Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hearst Castle, Yellow Journalism, and the Hemp Conspiracy



I took a double take at the herd of zebra grazing in a pasture off the stretch of US 1 north of San Simeon. Then I remembered where I was, a few miles from Hearst Castle. The former estate of William Randolph Hearst used to house one of the most diverse wildlife parks in the world, with over 100 species of grazing animals and 50 types of predator.

The Hearst Castle is now a part of the California State Park system, and for $20 it is possible to take one of five different tours of the estate including an evening tour where local volunteers dress up as guests in period costumes from the 1930’s. The vistas along the 5-mile bus ride up the 1,600 foot rise to the castle’s ridge top setting are nearly worth the price of admission.

William’s father George Hearst purchased the 48,000 acre estate in 1865 for 70 cents per acre. Even at the time this was a discounted price for prime coastal real estate. There was question about the validity of the title based on an old Mexican land grant. As a member of the State Assembly, Hearst sorted out this and other title claims, and the mining baron cemented land holdings that would make him virtual nobility. William acquired these lands upon his mother’s death in 1919, and with the aid of architect Julia Morgan, began a construction of an estate that would remain uncompleted over 28 years and 127 rooms later.

With apologies to Michael Jackson—and his bizarre incorporation of a burn center on his ranch—the Hearst Castle and grounds would have been more aptly named Never-Never Land. Never before and never again could such a house be built.



Prohibitive costs aside, antiquity laws would prevent anything close to Hearst’s fanciful creation. He had entire Renaissance era and Gothic churches dismantled for their intricately carved ceilings, cloisters and choir stalls, though most of these priceless artifacts are easily overlooked amid his world-class collection of tapestries and furnishings from around the world. The fa├žade of the Casa Grande was built to look like a Spanish Cathedral, a fitting style for a host with two strictly enforced rules. His guests were forbidden to bring their own liquor, or sleep with the other guests if not married to them. He was the exception to this rule. The rich and famous flocked to the castle anyway, and the stories along the tour are peppered with the biggest names from the early days of cinema.

The hodgepodge of sacred is contrasted by the motley profane: pools, fountains and gardens with a haphazard mishmash of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian antiquities, and works from Spain and Italy from various periods dating back to the Renaissance.

Our guide included digestible nuggets of the Hearst legend, heavy on the idiosyncrasies of his personal life and his devotion to his mistress, actress Marion Davies, but disappointingly thin on his influence on the world stage. As a historian and journalist I found the omissions of Hearst’s public life a little sad, especially after we were teased with the opening line from our tour guide, “Most of you had probably never heard of William Randolph Hearst before today, in his time he was one of the most powerful men in the world.”

The guide made only passing reference to Hearst’s power, the circulation of his publications reached 30 percent of the American electorate. Not a word on my two favorite Hearst stories, his well-known role in sparking the Spanish-American War, or his recently popularized crusade against marijuana.


The reign of William Randolph Hearst marked a low point in the integrity of the American press. He is credited with the era of yellow journalism, when publisher moguls including Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer engaged in circulation wars by printing sensationalized and fraudulent stories. He directed his newspapers to manufacture sources and quotes that best fit their agendas. Before television, nothing sold newspapers like a war, and when the opportunity arose, Hearst delivered news in a way that made war inevitable.


On February 15th, 1898, the USS Maine blew up in Havana harbor. The warship had been sent to Cuba three weeks earlier in a response aimed at declaring US intentions to protect American citizens amidst an escalating civil war between Spain and Cuban revolutionaries. Though the cause of the explosions aboard the Maine remain unclear to this day, the Hearst papers immediately declared that a Spanish mine had blown up the Maine’s magazines despite the frequency of boiler mishaps aboard the coal fired ships of that day. The New York Journal barked front-page headlines and eight-page spreads denouncing Spanish intrigue in the weeks leading up to the American invasion of Cuba.

That story is now apart of any decent American history survey, not that students read their history textbooks. A lesser known story, though one that has been recently popularized by a spate of books and documentaries about the origin of our country’s drug laws, is Hearst’s relentless crusade against marijuana.

For centuries hemp had been a vital crop for the production of rope, sails, and course fabrics. In the late 1930’s, advances in processing the plant threatened to make hemp a cheap and renewable alternative to paper pulp and allow for mass production of natural hemp fibers. George Schlichten’s new machine, the decorticator, separated the fiber from core of the hemp plant, thereby reducing labor costs and greatly increasing hemp’s fiber yield. Combined with new technology to fashion paper and plastics from hemp-derived cellulose, Schlichten’s machine promised a new direction for the paper and fabric industry.

But what is good for the planet is not necessarily good for the barons of industry. Both Hearst and the Dupont Corporation stood to lose millions of dollars because of the coming hemp revolution. Hearst owned thousands of acres of prime forest and the paper mills that supplied his media empire. Dupont at the time was discovering uses for petroleum-based fabrics including nylon.

To stave of the commercial threat posed by hemp, Hearst began a journalistic crusade against an evil weed from Mexico, marijuana. It would have been impossible to demonize the plant as cannabis or hemp given its centuries long use as a cash crop. Marijuana, on the other hand, was the little known Mexican name for the plant, and Hearst newspapers covered stories of marijuana users incurable hysteria, hopeless dependency and psychotic episodes. The newspaper driven panic against marijuana helped turned public sentiment against the cannabis plant.

Conspiracy buffs note that Harry Anslinger, the drug czar who led the campaign for federal prohibition, was appointed by a Dupont financier. Though the American Medical Association made a stand against the prohibition of a plant with recognized medicinal value, the interest aligned against the fair plant are too strong. In the end, Anslinger coerced the leaders of the medical establishment to change their positions by threats of intense federal scrutiny, paving the way for Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. Hearst is freed to saw his trees and the Dupont to clothe a generation in coal and oil based fibers.

It’s a great story, one that books, movies, and countless internet pundits have popularized in recent years. It pulls the heartstrings of an environmentally conscious audience that would like to believe in a miracle plant that could have saved the world from environmental degradation. Though there may be a grain of truth in the tale, the story that a vast corporate conspiracy was responsible for the cannabis prohibition was pulled from the cloud of a bong hit. Some modern revision of the hemp prohibition rival JFK theories in their asinine complexity, and like Hearst’s best yarns, they seem better suited for the yellow press than serious historical discussion.

The Dupont Corporation’s role in the web does not stand scrutiny. Nylon wasn’t discovered until 1935 and had no commercially patented uses until it appeared in toothbrush bristles in 1938, a year after the Marihuana Tax act of 1937 and six years after marijuana’s inclusion in the Uniform Drug Act of 1932. Nylon was envisioned as a substitute for silk, and did not come viable until demand from the WWII helped it become silk replacement in the early 1940’s.

Schlichten patented his decorticator in 1917, yet there was no corresponding boom in hemp production like the boom in cotton that followed Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin. Perhaps because hemp is not a great clothing alternative, its fibers are coarse and scratchy. Only a conspiracy obsessed, earth-worshipping hippy could stand a hemp wardrobe. Eventually, WWII spurred temporary demand for the production of industrial hemp with full backing of the US government.

Authors and filmmakers would have you believe marijuana was almost completely unknown until Hearst brought it to his readers’ attention in the mid 1930’s. Though it’s true there were very few pot smokers in that time, marijuana was reviled in the press long before the 1930’s, and before the invention the decorticator. Hearst had been waging a campaign against hashish, opiates, and marijuana that spanned the first four decades of the 20th century. Hearst publications were not alone. Articles denouncing the killer weed were also printed in august sources such as The Washington Post—two in March 1905—and The New York Times in January 1901. In 1929, The Denver Post ran a string of articles about the weed after a Mexican man accused of being a marijuana fiend killed his white step-daughter.


The federal laws pursued by Anslinger were only consolidating a prohibition well under way on the state level. Twenty-one states already had marijuana laws in place before the federal regulations of the 1930’s. New York included cannabis on its controlled substances list in 1914. Utah, whose Mormon missionaries returned from Mexico with bundles of the weed, became the first western state to ban cannabis in 1915. Sixteen western states, where the United States’ Mexican population resided, had cannabis bans by 1930. Colorado was late in prohibition, its ban came almost immediately after the 1929 marijuana attributed slaying.

The press on marijuana blamed the drug for the worst stereotypes of a growing Mexican population in the Southwestern US. This fits the pattern of other anti-drug rhetoric from the era, hashish was negatively associated with Middle Easterners, cocaine with southern Blacks, and opiates with Asians. Whether or not racism and xenophobia was the driving force in cannabis prohibition, it was a factor, and almost certainly played a role in Hearst’s news stories. He made no secret of his hatred for Mexicans and Mexican culture.

The best argument in favor of the conspiracy is the curious decision for federal regulators to ban all cannabis production. The smoking weed, cannabis indica, has little in common with the fibrous, tree like cannabis sativa used for industrial purposes. A modern day hemp farmer in Britain illustrates this point with a notice posted on his fence that “it would take a joint the size of a telephone pole for you to you get high,” off the later variety.

Perhaps they weren’t taking any chances. This was after all the era of Prohibition, where alcohol was demonized alongside other mind-altering substances. In that regard the cannabis laws were consistent with the national temperance movement of the day and on the surface less hypocritical than they are today.

Anyway, that’s the Hearst conspiracy and its debunking in a nutshell.

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