Drugs were legal in the Victorian period, so when Hartmann Henry Saltzberger appeared in court it was not because he was described as a ‘dealer in opium’. Instead he was charged with attempting to take his own life, a state it was assumed he had been driven to by the collapse in his business.
Saltzberger traded in opium from premises in Anerley Park, in south-east London. Recently however, the war between Bolivia and Peru and Chile (the so-called War of the Pacific, 1879-1883) had given him problems in getting supplies of the drug.
As his supplies dwindled so did his business and this brought his creditors to his door. One of these was Thomas Swabey, from whom Saltzberger rented his property at Anerley. He had called in the bailiffs after the opium dealer filed for bankruptcy at Croydon. When the official receiver called at Salzberger’s house he found the tenant’s door bolted shut.
The police were called and when PC 271P forced entry he discovered the dealer lying senseless on his bed. A doctor was summoned and its ascertained that Saltzberger had administered a large dose of opium in an attempt to kill himself.
Appearing at Lambeth the 54 year-old explained that he was in ‘pecuniary circumstances’ and admitted taking his own drugs to end his life. His son testified that his father’s mind had been affected by his fall in fortunes and that his relatives had been worried about him for some time. They may have been worried but not enough to help, Hartmann complained, as they had time and again refused his requests for money. The bankruptcy may have been the catalyst for his suicide attempt, but the business had been in trouble for some time.
A doctor stated that Saltzberger wasn’t so ill that he needed to be sent to an asylum. He was a regular opium user and this would have taken its toll, but as yet he was not quite ‘mad’ enough to be confined. Mr Chance, the sitting magistrate was not convinced however, and asked for the drug dealer to be remanded so that a second opinion could be sought from the prison’s medical officer and the chaplain. He described the situation as ‘sad’ and showed considerably more sympathy for Saltzberger than we might have expected.
In many ways this was quite an enlightened approach to the effects of drug use; while Saltzberger’s problem was the failure of his livelihood, it was clearly exacerbated by his reliance on a mind altering substance. Drugs weren’t made illegal in Britain until after 1912 when an international agreement attempted (and of course failed) to stem the trade in narcotics.
[from The Standard, Friday, May 07, 1886]