Box-Car Bertha (1905-?)

Image: Movie poster for "Boxcar Bertha", based on the writer below, from 1972. Retrieved from Critical Mass Media.

"Box Car Bertha" Thompson was the daughter of a freethinking Kansas woman and a rail-road forman. Her parents were arrested for refusing to marry, and Bertha spent her first six months in jail, where "Father caught up on his reading and Mother did the jail cooking and sewing, nursed me, and studied Esperanto and socialism." Before she was fifteen Bertha had traveled with her mother through a series of midwestern towns, living in railroad yards and socialist camps with a colorful variety of transients and hobos. Then, she hit the road by herself. Her autobiography, Sister of the Road (1937), chronicals her experiences into the Depression years.

In tough and tawdry Chicago whorehouses and cheap hotels, Bertha went from being a shoplifter to a prostitute, from a petty thief to con artist. Like Chicago May, she preferred to drink, but she met many drug users while riding the rails. This excerpt gives her... account of her first toke of "muggles" , a marijuana cigarette not illegal until 1937:

"Marijuana is called among users, "muggles." It is really a form of hasheesh, slightly changed when grown on American soil. It came to this country first from Mexico. New Orleans and all the southern cities are full of it. In New Orleans it is grown commonly in the back yards of Old Town. It is a available also in every northern city. In south Chicago there is a whole field growing wild, which is harvested by Mexicans and various small wholesale dealers.

Marijuana is popular because it is prepared without trouble and because it gives tremendous effect at very low cost. The leaves and blossoms are gathered, dried, and rolled into cigarettes slightly thinner than the ordinary package cigarettes, and twisted together on the ends so that none of the substance may be spilled. In almost every city they may be had as low as twenty-five cents each. In New Orleans they are two for a quarter. One cigarette, if smoked by those who know the way, will give a thorough "muggles jag" to at least three persons for an entire night.

Otto was only one of the grifters that I was with who had ever used marijuana. He stopped, he said, because he didn't intend to get into the dope habit. Just twice while I was with him did he make a buy, once in Philadelphia, where he just walked into a poolroom and secured one cigarette at the cigar counter, and the other time on a party down on Dumaine Street in New Orleans.

We had driven down to New Orleans from a Savannah on one of the road trips and the gang had put in three days grifting [shoplifting], making good hauls. Otto had had a narrow escape, being pinched the last day and having to pay two hundred dollars to a fix to get him out. It was summer and terribly hot. The night air was stifling as we walked down the little streets of the French quarter. Suddenly he declared he wanted “a weed”and after asking a few questions about some of the loafers around Tony Vaccaro’s saloon, we made a purchase of a half dozen cigarettes in a little charcoal store on saint Ann Street. Otto didn’t even wait to get back to the hotel. He lit one right there and walked out with it. After a few short drags he handed it to me.
“Try it, kid,” he said, already cheering up, “It will kill the blues. Now don’t waste it. Draw the smoke inward in short drags and hold It in your lungs for a minute and then let it out very slowly. There’s … there’s enough for a beginning. Did it put on the rose colored glasses?”
I didn't get much effect at first. The cigarette was sweetish in flavor. The flat drag smell almost nauseated me. But after the second drag I began to feel very happy and light-hearted. Otto promptly snubbed out the cigarette carefully in the palm of his hand and put it in his pocket.
“Here’s once we save butts, kid,”he told me jovially, “that’s good to the last shred. Here, smoke a regular cigarette now. That will keep the effect the other longer.”

As we went on down towards the old Franch market, all the objects in the streets suddenly became very vivid. Colors were stronger. Objects and people larger. The lights shone more brightly, and the edges of their flares diffused into reds and greens. We found ourselves very gay and joking. Everything Otto said seemed exceedingly important. People were amusing to us.

- pp. 103- 105, Sisters of the Extreme: Women Writing on The Drug Experience by Cynthia Palmer and Michael Horowitz (2000)

box car bertha, women, pot, cannabis, marijuana
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