bureau’s ranks. He became a sensation as the first and only white man ever to infiltrate a Chinese drug gang, and he even learned to speak in Mandarin so he could chant their oaths with them. In his downtime, he would go swimming in the filthy waters of New York City’s Hudson River, as if daring it to poison him.
He was especially angered that this black woman didn’t know her place. “She flaunted her way of living, with her fancy coats and fancy automobiles and her jewelry and her gowns,” he complained. “She was the big lady wherever she went.”
When he came for her on a rainy day at the Mark Twain Hotel in San Francisco without a search warrant, Billie was sitting in white silk pajamas in her room. This was one of the few places she could still perform, and she badly needed the money. She insisted to the police that she had been clean for over a year. White’s men declared they had found opium stashed in a wastepaper basket next to a side room and the kit for shooting heroin in the room, and they charged her with possession. But when the details were looked at later, there seemed to be something odd: a wastepaper basket seems an improbable place to keep a stash, and the kit for shooting heroin was never entered into evidence by the cops — they said they left it at the scene. When journalists asked White about this, he blustered; his reply, they noted, “appeared a little defensive.”
That night, White came to Billie’s show at the Café Society Uptown, and he requested his favorite songs. She never lost faith in her music’s ability to capture and persuade. “They’ll remember me,” she told a friend, “when all this is gone, and they’ve finished badgering me.” George White did not agree. “I did not think much of Ms. Holiday’s performance,” he told her manager sternly.
Billie insisted the junk had been planted in her room by White, and she immediately offered to go into a clinic to be monitored: she would experience no withdrawal symptoms, she said, and that would prove she was clean and being framed. She checked herself in at a cost of one thousand dollars, and according to Ken Vail’s book Lady Day’s Diary, she didn’t so much as shiver.
We do know that George White had a long history of planting drugs on women. He was fond of pretending to be an artist and luring women to an apartment in Greenwich Village where he would spike their drinks with LSD to see what would happen. One of his victims was a young actress who happened to live in his building, while another was a pretty blond waitress in a bar. After she failed to show any sexual interest in him, he drugged her to see if that would change. “I toiled whole-heartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun,” White boasted after he had retired from the Bureau. “Where else [but in the Bureau of Narcotics] could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest?” He may well have been high when he busted Billie for getting high.
In the years after Billie’s trial, many other singers were too afraid of being harassed by the authorities to perform “Strange Fruit.” But Billie Holiday refused to stop. No matter what they did to her, she sang her song.
“She was,” her friend Annie Ross told me, “as strong as she could be.”
“Some damnbody is always trying to embalm me,” she said, but the doctors came back and explained she had an array of very serious illnesses: she was emaciated because she had not been eating; she had cirrhosis of the liver because of chronic drinking; she had cardiac and respiratory problems due to chronic smoking; and she had several leg ulcers caused by starting to inject street heroin once again. They said she was unlikely to survive for long—but Harry wasn’t done with her yet. “You watch, baby,” Billie warned from her tiny gray hospital room. “They are going to arrest me in this damn bed.”
Narcotics agents were sent to her hospital bed and said they had found less than one-eighth of an ounce of heroin in a tinfoil envelope. They claimed it was hanging on a nail on the wall, six feet from the bottom of her bed—a spot Billie was incapable of reaching. They summoned a grand jury to indict her, telling her that unless she disclosed her dealer, they would take her straight to prison. They confiscated her comic books, radio, record player, flowers, chocolates and magazines, handcuffed her to the bed and stationed two policemen at the door. They had orders to forbid any visitors from coming in without a written permit, and her friends were told there was no way to see her. Her friend Maely Dufty screamed at them that it was against the law to arrest somebody who was on the critical list. They explained that the problem had been solved: they had taken her off the critical list.
So now, on top of the cirrhosis of the liver, Billie went into heroin withdrawal, alone. A doctor was brought into the hospital at the insistence of her friends to prescribe methadone. She was given it for ten days and began to recover: she put on weight and looked better. But then the methadone was suddenly stopped, and she began to sicken again. When finally a friend was allowed in to see her, Billie told her in a panic: “They’re going to kill me. They’re going to kill me in there. Don’t let them.” The police threw the friend out. “I had very high hopes that she would be able to come out of it alive,” another friend, Alice Vrbsky, told the BBC, until all this happened. “It was the last straw.”
On the street outside the hospital, protesters gathered, led by a Harlem pastor named the Reverend Eugene Callender. They held up signs reading “Let Lady Live.” Callender had built a clinic for heroin addicts in his church, and he pleaded for Billie to be allowed to go there to be nursed back to health. His reasoning was simple, he told me in 2013: addicts, he said, “are human beings, just like you and me.” Punishment makes them sicker; compassion can make them well. Harry and his men refused. They fingerprinted Billie on her hospital bed. They took a mug shot of her on her hospital bed. They grilled her on her hospital bed without letting her talk to a lawyer.
Billie didn’t blame Anslinger’s agents as individuals; she blamed the drug war itself — because it forced the police to treat ill people like criminals. “Imagine if the government chased sick people with diabetes, put a tax on insulin and drove it into the black market, told doctors they couldn’t treat them,” she wrote in her memoir, “then sent them to jail. If we did that, everyone would know we were crazy. Yet we do practically the same thing every day in the week to sick people hooked on drugs.”
Still, some part of Billie Holiday believed she had done something evil, with her drug use, and with her life. She told people she would rather die than go back to prison, but she was terrified that she would burn in hell — just as her mother had said she would all those years before, when she was a little girl lying on the brothel floor, listening to Louis Armstrong’s music and letting it carry her out of Baltimore. “She was exhausted,” one of her friends told me. “She didn’t want to go through it no more.”
And so, when she died on this bed, with police officers at the door to protect the public from her, she looked — as another of her friends told the BBC — “as if she had been torn from life violently.” She had fifteen fifty-dollar bills strapped to her leg. It was all she had left. She was intending to give it to the nurses who had looked after her, to thank them.
Her best friend, Maely Dufty, insisted to anyone who would listen that Billie had been effectively murdered by a conspiracy to break her, orchestrated by the narcotics police — but what could she do? At Billie’s funeral, there were swarms of police cars, because they feared their actions against her would trigger a riot. In his eulogy for her, the Reverend Eugene Callender told me he had said: “We should not be here. This young lady was gifted by her creator with tremendous talent . . . She should have lived to be at least eighty years old.”
The Federal Bureau of Narcotics saw it differently. “For her,” Harry wrote with satisfaction, “there would be no more ‘Good Morning Heartache.’”
This article is an adapted excerpt from Johann Hari’s book Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. (Bloomsbury, 2015). Follow Johann Hari on Twitter @johannhari101.
The full sourcing for this article can be found in the book’s endnotes.