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Knoxville Had Infamous Opium Den in 1890s

As the opioid epidemic sweeps through Knoxville and across the country, taking lives in its wake, government officials study the effects, wring their hands and tiptoe around the laws that allow drug manufacturers to continue to make billions of dollars putting more drugs in the hands of the wrong people.

The punishment for those responsible and rarely prosecuted makes the crime worth the risk. With the aid of national politicians, drug dealers at the highest levels are able to dispense their poison with no worry of being called to justice. Federal laws permit them to dump it with impunity in tiny drugstores and pain clinics in small communities.

The chicanery and laxity in those laws are much akin to the attitude about prosecuting drug offenders here in the 1890s, when Toney Parker operated his opium den in Knoxville at the corner of Vine and Central. After a while authorities just told him to get out of town. They didn’t trust the courts.

Parker was arrested by two city police officers June 24, 1889, after his drug-selling operation had gone on for some time. “His den of infamy has been located over the Climax Saloon on the corner of Vine and Crozier (Central) streets. When he got the intimation that authorities were on the lookout for him, he immediately removed his layout to another part of the city,” said the Knoxville Tribune.

He later was found, arrested and taken before Squire Dickson. When his valise was examined, it contained opium and the paraphernalia for its use. Parker tried to tell Dickson he had a prescription showing it was for his personal use, but Dickson declined to look at it and told Parker to get out of town by daylight. “If you are found or seen here again, you will be arrested and given a tough time of it,” he said.

The next day the Tribune reported: “He is gone. Toney Parker was not seen in the city yesterday. About half past eight at night the patrons of the den who had not heard of his arrest and expulsion from the city began to assemble about the stairway. They were ordered to disperse and were informed that the proprietor had been driven out of the city. One patron told the police that he was compelled to have his opium regularly and that he intended to go to Chattanooga where he could get it.”

The Tribune praised Squire Dickson in handling the case: “It was much better to rid the city of such a character than to take the risk of his being acquitted upon trial at the next term of the Criminal Court and again turned loose in our midst.”

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