When Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, got his mandate in 1930 to rid America of its drugs vice, he set his eyes on practitioners of jazz music which he called black man’s music.
As Johann Hari explains in his book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, Anslinger described this music form as “musical anarchy and evidence of a recurrence of the primitive impulses that lurk in black people, waiting to emerge.” The lives of the jazzmen, he said, “reek of filth,” so was keen to put rebels like Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk behind bars.
When congressmen expressed worry about his tactics, he assured them his crackdown would affect not “the good musicians, but the jazz type.” However, the jazz fraternity had solidarity and would not snitch, and whenever one of them was busted, they all chipped in to bail them out.
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Having little success with imprisoning the jazzmen, Anslinger focused his energies on Billie Holiday, regarded as the greatest female jazz vocalist. Holiday pricked the interest of Anslinger when she released ‘Strange Fruit,’ a musical lament against lynching.
She received her first threat from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics one night, in 1939, when she performed the song on stage in New York City before a mixed audience, grieving for the racist murders in the United States. Holiday was leaned on to be silent about racism but when she refused, Anslinger assigned a black agent named Jimmy Fletcher to blend in, track her and nail her on her heroin use.
Aside from heroin, Holiday was also using cocaine and was a noted swearer. Eventually, Fletcher raided Holiday’s apartment. The pair, according to some accounts, fell in love.
Anslinger would however get a big break from holiday’s husband, manager and sometimes pimp, Louis McKay, who abused her for years till she finally cut him off. He traveled to D.C. and met Anslinger, agreeing to set Holiday up.
Billie was arrested and put on trial. She stood before the court looking pale and stunned. She pleaded with the judge to be sent to a hospital so she could kick the drugs and get well but instead she was sentenced to a year in a West Virginia prison, according to a report.
“As a former convict, Holiday was stripped of her cabaret performer’s license. She wasn’t allowed to sing anywhere that alcohol was served—which included all the jazz clubs in the United States on the grounds that listening to her might harm the morals of the public,” the report added. For someone who made money from performing gigs, she was effectively being blacklisted.
You might say Anslinger was just doing his job by protecting society from drug use or users. However, when he was informed some popular white women also had drug use problems, he proved that his move against Holiday and other blacks was that of a racist man.
To finish off Holiday, Anslinger roped in Colonel George White, a known sadist who tracked Holiday to the Mark Twain Hotel in San Francisco, one of the few places she could still perform. Without a search warrant, he badged into her room.
She informed the police officers she had been clean for over a year. However, White’s men claimed they had found opium stashed in a wastepaper basket next to a side room and the kit for shooting heroin in the room. Thus, they charged her with possession.
Holiday insisted the junk had been planted in her room by White, and even checked herself into a clinic to be monitored. White had a long history of planting drugs on women. At trial, a jury of twelve sided with Holiday against Anslinger and White and found her not guilty.
But Anslinger and White would get their revenge when she was rushed to Harlem’s Metropolitan Hospital after collapsing.
“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,” a report said.
Soon, narcotics agents were sent to Holiday’s hospital bed. They said they found less than one-eighth of an ounce of heroin in a tinfoil envelope, “hanging on a nail on the wall, six feet from the bottom of her bed – a spot Billie was incapable of reaching.”
They then summoned a grand jury to indict her. She was handcuffed to the bed with two policemen stationed at the door for five weeks. Visitors were also barred unless they had a written permit.
Holiday went into heroin withdrawal until a doctor was brought in who gave her methadone. After ten days, she began to recover and even put on weight but the methadone was suddenly stopped, worsening her plight.
Anslinger and his men fingerprinted Holiday on her hospital bed, took a mug shot of her and grilled her without letting her talk to a lawyer.
Holiday was 44 when she died on her hospital bed on July 17, 1959, with fifteen fifty-dollar bills strapped to her leg to thank the nurses who had looked after her and 70 cents in her bank account.