Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2017/Fall/Section 26/Bob Curtis

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Bob Curtis
SpouseChristine Curtis
  • Beatrice Curtis
  • Nora Curtis
  • Third daughter (not mentioned by name during interview)


Bob Curtis was an American born laborer who was a vagrant for much of the period surrounding the Great Depression. He spent most of his life living along various rivers in Alabama, where he either worked low-paying jobs or supported his family by fishing. In 1938, he was interviewed by Jack Kytle as part of the Federal Writers Project.


Curtis’ birth date is unknown, and he spoke little about his early life when interviewed. He worked many jobs during his life, including saw mill worker, cotton mill worker, and teamster. He typically earned between $0.75-$1.50 per day. He was briefly involved in the moonshine business, but left due to fear of imprisonment.[1]

Because of the effects of the Great Depression on Alabama, Curtis left industrial work, which he said was being “ruined” by “machines”. He became an independent fisherman, working in the Coosa, Warrior, Alabama, Chattahoochee, and Tallapoosa rivers. During this time, he lived with his wife in temporary houses along the banks of these rivers.[2]

A map of rivers running through Central Alabama

Personal Life and Family[edit]

Curtis was married to Christine Curtis, the daughter of a leather maker, in approximately 1898. They had three daughters. One left and married a textile worker in Sylacauga, Alabama. The name of this daughter was not disclosed. The other two, Nora and Beatrice, both resided at home. Nora attended school until eighth grade before leaving due to discomfort about her age compared to younger students.[3]

Curtis admitted to problems with alcoholism and infidelity throughout his marriage. He often went on drinking binges after being paid for large catches. After a work-related injury during his time at a saw mill, Curtis was prescribed morphine and eventually became addicted. However, because of increasing government crackdowns on narcotics, Curtis was no longer able to receive morphine prescriptions. This led to a period of intense withdrawal during which Curtis was unable to work.[4]

Curtis identified as a Christian, although he admitted to not going to church or being familiar with the Bible. He learned what he knew about religion from his wife, Christine, who was literate. He described his faith as a source of “comfort” during particularly tough times, pointing to the fact that “He was pore too, an’ they nailed him on the cross,” and saying, “Sometimes I think that them who are pore an’ hungry hyar will be rich and fed in heaven.”[5]

Social Issues[edit]

Alabama During the Great Depression[edit]

As a result of the Great Depression, there were significantly fewer jobs for illiterate workers, as the economic crisis hit Alabama particularly hard. When the stock market crashed in 1929, Alabama was already in the middle of a significant agricultural decline.[6] This was largely attributed to the boll weevil infestation and its effect on the cotton industry. The combination of the economic disaster caused by the Great Depression and the crippling of agriculture led to significantly fewer jobs in both the rural and urban areas of Alabama, with agricultural strain affecting industrial production. Between 1929 and 1933, approximately half of the state's mines and mills ceased production.[7] By June 1932, Birmingham had an unemployment rate of 25 percent and was called the "worst hit town in the country" by then President Franklin D. Roosevelt.[8] While most Americans felt the effects of the Great Depression into the 1930’s, residents of Alabama were impacted into the 1940’s. Between 1930 and 1940, non-farm employment in the state dropped by 15%, which was the largest decrease in any Southern state.[9]

Boll weevil.jpg
Boll weevil

While the Alabama did receive funding through various New Deal programs, most early relief came from religious and charitable organizations.[10] The state first began the widespread distribution of funds with the Alabama Relief Administration, founded by then governor Benjamin Meek Miller. This agency typically favored skilled, white workers. As a result, lower class and black laborers relied on federal aid for relief.[11]

Morphine Addiction During the 1930's[edit]

Morphine use became widespread in America during the Civil War. It was at first used to treat wounded soldiers. At the end of the war there was a “first wave” of morphine addiction in the U.S. due to its use during the Civil War.[12]

Beginning in the 1930’s, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (a predecessor to the Drug Enforcement Administration) began to further restrict addiction, which was becoming more common still as people turned to it because of the struggles of the era.[13] They began strictly enforcing previous laws such as the 1916 Harrison Narcotic Act, and as a result, morphine became much harder to acquire for those who were addicted to it. The U.S. government did not implement any widespread programs for addicts, instead choosing to focus on the prohibition of drugs. Federal Bureau of Narcotics head Henry Anslinger said, ""The best cure for addiction? Never let it happen."[14]


  1. Interview of Bob Curtis by Jack Kytle, 1938, Folder 41, SHC Collection Number: 03709, Federal Writers' Project Papers, 1936-1940, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Downs, Matthew L. “Great Depression in Alabama.” Encyclopedia of Alabama, Alabama Humanities Foundation, 10 July 2014, www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-3608.    
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Cosman, C.P. “The Great Depression, The New Deal, and Alabama's Political Leadership.”Alabama Moments, ADAH    
  10. Downs, Matthew L. “Great Depression in Alabama.”    
  11. Ibid.
  12. "A Social History of America's Most Popular Drugs." PBS. Accessed October 08, 2017. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/drugs/buyers/socialhistory.html.
  13. "Morphine Addiction in the 1930s." Morphine Addiction Help. Accessed October 08, 2017. http://www.morphineaddictionhelp.com/morphine-addiction-1930s.    
  14. Courtwright, David T. "A Century of American Narcotic Policy." Treating Drug Problems: Volume 2: Commissioned Papers on Historical, Institutional, and Economic Contexts of Drug Treatment., 1992