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Stanley, Augustus Owsley (1935–2011)

by Malcolm Brown

Owsley Stanley, the ultimate counter-culture figure, renegade offspring of a line of prominent US public figures, might be remembered for introducing the world to two things: the psychedelic drug LSD and wall-to-wall sound produced with electronic amplification by rock groups.

He and his colleagues are estimated to have produced 1.25 million doses of LSD between 1965 and 1967, essentially seeding the entire psychedelic movement, the so-called ''flower power scene'', symbolising a course in life rather different from what had been charted by his ancestry.

One of his forebears, William Owsley, had been governor of Kentucky in the 19th century, as had his grandfather, A. Owsley Stanley, from 1915 to 1919. Grandfather Stanley went on to sit in the US House of Representatives.

But the young Stanley, after trying various things, discovered the potential of LSD and became the first person to produce the drug in significant quantities, an activity that earned him a jail sentence.

Augustus Owsley Stanley III was born in Kentucky on January 19, 1935, son of a US government attorney. In 1956, at 21, he enlisted in the US Air Force and served for 18 months. Inspired by a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet, he began studying ballet in Los Angeles, supporting himself while he did so as a professional dancer. His first child, Peter, was born in 1957. A second, Nina, was born in 1962.

In 1963, he enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, and found a recipe for the drug in a chemistry journal. Stanley dropped out of the academic course after a semester but took the knowledge of LSD. Taking a job with a television station, he began producing the drug in a small laboratory in a bathroom near the university campus.

He was raided in 1965 but beat the charge because police had been looking for methamphetamine and the drug he had was not illegal at the time. He demanded his equipment back and got it.

Stanley continued producing LSD, using a university laboratory. By May 1965, he had made 300,000 capsules and was distributing them. He became involved with the rock group the Grateful Dead and began working with them as a sound man and financial assistant. He focused on quality and clarity of sound, favouring simplicity.

His tapes were regarded as a benchmark for live recordings. He made numerous live recordings of other musicians, including Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Cash.

In 1966, Stanley rented a house in Point Richmond, California, and set up another drug laboratory. He developed a method that left the LSD 99.9 per cent free of impurities. Turning out hundreds of thousands of tablets, dubbed ''White Lightning'', Stanley (now nicknamed ''The Bear'') became rich and notorious. Rock tour manager Sam Cutler said: "He made acid so pure and wonderful, people like Jimi Hendrix wrote hit songs about it and others named their band in its honour."

Hendrix's song Purple Haze was reputedly inspired by a batch of Stanley's product.

The Los Angeles Times described Stanley as an ''LSD Millionaire''. The next day, October 6, 1966, the Californian State Legislature passed legislation criminalising the drug.

Stanley set up operations in Denver, Colorado. He produced the raw product there and tableted it in Orinda, California. In late 1967, police raided his Orinda laboratory. He was found in possession of 350,000 doses of LSD and 1500 doses of another drug, STP. The Grateful Dead produced a song about the arrest, entitled Alice D. Millionaire.

Stanley's defence, that the drugs were for personal use, did not hold ground and he was sentenced to three years in jail.

Released after two, he did more sound work for the Grateful Dead.

Interviewed by a newspaper, Stanley said: ''I wound up doing time for something I should have been rewarded for. What I did was a community service, the way I look at it. I was punished for political reasons. Absolutely meaningless. Was I a criminal? No. I was a good member of society. Only my society and the one making the laws are different."

Stanley worked for a time as a television engineer. Two further children, Starfinder and Redbird, were born in 1970. Each of his four children – two sons and two daughters – were to different women.

In the early 1980s, apparently fearing a new ice age, Stanley migrated to Australia. He produced gold enamel sculptures, which he started selling on the internet. Now married to Sheila, he was naturalised in 1996 and lived with her in the bush of far north Queensland.

He believed man should be entirely carnivorous. He said all vegetables were toxic and, since 1959, he had eaten nothing but meat, eggs, butter and cheese. He received radiation therapy in 2004 for throat cancer and lost one of his vocal cords.

On March 13, Stanley was killed in a car accident near his home. He is survived by Sheila, his four children, eight grandchildren and two greatgrandchildren.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 March 2011

Additional Resources

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Stanley, Augustus Owsley (1935–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/stanley-augustus-owsley-16739/text28635, accessed 24 August 2019.

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