Unlocking History

Early 1900s acrobat walked tightrope of addiction

Newspaper headline and two photos of acrobat Arva Case, taken 17 years apart, show her descent into addiction.
Arva Case made headlines in 1911 when she was arrested for burglary, at left, and again in 1928 when she was sent to San Quentin (photo at right).

To support addiction, acrobat Arva Case put skills to work

Acrobat Arva Case had her whole life ahead when a cancer diagnosis, followed by an addiction to pain medication, caused her world to crash.

This is the story of a celebrated performer who thrilled crowds with daring feats in the early 1900s, until she fell into drugs and crime. Substance use lead her to brief stints in state hospitals, county jails and eventually San Quentin State Prison.

Today, CDCR and California Correctional Health Care Services offer modern treatment to help incarcerated individuals who are battling addiction. According to CCHCS, cognitive behavioral interventions and peer support comprise the primary treatment for addiction. For some, pharmacologic and housing modalities may also be used, including Integrated Substance Use Disorder Treatment.

Acrobat turns to crime

Arva Case was a 20-year-old acrobat, performing with traveling carnivals and circuses, when she was diagnosed with cancer in 1904, requiring a hysterectomy. To help with pain, she was prescribed morphine. At the time, it was a common practice to prescribe morphine after surgery.

As addiction took hold, she began making poor choices. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, women made up 60 percent of those addicted to opiates, according to medical professionals at the time.

“Uterine and ovarian complications cause more ladies to fall into the (drug) habit, than all other diseases combined,” wrote Dr. Frederick Heman Hubbard in his 1881 book, “The Opium Habit and Alcoholism.”

As laws were passed to limit opioid use, and it became more difficult to acquire, many turned to crime.

San Francisco sees string of burglaries

Now 27, Case and an accomplice were arrested and charged with theft after swiping an expensive opera cloak from a San Francisco merchant.

“George Upton, alias Bennett, and Arva Case were arrested yesterday morning,” reported the San Francisco Call, Nov. 18, 1911. “The woman stole the cloak, gave it to Upton, who was waiting outside. (After a) chase of four blocks, Bennett was caught with the opera coat in his possession.”

During the pursuit, Case slipped away and made it to her apartment. Within 20 minutes, three detectives were at her door. A search of her apartment turned up a high-wire harness used by circus performers. Hidden away in a trunk, detectives also found a small men’s suit. Police claimed Case wore the disguise during heists.

“The police are confident they have in custody a pair of shoplifters who have operated in the downtown district for the last month,” the paper reported. “Upton and the woman are also suspected of being porch-climbers. With the finding of (the clothing), the police were convinced that Miss Arva Case had figured in some of the recent robberies dressed as a man.”

Porch climbers, as they were called at the time, were essentially cat burglars. They scaled the walls of homes or businesses, slipping in through unlocked windows.

More damning for Case was the notebook police found. It appeared to be a log of sales for their stolen goods. The logs showed they sometimes fetched $300 per day.

She denied any involvement.

“If I am as clever as they say, don’t you suppose I could have jumped out the window and gone down the wire? I am not a crook. I am only a poor girl,” she claimed.

Through her attorney, Case pleaded guilty but requested probation.

“Arva Case, who was a feature of the Portola Festival here, charged with robbing by means of a ‘breeches buoy and slide-for-life wire,’ was today given a three years’ probationary sentence under parole by Superior Judge Cabaniss. Her confederate, George Upton, was sentenced to 18 months in San Quentin,” reported the United Press, Jan. 11, 1912.

Hospital commitment offered

Still under her probationary sentence, Case again ran afoul of the law. This time, given her history of addiction, the San Francisco judge chose to commit the former acrobat to the Mendocino State Hospital.

Judge Thomas Graham committed her October 23, 1914, according to California State Archives.

The hospital doctor’s notes indicate, “uterus and ovaries removed 10 years ago (due to) cancer. Uses morphine and cocaine excessively. Morphine (use began) 10 years ago, cocaine 2 years ago.”

She was discharged in July 1915 with the note: “not to be benefitted by further treatment.”

Addiction spirals out of control for acrobat

In the 1920s, Case’s poor decisions continued to lead her down a path toward incarceration.

“Arva Case, a drug user, was sentenced to three months in the county jail yesterday by Judge Fitzpatrick,” reported the San Francisco Examiner, Oct. 6, 1920.

In 1926, she was sentenced to six months on drug charges in San Francisco.

A year later, Case was arrested for “violation of the anti-narcotic law” and sent to the Los Angeles County Jail.

While incarcerated in Los Angeles, she became enmeshed in a contraband ring.

“Addicts throughout the women’s division of the jails were being supplied with dope through an ingenious scheme,” reported the Los Angeles Evening Express, Jan. 4, 1928. A search of Case’s cell turned up $400 worth of morphine and cocaine, smuggled to her in a pair of house slippers.

Her county jail drug crimes earned her a stint in the state prison.

In late January 1928, she was given a one-to-seven year sentence in San Quentin for “possession of poison.” She was out of prison by 1930, publicly vowing to get clean.

“(Acrobat) Arva Case defied death from the high wire of a circus tent once upon a time. Now she sits in the city jail in San Francisco, still defying death. ‘I’ll stop using drugs or die in the attempt,’ she said. She was given a 60-day sentence at her own request that she might beat the dope habit,” according to the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, July 31, 1930.

Arva Case, 49, passed away just three years later on December 13, 1933.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

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