Nellie Bly Takes the Gold Cure

Journalist and Traveler Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly in 1900

When Nellie Bly died in 1922, at least one obituary described her as “the best reporter in America.” She was certainly an impressive investigative journalist. As an advocacy journalist, she wasn’t shy about putting her opinions in her stories, and she could even be seen as a precursor for the later New Journalism, where the writer is part of the story.

She also was a feminist pioneer, and ran her husband’s iron works company after his death, patenting or co-patenting a better metal oil drum. She was a celebrity in her own right. Her name appeared in the headlines of many of her stories, and board games and playing cards were designed with her image. She was a phenomenon.

Bly is best remembered for her 1887 career-making series Ten Days in a Mad-house and for besting Verne’s hero Phileas Fogg’s time—and that of a rival journalist—by traveling around the world in seventy-two days in 1889. Both are still readily available online and in book form.

The Keeley Institute and the Gold Cure

Bly’s articles about the treatment of madness were written in New York near the start of her career. Near the end, Bly investigated a so-called “alcoholism cure” for the well-to-do in White Plains. In a way, this lesser-known chapter is a thematic bookend to her life as a reporter.

keeley institute

The Keeley Institute in White Plains, NY

While Mad-house dealt with life-and-death issues—the need for mental illness treatment reform among the mostly poor, foreign-born women on Blackwell’s Island—her 1894 story Nellie Bly Takes the Keeley Cure was less serious and ran in a single installment. It was as concerned with Bly’s preparations to pass herself off as a high-functioning absinthe drinker as the cure itself. It exposed The Keeley Institute, a fraudulent alcoholism cure clinic. While the mental asylum was making people worse, Keeley’s clinic may have been helping alcoholics, even though its “cure” was hokum.

Founded by Leslie Keeley in 1879 in Illinois and expanding to branches throughout the United States and Europe, the Keeley Institute’s slogan was “Drunkenness is a disease and I can cure it.” It also claimed to work for “opium inebriates” and “morphine fiends.” They treated people with Keeley’s proprietary “gold cure” for alcoholism, not available anywhere else.

Gold_CureThe gold cure was a potion that included something Keeley called “double chloride of gold.” Independent analyses found that the gold cure was a witches’ brew of varying ingredients—gold salts, alcohol, morphine, cannabis, and other substances—in colored water.

Despite the toxic and/or addictive nature of many of these ingredients—and remember, morphine was then legal and even heroin was sold over the counter in the United States until 1924—there were few if any claims of negative side effects or new addictions associated with the cure other than vomiting or dizziness.*

It was snake oil, but enough people reported that it worked—Keeley claimed a 95% success rate—that Bly’s antennae were out. Her stepfather had been an alcoholic, and she didn’t believe in easy cures. The cost was a hundred dollars paid in advance. Bly managed to negotiate a one-week stay for twenty-five, though she was told that was normally not allowed.

The cure was administered by syringe four times a day for four weeks, with tonics given at two-hour intervals. Bly rightly noted with horror that the male patients were all injected with the same needle, which was not cleaned between injections. Female patients, of which there were few at the time of Bly’s visit, were administered privately in their rooms.

1891-1892-CD-Keeley-Institute-300x184Each patient was also given a bottle of whiskey by the institute so they could taper off their drinking on their own. Bly said she “gave it to an expert, who pronounced it the worst rot-gut he had ever tasted.” As a purported absinthe drinker, Bly had to buy her own bottle from a local shop.

Some of the staff had taken the cure themselves. Bly noted approvingly that the attending medic Dr. Millspaugh had a red nose, assuming it revealed a past love of drink.

“It is as it should be, thought I, to have for a doctor one who has tasted the bitter and sweet of loving cups . . . For who could better doctor a man with snakes than one who killed many a one of his own? And who could better tell the condition of a head the next morning than one who had drank all the others under the table?”

Later, when he told her he was not and never had been a drinker, Bly wrote, “How can a doctor who doesn’t know the symptoms of drink doctor one for the complaint?”

Nelly Bly (Absinthe Fiend) Investigates

Bly was less impressed when she discovered that rather than one-and-done, some patients had taken the cure multiple times. The wife of one patient said she had no faith in the cure lasting, though her husband had stopped drinking after a week:

“They give the same tonic, the same injection to each and every man. What will cure the boy of twenty cannot surely cure my husband, who has drank so many more years. And they treat them the same number of times and the same number of weeks.”

Still, she told Bly, “So long as my husband believes it is all I ask. If he can be cured for even a few months, it is well worth the expense and time.” Their doctors had warned that he would be dead in a month if nothing was done.

Mr. J.J. Brown, the manager, explained to Bly why patients sometimes came back. “It puts people back where they were before they began to drink, (but) there must be a desire on the part of the patient not to drink. We can’t make it impossible to drink if they feel so inclined.”

Bly was unconvinced. She wrote: “I would not for the world cast discredit upon anything that would turn people from drink for even four weeks. But it is my honest opinion that the cure is no cure in itself.”

She declared that being “away from temptation, (with) plain, wholesome food, pure, bracing air (and) plenty of rest” make the patient “feel better. He credits it to the cure, and his faith grows stronger . . . He believes he is cured. That is the great thing. So long as he believes that and does not taste, he is all right, but woe to the Keeley patient who tries a drink!”

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Advertisement for the Keeley Institute in Greensboro, NC (Blandwood Mansion)

Bly was mostly correct in her analysis, but she was missing one thing. The reason the Keeley Institute worked as well as it apparently did was that it wasn’t just a vehicle to sell snake oil—though it undoubtedly was that—but it offered something else: dignity. The alcoholic was treated not as a lowlife, weak, or evil, but as someone with a disease.

In Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, William L. White explains: “The atmosphere was informal and friendly at the clinics, with a marked absence of the bars and restraints that were typical in most inebriate asylums of the period.” Also dissimilar to later programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Keeley didn’t include religion as a component. The institute didn’t include addiction counselors, though most of the doctors were former alcoholics themselves. According to White, “There were enough doctors on staff to go around.”

Apart from the dubious gold cure, modern addiction treatment does follow many of Keeley’s tenets, including the way alcoholism is viewed. The US Surgeon General’s 2016 Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health clearly states that “Addiction to alcohol or drugs is a chronic but treatable brain disease that requires medical intervention, not moral judgment.”

The institute promoted “mutual sharing and alternative diversions” as part of the therapy, much like the peer support groups recommended today. Bly credited much of the institute’s success to the healthy food, exercise, and fresh air, and these are often components of modern addiction rehab treatment too. It is now recognized that relapse is not uncommon among addicts, and that rehabilitation rarely works unless the patients want to get better.

nellie bly keeley institute white plains

Nellie Bly tries the “gold cure” at White Plains Keeley Institute

What makes the Keeley story an almost perfect bookend to Bly’s career is that alcohol and drug addiction often co-occur with mental health issues. They are related problems, also known as dual diagnoses—alcohol or drugs may be used to self-medicate for a mental health problem, or drug and alcohol use may exacerbate mental health problems.

Keeley was a conman, but he seems to have helped others in spite of himself, inadvertently using his bogus “cure” as a spoonful of sugar to help the real medicine go down. Call addicts irredeemable, and they’ll stay away. Pretend you have a cure, then distract them with healthy food and exercise, and maybe they will get better.

Nellie Bly knew that Keeley promised more than he could deliver and acted accordingly. A claim of a 95% success rate is crazy, and maybe that put her on her mettle. A better story would have been to find out how many people the Keeley Institute actually helped and why, or to compare its success rate to more traditional inebriate asylums.

Nellie Bly threw herself into her stories, tilted at windmills, slew dragons, suffered defeats, and left behind a record of achievement of which anyone would be proud.

Stephen Bitsoli writes about history, science, addiction, and related topics for several blogs. A former journalist and lifelong reader, he enjoys learning and sharing what he’s learned.

Sources

  1. Arlen, Michael. “Notes on the New Journalism.” The Atlantic, May 1972. Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1972/05/notes-on-the-new-journalism/376276/
  2. “Remarkable Nellie Bly’s Oil Drum.” American Oil & Gas Historical Society. Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.aoghs.org/transportation/nellie-bly-oil-drum/
  3. Conliffe, Ciaran. “Terrible People from History: Elizabeth “Nellie Bly” Cochrane Seaman, Intrepid Journalist.” Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.headstuff.org/culture/history/terrible-people-from-history/elizabeth-nellie-bly-cochrane-seaman-journalist/
  4. “5 May – Nellie Bly.” Widow’s Weeds. Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.thewidowsweeds.blogspot.com/2012/05/5-may-nellie-bly.html
  5. Bly, Nellie. Ten Days in a Mad-House. Ian L. Munro, Publisher, 1887. Nellie Bly: The Pioneer Woman Journalist, A Resource Website. Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.nellieblyonline.com/herwriting
  6. Himmelfarb, Ben. “Local History: Addicts & Addiction Pt. 1: The Keeley Institute.” October 30, 2017. White Plains Public Library. Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.whiteplainslibrary.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/1984-6-10-NYWorld-Bly-1.jpg
  7. Hanson, Dirk. “The Strange and Secret Keeley Cure for Addiction.” September 11, 2011. Addiction Inbox. Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.addiction-dirkh.blogspot.com/2011/09/strange-and-secret-keeley-cure-for.html
  8. “The Keeley Cure.” Digger Odell Publications, 2009. Bottlebooks.com. Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.bottlebooks.com/Keeley/keeley_cure.htm
  9. Detwiler, Jacqueline. “History’s Scariest Addiction Treatments.” The Fix, August 23, 2012.Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.thefix.com/content/grisly-addiction-treatments-history90510
  10. “Alcoholism is a Disease and I Can Cure It”: Dr. Leslie Keeley and the Keeley Institutes. Alcohol Problems & Solutions. Web. Accessed December 4, 2018. https://www.alcoholproblemsandsolutions.org/alcoholism-is-a-disease-and-i-can-cure-it-dr-leslie-keeley-and-the-keeley-institutes/
  11. Nickell, Joe. “Historic ‘Gold Cure’ For Addiction.” Center for Inquiry, March 18, 2016.Web. Accessed December 4, 2018. https://centerforinquiry.org/blog/historic_gold_cure_for_addiction/

*There have been some vague and undocumented claims of deaths, but if there were actual deaths, it’s hard to imagine Bly or other journalists ignoring them or making light of the Keeley cure thereafter.

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Pervitin, The People’s Drug: How Methamphetamine Fueled the Third Reich

Pervitinampullen

Meth didn’t come out of nowhere. Like cocaine, heroin, and morphine, it has its origins in 19th century Germany. When Romanian chemist Lazăr Edeleanu first synthesized amphetamine in 1887, he couldn’t have known that his creation would evolve into a substance that would one day help to fuel a world war. Nagai Nagayoshi took it a step closer when he synthesized methamphetamine in 1893. It was transformed into the crystalline form we know today by Japanese pharmacologist Akira Ogata in 1919, at which point it found its way back to Germany, where the conditions were just right for another pharmacological breakthrough.

Drugs and the Weimar Republic

Drugs were not unknown to Berlin. Okay, that’s an understatement. Weimar Berlin was soaked in them. Not only were drugs like morphine, heroin, and cocaine legal, but they could be purchased from every street corner and were all but issued to those attending the legendary nightclubs, where any kink or perversion up to an including BDSM, public orgies, and voyeurism happened on the regular.(1)

Anita Berber Cocaine by F.W. Koebner

Anita Berber by F. W. Koebner

Dancer Anita Berber, the It Girl of Weimar Berlin, was known to go about her business wearing nothing but a sable coat and an antique brooch stuffed with cocaine (pictured). She was such an exhibitionist, the local sex workers complained that they couldn’t keep up with the amount of skin she was showing. Of all the idiosyncratic breakfasts of history, Berber’s still stands out: she was said to start every day with a bowl of ether and chloroform she would stir with the petals of a white rose before sucking them dry.

She wasn’t the only one. Having lost its access to natural stimulants like tea and coffee along with its overseas colonies in the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was in need of synthetic assistance. Norman Ohler explains:

“The war had inflicted deep wounds and caused the nation both physical and psychic pain. In the 1920s drugs became more and more important for the despondent population between the Baltic Sea and the Alps. The desire for sedation led to self-education and there soon emerged no shortage of know-how for the production of a remedy.”

Poster for an anti-drug film, 1927

Produce they did. Eighty percent of the global cocaine market was controlled by German pharmaceutical companies, and Merck’s was said to be the best in the world. Hamburg was the largest marketplace in Europe for cocaine with thousands of pounds of it passing through its port legally every year. The country of Peru sold its entire annual yield of raw cocaine to German companies. Heroin, opium, and morphine were also produced in staggering quantities, with ninety-eight percent of German heroin being exported to markets abroad.

How were drugs able to flourish to such an extent? For one thing, they were legal. Many veterans of the First World War were habitually prescribed morphine by doctors who were addicted to it themselves. It wasn’t viewed as a harmful drug but as a necessary medical treatment for chronic pain and shell shock. Further, the line between drug use and addiction was uncertain. In spite of countless people regularly indulging in everything from cocaine to heroin for medical as well as recreational purposes, few were considered to be addicts. Drug use was not a crime, and addiction was seen as a curable disease to be tolerated.

As historian Jonathan Lewy explains:

“Addicts stemmed from a higher class in society. Physicians were the most susceptible professional group to drug addiction. Instead of antagonizing this group, the regime tried to include physicians and pharmacists in their program to control drugs. In addition, German authorities agreed that the war produced addiction; in other words, the prized veterans of the First World War were susceptible, and none of the political parties in the Weimar Republic, least of all the National Socialist Party, wished to antagonize this group of men.”

Pervitin, The Miracle Pill

On Halloween 1937, Pervitin was patented by Temmler, a pharmaceutical company based in Berlin. When it hit the market in 1938, Temmler sent three milligrams to every doctor in the city. Many doctors got hooked on it, and, convinced of its efficacy, prescribed it as study aid, an appetite suppressant, and a treatment for depression.

Pervitin Landesarchiv BerlinTemmler based its ad campaign on Coca-Cola’s, and the drug quickly became popular across the board. Students used it to help them study, and it was sold to housewives in chocolate with the claim that would help them to finish their chores faster with the added benefit that it would make them lose weight (it did). By 1939, Pervitin was used to treat menopause, depression, seasickness, pains related to childbirth, vertigo, hay fever, schizophrenia, anxiety, and “disturbances of the brain.”

Army physiologist Otto Ranke immediately saw its potential. Testing it on university students in 1939, he found that the drug enabled them to be remarkably focused and productive on very little sleep. Pervitin increased performance and endurance. It dulled pain and produced feelings of euphoria, but unlike morphine and heroin, it kept the user awake. Ranke himself became addicted to it after discovering that the drug allowed him to work up to fifty hours straight without feeling tired.

Despite its popularity, Pervitin became prescription only in 1939, and was further regulated in 1941 under the Reich Opium Law. That didn’t slow down consumption, though. Even after the regulation came in, production increased by an additional 1.5 million pills per year. Prescriptions were easy to come by, and Pervitin became the accepted Volksdroge (People’s Drug) of Nazi Germany, as common as acetaminophen is today.

Although the side effects were serious and concerning, doctors continued to readily prescribe it. Doctors themselves were among the most serious drug abusers in the country at this time. An estimated forty percent of the doctors in Berlin were known to be addicted to morphine.

As medical officer Franz Wertheim wrote in 1940:

“To help pass the time, we doctors experimented on ourselves. We would begin the day by drinking a water glass of cognac and taking two injections of morphine. We found cocaine to be useful at midday, and in the evening we would occasionally take Hyoskin (an alkaloid derived from nightshade) … As a result, we were not always fully in command of our senses.”

Its main user base, however, was the army. In addition to the benefits shown during the test on the university students, Ranke found that Pervitin increased alertness, confidence, concentration, and willingness to take risks, while it dulled awareness of pain, hunger, thirst, and exhaustion. It was the perfect drug for an army that needed to appear superhuman. An estimated one hundred million pills were consumed by the military in the pre-war period alone. Appropriately enough, one of the Nazis’ slogans was, “Germany, awake!”

Germany was awake, alright.

Military Use

After its first major test during the invasion of Poland, Pervitin was distributed to the army in shocking quantities. More than thirty-five million tablets of Pervitin and Isophan(2) were issued to the Wermacht and Luftwaffe between April and July of 1940 alone. They were aware that Pervitin was powerful and advised sparing use for stress and “to maintain sleeplessness” as needed, but as tolerance increased among the troops, more and more was needed to produce the same effects.

Pervitindose

Pervitin was a key ingredient to the success of the Blitzkrieg (lightning war). In these short bursts of intense violence, speed was everything.  In an interview with The Guardian, Ohler summarized:

“The invasion of France was made possible by the drugs. No drugs, no invasion. When Hitler heard about the plan to invade through Ardennes, he loved it. But the high command said: it’s not possible, at night we have to rest, and they [the allies] will retreat and we will be stuck in the mountains. But then the stimulant decree was released, and that enabled them to stay awake for three days and three nights. Rommel and all those tank commanders were high, and without the tanks, they certainly wouldn’t have won.”

Bomber pilots reported using Pervitin to stay alert throughout the Battle of Britain. Launches were often late at night, so German pilots would not make it to London until after midnight. As one bomber pilot wrote:

“You were over London or some other English city at about one or two in the morning, and of course then you’re tired. So you took one or two Pervitin tablets, and then you were all right again … The commander always has to have his wits about him, so I took Pervitin as a precautionary measure. One wouldn’t abstain from Pervitin because of a little health scare. Who cares when you’re doomed to come down at any moment anyway?”

Pervitin was issued to pilots to combat fatigue, and some of its nicknames—“pilot salt,” “Stuka pills,” “Göring pills”—hinted at its use. One commodore fighting in the Mediterranean described the feeling of using it while flying:

“The engine is running cleanly and calmly. I’m wide awake, my heartbeat thunders in my ears. Why is the sky suddenly so bright, my eyes hurt in the harsh light. I can hardly bear the brilliance; if I shield my eyes with my free hand it’s better. Now the engine is humming evenly and without vibration—far away, very far away. It’s almost like silence up here. Everything becomes immaterial and abstract. Remote, as if I were flying above my plane.”

As powerful as Pervitin was, it wasn’t enough. Still, whatever they needed was given to them. By 1944, Vice-Admiral Hellmuth Heye requested something stronger than would enable troops to fight even longer while boosting their self-esteem. Not long after, Kiel pharmacologist Gerhard Orzechowski answered with a newer, stronger pill called D-IX, the active ingredients of which were three milligrams of Pervitin, five milligrams of cocaine, and five milligrams of Eukodal, a painkiller derived from morphine.

Initially tested on prisoners at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp (the victims were forced to walk until they dropped, regardless of how long it took), D-IX was given to the marines piloting one-man U-boats designed to attack the Thames estuary. It was issued as a kind of chewing gum that was to keep the marines awake and piloting the boats for days at a time before ultimately attacking the British. It did not have the intended effect, however. Trapped under water for days at a time, the marines suffered psychotic episodes and often got lost.

The Hangover

No “miracle pill” is perfect, and anything that can keep people awake for days is going to have side effects. Long-term use of Pervitin could result in addiction, hallucination, dizziness, psychotic phases, suicide, and heart failure. Many soldiers died of cardiac arrest. Recognizing the risks, the Third Reich’s top health official, Leonardo Conti, attempted to limit his forces’ use of the drug but was ultimately unsuccessful.

Temmler Werke continued supplying Pervitin to the armies of both East and West Germany until the 1960s. West Germany’s army, the Bundeswehr, discontinued its use in the 1970s, but East Germany’s National People’s Army used it until 1988. Pervitin was eventually banned in Germany altogether, but methamphetamine was just getting started.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Cooke, Rachel. High Hitler: How Nazi Drug Abuse Steered the Course of History. The Guardian, September 25th, 2016.

Hurst, Fabienne. The German Granddaddy of Crystal Meth. Translated by Ella Ornstein. Spiegel Online, May 30th, 2013.

Lewy, Jonathan. The Drug Policy of the Third Reich. Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, Volume 22, No 2, 2008

Ohler, Norman. Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. New York, 2015.

Ulrich, Andreas. The Nazi Death Machine: Hitler’s Drugged Soldiers. Translated by Christopher Sultan. Spiegel Online, May 6th, 2005.

(1) Don’t worry. We’re definitely going to cover that.

(2) Isophan: a drug very similar to Pervitin produced by the Knoll pharmaceutical company

Suffering in Some Strange Heaven: An Introduction to Laudanum

rossetti-golden_head

Illustration for the cover of The Goblin Market. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1862

“I should much wish, like the Indian Vishna, to float along an infinite ocean cradled in the flower of the Lotus, and wake once in a million years for a few minutes – just to know that I was going to sleep a million years more.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

While the medicinal properties of opium have been known since prehistoric times, it was 16th century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus who first developed laudanum. He discovered that when mixed with alcohol as opposed to water, opium’s pain-killing properties were heightened. He mixed it with crushed pearls, musk, saffron, and ambergris* and called it laudanum, from the Latin word laudare: to praise.

Now thought of as primarily a Victorian drug, laudanum first reached England in the 1660s when physician Thomas Sydenham developed his own recipe. While Sydenham left out the ambergris, the fundamentals remained the same: alcohol and opium was a potent cure-all and in his Medical Observations Concerning the History and Cure of Acute Diseases (1676), he gave it the praise Paracelsus had predicted a century before. Laudanum took off during the eighteenth century and by the nineteenth, it could be found in almost every home in Britain.

bottle_of_papine_london_england_1890-1920_wellcome_l0058548

“Papine,” an opium tincture

Although the recipe was flexible, it remained at heart an uncomplicated but potent combination of alcohol and opium. It was an over the counter drug cheap enough to be used across the social spectrum and simple enough to be brewed at home. Laudanum was used for an endless list of ailments including but not limited to teething, insomnia, anxiety, nerves, hysteria, menstrual cramps, pregnancy pains, mood swings, depression, stomach upset, diarrhea, consumption, cough, heart disease, and cholera.

It was certainly an effective cough suppressant; related opioids such as morphine and codeine are still prescribed for cough today. It was a potent painkiller, induced deep sleep and vivid dreams, produced feelings of euphoria, and was addictive as it was cheap. Not to be limited to medicinal purposes, laudanum was taken recreationally or mixed with other alcohol such as absinthe to stimulate creativity among artists. Some notable fans of the substance include Dickens, Bram Stoker, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Elliott, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Rossetti’s wife, model Elizabeth Siddal, who tragically died of a laudanum overdose.

Women tended to be medicated more than men, and many opium-derived medications were known euphemistically as “Woman’s Friend.” Likewise, Godfrey’s Cordial, a mixture of water, treacle, and opium specifically for infants was knows as “Mother’s Friend.”

Charles Kingsley describes opium addiction in Alton Locke (1850) as ‘elevation’, a particular problem of women:

“Oh! ho! ho! — yow goo into druggist’s shop o’ market-day, into Cambridge, and you’ll see the little boxes, doozens and doozens, a’ ready on the counter; and never a ven-man’s wife goo by, but what calls in for her pennord o’ elevation, to last her out the week. Oh! ho! ho! Well, it keeps women-folk quiet, it do; and it’s mortal good agin ago pains.” “But what is it?” “Opium, bor’ alive, opium!”

There were several different laudanum varieties available and they could be made at home. It was dreadfully bitter, so sweeteners like honey and spice were added to improve the flavor. Sydenham’s recipe from 1660 was still in use by the 1890s when it was published in William Dick’s Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Processes:

“Sydenham’s Laudanum: This is prepared as follows: opium, 2 ounces; saffron, 1 ounce; bruised cinnamon and bruised cloves, each 1 drachm; sherry wine, 1 pint. Mix and macerate for 15 days and filter. Twenty drops are equal to one grain of opium.”

Dick’s Encyclopedia contains dozens of recipes for homemade laudanum, and even more for other remedies containing opium. As relatively appealing as cinnamon and cloves sound, by the 19th century, laudanum could also be mixed with mercury, ether, chloroform, hashish, or belladonna; if it didn’t kill you, it would make you see some very interesting things.

Whether or not the malady justified the use of such a powerful drug, laudanum and other opium derivatives were used frequently and without a great deal of hesitation. It was a good cough suppressant, kept children quiet, and induced restful sleep. Rhapsodic descriptions of its effects make it sound like magic.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde conveys the horrors and pleasures of an East End opium den in a single paragraph (it isn’t exactly laudanum, but it’s the same active ingredient):

opium_smoking_1874

Opium Smokers in the East End of London. Illustrated London News, 1874.

“As Dorian hurried up its three rickety steps, the heavy odour of opium met him. He heaved a deep breath, and his nostrils quivered with pleasure. When he entered, a young man with smooth yellow hair, who was bending over a lamp lighting a long thin pipe, looked up at him and nodded in a hesitating manner. […] Dorian winced and looked round at the grotesque things that lay in such fantastic postures on the ragged mattresses. The twisted limbs, the gaping mouths, the staring lustreless eyes, fascinated him. He knew in what strange heavens they were suffering, and what dull hells were teaching them the secret of some new joy.”

Strange heavens aside, laudanum was not a friendly substance. In 1889, The Journal of Mental Sciences published what was purported to be an anonymous letter by the wonderful title of Confessions of a Young Lady Laudanum-Drinker which describes at length her experience of addiction:

“It got me into such a state of indifference that I no longer took the least interest in anything, and did nothing all day but loll on the sofa reading novels, falling asleep every now and then, and drinking tea. Occasionally I would take a walk or drive, but not often. Even my music I no longer took much interest in, and would play only when the mood seized me, but felt it too much of a bother to practice. I would get up about ten in the morning, and make a pretence of sewing; a pretty pretence, it took me four months to knit a stocking!

“Worse than all, I got so deceitful, that no one could tell when I was speaking the truth. It was only this last year it was discovered; those living in the house with you are not so apt to notice things, and it was my married sisters who first began to wonder what had come over me. By that time it was a matter of supreme indifference to me what they thought, and even when it was found out, I had become so callous that I didn’t feel the least shame. (…) My memory was getting dreadful; often, in talking to people I knew intimately, I would forget their names and make other absurd mistakes of a similar kind. As my elder sister was away from home, I took a turn at being housekeeper. Mother thinks every girl should know how to manage a house, and she lets each of us do it in our own way, without interfering. Her patience was sorely tried with my way of doing it, as you may imagine; I was constantly losing the keys, or forgetting where I had left them. I forgot to put sugar in puddings, left things to burn, and a hundred other things of the same kind.”

While this anonymous writer did recover, laudanum addiction was difficult to beat. People became tolerant to it quickly, and recovery was more likely to be achieved by tapering doses. Although laudanum was a common cough suppressant, it could work too well by causing shortness of breath and respiratory depression, or keeping the user from breathing at all. It can also inhibit digestion, cause constipation, depression, and itching. It was so potent that it was easy to overdose accidentally as an adult, and many infants and children died from it as well. Tragically, it was also a common method of suicide.

laudanumWe might not understand the appeal of such a debilitating and ultimately lethal substance, but for most people in the nineteenth century, laudanum must have felt like a godsend. Disease, poverty, and hunger were widespread, and those lucky enough to be employed suffered through long hours in terrible conditions to earn their pittance. Even for the wealthy and well-to-do, Britain was cold, wet, and overrun with discomforts that may necessitate its use. Menstrual cramps, insomnia, anxiety, nerves, cough, stomach upset, cholera, tuberculosis — if one drug could treat them all and that drug happened to be miraculously affordable and so common there was little to no stigma attached to it, there was no reason not to rely on it from time to time.

Laudanum is still in production today, but it is no longer available over the counter. Now referred to almost exclusively as Tincture of Opium, it is listed as a Schedule II substance due to its highly addictive nature and is used for stomach ailments, pain, and to treat infants born to mothers with opioid addiction.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Anonymous. Confessions of a Young Lady Laudanum-Drinker. The Journal of Mental Sciences January 1889

Berridge, Victoria. “Victorian Opium Eating: Responses to Opiate Use in Nineteenth-Century England,” Victorian Studies, 21(4) 1978.

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*presumably crushed diamonds would have been too extravagant