Laudanum: An 18th and 19th Century Wonder Drug

Laudanum is a tincture of opium and was considered a wonder drug in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries. Reddish-brown and extremely bitter, it contained almost all opium alkaloids, including morphine and codeine and was therefore used to treat many conditions. However, it was primarily used as a pain medication and cough suppressant.

Laudanum - empty bottle holding the tincture

Empty bottle of opium tincture or laudanum, London, England, 1880-1940. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

Laudanum was discovered in the 1500s by Paracelsus, a Swiss-German alchemist, who began experimenting with opium and recommending it for pain. One experiment that may have contained opium resulted in what he termed “archanum” or “laudanum.” This laudanum however was not like the laudanum that would be discovered in the 1660s when English physician Thomas Sydenham compounded a proprietary opium tincture that he also named laudanum.

Sydenham promoted his laudanum for a wide range of medical conditions. By the eighteenth century, the medicinal properties of both opium and Sydenham’s laudanum were well known, and the term “laudanum” came to refer to any combination of opium and alcohol. Laudanum was also recommended for practically every ailment and several physicians, including John Jones, John Brown, and George Young, began to extol the virtues of laudanum.

Young particularly thought of as laudanum being helpful for patients. He published a comprehensive medical text entitled Treatise on Opium and prescribed laudanum for a variety of problems and illnesses that included sleeplessness, coughs, belly pain at night, melancholy, gripes, and spasms. Of opium he stated:

“So great and valuable are the effects of opium in curing disease, that the study of its virtues deserves our singular application and attention: and I have preferred it before all the other drugs for my present subject, not only on that account, but because at the same time that it is of such important use in regular practices.”[1]

Laudanum was regular consumed by many people in the 1700s including some well-known authors. For instance, around 1804, Thomas de Penson de Quincey, who was born on 15 August 1785 at 86 Cross Street, Manchester, Lancashire began using opium occasionally. Why he used the drug varies and seems to include the fact that he befriended William Wordsworth and possibly contracted a mild case of infantile paralysis from Wordsworth’s children. De Quincey also suffered intestinal and vision problems, as well as neuralgic facial pain. He therefore may have used laudanum to “self-medicate” and ease his symptoms.

laudanum - Thomas de Quincey

Thomas de Quincey. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1818, he became editor of The Westmorland Gazette and in 1821, he was persuaded to write and publish an account of his opium experiences. His autobiographical articles appeared in the London Magazine, which were eventually pulled together and published in book form under the title, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. In the early pages of the book he stated:

“If opium-eating be a sensual pleasure, and if I am bound to confess that I have indulged in it to an excess, not yet recorded of any other man, it is no less true that I have struggled against this fascinating inthrallment with a religious zeal, and have at length accomplished what I never yet heard attributed to any other man – have untwisted, almost to its final links, the accursed chain which fettered me.”[2]

Laudanum - Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

Title page of “Confessions of an English Opium Eater.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although he claimed to have beaten the drug, his usage with opium and laudanum would fluctuate throughout his life. One period where his opium use was extremely high and happened daily was while grieving the death of Wordsworth’s young daughter Catherine in 1813. However, in 1848, he stopped cold turkey and did not take laudanum for 61 days.

Another writer who used laudanum was author Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was born on 21 October 1772 and was an English poet, critic, and philosopher. He admitted using opium during his youth when he was seeking relief from great physical pain. His use of the drug was extensively documented, and he admitted to a laudanum addiction in a letter he sent in April 1814 to Joseph Cottle where he stated:

“I was seduced into the accursed habit ignorantly. I had been almost bedridden for many months with swelling in my knees. In a medical journal I happily met with an account of a cure performed in a similar case (or what appeared to me so), by rubbing in laudanum, at the same time taking a given dose internally. It acted like a charm – like a miracle. I recovered the use of my limbs, of my appetite, of my spirits, and this continued for near a fortnight. At length, the unusual stimulus subsided, the complaint returned, the supposed remedy was recurred to – but I cannot go through the dreary history. Sufficient to say, that effects were produced which acted on me by terror and cowardice of pain and sudden death, not … by any temptation of pleasure, or expectation or desire of exciting pleasurable sensations. On the contrary, the longer I abstained, the higher my spirits were, the keener my enjoyment – till the moment, the direful moment arrived, when my pulse began to fluctuate, the heart to palpitate, and such a dreadful falling abroad, as it were, of my whole frame such intolerable restlessness and incipient bewilderment that in the last days of my several attempts to abandon the dire poison, I exclaimed in agony which I now repeat in seriousness and solemnity, ‘I am too poor to hazard this.’”[3]

Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Coleridge became so addicted he supposedly composed some of his best works under the drug’s influence. Among his works said to have been influenced by laudanum is Kubla Khan, a Vision: The Pains of Sleep. The poem supposedly came to him after having had an opium-induced dream. He completed the poem in 1797, published it in 1816, and today most modern critics view it as one of his three greatest poems, although to what extent opium was used as a creative enhancement is unclear.

Coleridge’s addiction also led to him using increased amounts with him reportedly consuming a pint a day during his peak usage period. As his addiction worsened, he also became more depressed and having alienated his family took up residence in April of 1816 in the Highgate home of London physician James Gillman, who attempted to help him and was partially successful. Thus, Coleridge remained there until he died on 25 July 1834 from heart failure compounded by an unknown lung disorder, possibly linked to his use of opium.

Sara Coleridge, Coleridge’s third child and only daughter, was born in 1802. She was an author like her father and used laudanum too. She initially found the drug beneficial and wrote: “It has done me much good & no harm.”[4] Eventually, however, she realized she was addicted and that the drug had unpleasant side effect causing her to then report:

“What we do thus cautiously & rationally can never become a bad mental habit, … and it is the liability to become a habit that is the chief evil of laudanum taking, rather than the bodily effects. But we must never suffer it to become a habit – but every time we have recourse to it [we] must ask ourselves if it really be as necessary as it was at first: we must never think of taking it to procure positive comfort, but only to ward off obstinate sleeplessness, and that not so much on account of the immediate suffering as the after injurious effects of irritation and fatigue.”[5]

Sara Coledrige. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Fictional characters were also seduced by laudanum. For instance, in Jane Austen‘s Mansfield Park there is the wealthy Lady Bertram, a indolent, distracted, and lazy woman. Besides loving her pug just like Eliza de Feuillide did in real life, Lady Bertram functioned as a bleary-eyed laudanum addict. In Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein took laudanum to sleep and thereby preserve his life. Additionally, American author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s mentioned laudanum use in her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabinet. In this case a slave named Cassy killed her newborn son with a laudanum overdose to spare him from experiencing the horrors of slavery.

Just like the problems fictional characters faced there were numerous stories about the ill effects real women experienced with laudanum use. One anonymous article published by a female laudanum user was reported in The Journal of Mental Sciences in January 1889. It was titled “Confessions of a Young Lady Laudanum-Drinker” and in it its author stated:

“It is hateful to me to think of that horrible time, and one of my chief reasons for writing to you is to beg you to try and make known by every means in your power, what a terrible thing opium-eating is. If people only knew of the consequences sure to follow on such a habit, of its insidious … I’m just mad at myself for having given in to such a fearful habit as opium-eating. None but those who have as completely succumbed to it as I did, could guess the mischief it would do. … 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!”[6]

Although it may have seemed there was no reason to use laudanum Victorian women were drawn to it because it often helped resolve their sleep problems. Among the women who used it for its “tranquilising power” was Elizabeth Barret Browning. She was an English poet born on 6 March 1806 in Coxhoe Hall, in County Durham and she became popular for her writing in both Britain and the United States during the Victorian Era.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

She first tried the drug around age fifteen when she suffered what was thought to have been a spinal injury. She then later took laudanum again in her 30s for hemorrhaging of the lungs and another unspecified illness. Like many others Browning found that once she began taking the drug it was practically impossible to stop.

Although laudanum may have been taken for legitimate complaints, it also sometimes served a nefarious purpose. One interesting case where laudanum was used to help murder people was by London Burkers, a group of body snatchers or resurrection men who operated in London in the 1830s. Two of the four, John Bishop and Thomas Williams, killed several people by using laudanum to lull their victims to sleep before murdering them.

Three of the London Burkers from left to right John Bishop, Thomas Williams, James May. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One reason that laudanum was popular was that it was cheaper than a bottle of gin or wine because it was not taxed like alcohol. Besides being cheap and readily available, people touted its abilities to relieve pain and there were also claims that it improved the body’s systems. It was thus widely prescribed for all sorts of ailments from colds to yellow fever and from menstrual cramps to cardiac diseases and because of all its supposed benefits it was also found frequently in patent medicines.

Those who took laudanum quickly discovered that it had addictive qualities. Still it seemed as if every Victorian doctor was prescribing it to every patient. In fact, prescriptions were commonly written for teenagers, children, and infants. This was made clear in an 1849 interview by a factory medical inspector named Mr. John Greg Harrison. He noted the drug’s drawbacks and reported on the usage of it by children and infants in an article published in The Morning Chronicle:

“The system of drugging children is exceedingly common and one of the prevailing causes of infant mortality. Mothers and nurses both administer narcotics; the former [laudanum], however, principally with the view of obtaining an undisturbed night’s rest. The consequences produced are imbecility, caused by suffusion on the brain, and an extensive train of mesenteric and glandular disease.”[7]

A druggist also reported on laudanum use in children. He maintained that he could easily recognize any toddler or infant who was given the drug. His observations were likewise reported in The Morning Chronicle:

“They never seemed fairly awake. Their whole system appeared to be sunk into a stagnant state. He [the druggist] believed that when such doses were administered, nurses were chiefly to blame; for mothers often came to him with their ailing children, asking, in great trouble, whether he thought that the ‘sleeping stuff’ had anything to do with the child’s illness.”[8]

“The Poor Child’s Nurse,” a satirical cartoon from “Punch, or The London Charivari,” 1849. Author’s collection.

By the end of the Victorian Era report after report noted that those who took laudanum became addicted and their use habitual. There were also constant reports of people dying from it. For instance, there was Mrs. Alma Merritt, wife of George William Merritt of New York. She died in London in 1896 and her postmortem revealed that her death was caused by laudanum. She was a “neuralgia” sufferer and had been taking it for pain. In addition, the president of a Newark Company, John F. Steinbrenner, also died from an overdose of laudanum in January of 1898, as did a J.A. Henderson in 1895 who purposely committed suicide with laudanum after several days of drinking.

It was clear that it what was once thought to be wonder drug was in fact no wonder drug. The social problems associated with laudanum use as well as the accidentally deaths and purposeful suicides from the drug, began to encourage critics in the late 1800s against laudanum’s use. Moreover, the addictive qualities of opium and laudanum became more widely understood and “patent medicines came under fire, largely because of their mysterious compositions.”[9] These concerns then resulted in there being increased regulations related to narcotics, including laudanum, by the twentieth century.

References:

  • [1] G. Young, A Treatise on Opium: Founded Upon Practical Observations (London, 1753), p. 2–3.
  • [2] T. de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-eater (New York: John B. Alden, 1885), p. 3.
  • [3] Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine v. 74 (New York: William Blackwood & Sons, 1853), p. 608.
  • [4] B. K. Mudge, S. C. Coleridge and Yale University Press, Sara Coleridge, a Victorian Daughter: Her Life and Essays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 37.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 70.
  • [6] “Confessions of a Young Lady Laudanum-Drinker,” The Journal of Mental Sciences, http://www.williamwhitepapers.com/pr/1889%20Confessions%20of%20a%20Young%20Lady%20Laudanum%20Drinker.pdf
  • [7] The Morning Chronicle, “Labour and the Poor,” November 15, 1849, p. 5.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] B. Hodgson, In the Arms of Morpheus: The Tragic History of Laudanum, Morphine, and Patent Medicines (Firefly Books, 2001), p. 126.

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