In 2000, Nick Tosches went in search of something that he was told didn’t exist anymore: the opium den.
In the early decades of the 20th century, as the drug trade was taken over by the Judeo-Christian coalition that came to control crime, Jewish and Italian names became almost as common as Chinese names in the reports of those arrested for smuggling, selling, and den-running. While the old Chinese opium smokers died off, the new drug lords actively cultivated a market for the opium derivatives, first morphine and then heroin, two 19th-century inventions that offered far greater profit margins than opium itself.
The last known opium den in New York was a second-floor tenement apartment at 295 Broome Street, between Forsyth and Eldridge Streets, at the northeastern edge of Chinatown. It was run by the apartment’s tenant, a Chinese immigrant named Lau, who was 57 when the joint got raided and his ass got hauled away. There were a few old pipes and lamps, 10 ounces of opium. And 40 ounces of heroin. The date was June 28, 1957. That was it. The end of the final relic of a bygone day.