First marijuana arrests, 1938

The Illinois State Journal photographed three accused marijuana dealers, in a surprisingly cheerful mood, following their arrest Aug. 6, 1938. From left are Springfield police detective Sam Phoenix, arrestees Charles Childers, Rocco Zitto and James Floyd, and detective Alex Bender. (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

Sangamon County resisted “reefer madness”, but marijuana finally arrived in Springfield in 1938.

“Brilliant raids” by two Springfield police detectives resulted in the arrests of three men – two locals and one from Youngstown, Ohio – on Aug. 6, 1938, the Illinois State Journal reported the next day. The officers seized “enough marijuana to manufacture more than a thousand of the cigarets that are proving a plague to some of the youth of the nation,” the newspaper said.

The bust seems to have been the first ever in Sangamon County. In fact, county juvenile probation officer Gwendolen Sherman told the Journal in December 1937 that she had seen no evidence that marijuana was being used by anyone locally.

“If there is any marijuana in Springfield, it’s certainly well hidden,” Miss Sherman declared. “All that was dug up in the recent survey conducted under the auspices of the Sangamon County Council for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency was that rumors trickled in that orchestra players in a few taverns were marijuana addicts. No evidence to this effect was found, however.”

Marijuana had been a component of some prescription and patent medicines before passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which regulated and taxed marijuana and other forms of Cannabis sativa. The law drove use of psychoactive marijuana underground; it also basically destroyed the production of industrial hemp (which does not have intoxicating properties) in the U.S.

The new costs and red tape led Springfield pharmacists to stop using marijuana in medicines they compounded almost immediately, the Journal reported in November 1937.

So it was front-page news when detectives Sam Phoenix and Alexis Bender arrested Rocco Zitto, 19, of Youngstown along with Charles Childers, 18, and James Floyd, 19, both of Springfield, for selling marijuana. Zitto allegedly brought the stash to Springfield and tried to sell it in local African-American neighborhoods. (As was newspaper practice at the time, later stories identified Childers and Floyd as “colored;” since Zitto’s race was not mentioned, he was Caucasian. Both detectives were African-American.)

The seized marijuana was valued at $700, police told the Journal. The newspaper added:

According to information given authorities, Zitto met the two other youths Friday and they purchased the marijuana weed from him since then.

The cigarets, which are made by hand, retail for about 50 cents each.

Authorities said that Zitto, since his arrival in the city, had been contacting other youths in the East Adams street district.

The three accused men displayed some of their marijuana containers in an oddly cheerful photo also published in the Journal on Aug. 7 (above).

Zitto and Floyd were indicted for violation of the U.S. narcotics law on Aug. 8. A brief Journal story gave no clue why Childers avoided indictment. In any case, the Journal published nothing else about the case, so it’s unknown whether Zitto and Floyd were ever convicted or sentenced.

Attorney General Otto Kerner Jr. with hemp plant. (Courtesy SJ-R)

Meanwhile, area residents went on the lookout for patches of volunteer “ditch weed” –most likely industrial hemp, not true marijuana – over the next couple of months.

A mystery group of men cut down several patches of what the Journal called “locoweed” in empty farm fields near Petersburg in October 1938.

(S)omeone noticed a truck and several men with scythes at the weed patches. The men swarmed into the patches, “mowed em down,” as Charlie McCarthy says, and departed with the harvest before anyone could question them.

In September, Illinois Attorney General Otto Kerner Sr., a Democrat and father of the later governor, warned Illinois farmers they risked prosecution if they didn’t destroy any “Indian hemp” they found growing in their fields.

The next day, a woman phoned Kerner’s office to report that she knew where some plants could be found, the Journal reported. The story went on:

“I just wanted you to know there’s some marijuana growing near Hank Lloyd’s house at the fairgrounds.”

Now, Hank Lloyd is none other than James H. Lloyd, state director of agriculture.

The woman (suspected of being a Republican) finally said she thought the weed from which “reefers” are made is flourishing in Happy Hollow, where carnivals reign during the state fair. Happy Hollow is state property and the home where Lloyd resides is also state owned.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.

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2 Responses to First marijuana arrests, 1938

  1. Nick Penning says:

    Wasn’t marijuana targeted for criminalization because it was seen as popular among many African Americans, particularly musicians?

    • editor says:

      Nick: From what I saw in early national stories, Hispanics — Mexicans, primarily — were also one of the early targets. Supposedly, they were among the first to use marijuana as an intoxicant.

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