Victoria; 1819 – 1901) was the monarch of the United Kingdom of Great
Britain and Ireland from 20 June 1837 until her death. The Victorian
, the longest reign of any British monarch and of any female monarch in
history, brought in expansion of the British Empire, rapid industrialization,
increased fertility rates and decreased mortality in old and young. But not all
was well in this new period of history.
The use of alcohol was rampant
throughout British (and American) society, an ill that was recognized and
addressed by 'temperance societies
'. But narcotic use, in the form of opium,
morphine or morphine mixed with alcohol (laudanum
) was looked upon by many as
benign and, for some, even as a necessity. Narcotic addiction was rarely
discussed outside of medical circles. It was a problem, a secret that society
tried to ignore.
As a group, in Victorian times women
were frequently provided with opiates to address a range of maladies, female
complaints' ranging from nervousness to syphilis to menstrual cramps. It was
not uncommon even for pregnant women to use opiates to calm the nerves
resulting in the birth of opiate-addicted babies. Dr. Fordyce Barker
founding president of the American Gynecological Society (1876) was
the first to import the hypodermic syringe into the USA (see post: A History of Heroin
|Part of the Temperance Movement|
instrumental in male regulation of female 'maladies' resulting in what became known
as a female 'characteristic' of the time, 'hypodermic addiction'. Sir
(1840-1915) was the Physician Superintendant of Royal
and was a celebrated lecturer with an international
reputation for his exposition of the psychiatric disorders of adolescence. He
published extensively, with tomes such as 'Clinical Lectures on Mental Diseases' (1883),
'Unsoundness of Mind' (1911) and 'Morals and The Brain'.
|The 'Men's Club'|
Clouston was a firm believer in 'masturbational
insanity' and an uncompromising advocate of teetotalism. Clouston was an
addiction specialist as well with a particular prejudice against women. He
believed that the 'exhausting calls of menstruation, maternity, and lactation
from the nervous reflux influences of ovulation, conception and parturition are
ruinous if there is the slightest predisposition to derangement'. These
anxieties concerning women's bodily functions was the principle reason Clouston
advocated 'morphine to subdue and regulate'.
The 'opiate eaters' in Victorian society
were more often white and middle to upper class (see post: The Opium Eaters).
Many were the wives of physicians or nurses with access to drugs. As early as
1782, it was common practice for women of Nantucket Island to take 'a
dose of opium every morning'. English novelist, Wilkie Collins recognized
that, in Victorian society, women were 'yoked under the established tyranny of
the principle that all human happiness begins and ends at home', Many woman,
chafing at the boredom and frustration, used morphine to drug themselves into
But opiate addiction was not
limited to the wealthy. Opiates used as medicines and as recreational escapes crossed
all socioeconomic classes. Women who worked in factories and farms used opiates
to numb away boredom and pain. Drug use among prostitutes was noted to be
particularly concerning. Prostitution
became both a gateway into drug use and a
means to an end for women who fed their habits by earning money any way that
By the end of the 19th century, women
accounted for 50-70% of opiate addicts. Over prescription by
physicians, the belief that women were more fragile than men and therefore incapable
of coping with pain, and the availability of opiate containing patent
medications contributed to the prevalence of opiate addiction in Victorian
women. Overdose, death and addiction were overlooked due to the lack of
A 'nervous condition' accounted for many
of the common complaints, especially of women, throughout the Era and most
patent medicines, no matter what their particular benefit, always claimed to
cure any nervous trouble associated with the malady.
|Posters for Temperance|
Many products contained no harmful
substances while others were primarily narcotic-based. More often than not, the
markings on the bottle did not note the contents or active
ingredients. But whether the origin was physiological or psychological, Dr.
Hammond's Nerve and Brain Pills
were 'guaranteed' to cure what ailed
you. But first you had to know the symptoms of 'nervous troubles', which
were generic enough to include almost anyone: 'This will cure you if you
feel generally miserable, or suffer with a thousand and one bad feelings, both
physical and mental, among them low spirits, nervousness, weariness,
lifelessness, dizziness, feeling of fullness, like bloating after meals, or a
sense of 'goneness' or emptiness of stomach in morning, flesh soft and lacking
firmness; headache, blurring specks floating before the eyes...'.
Whether morphine was the cause or the
cure, even large firms like Sears Roebuck had just the thing to cure
you one for alcoholism, another for narcotic addiction. Shown underneath
the ad for the German Liquor Cure
, is a potent bottle of Cure for the
Opium and Morphia Habit
. At just 67 cents a bottle, it's calming effect
would forever kill any cravings for other narcotics. This was 'the only
one' you needed.
But of particular concern was the
administration of opiates, both prescription and over-the-counter, in children.
The selling of narcotic concoctions and
the treatment for opium addiction were becoming big business in the later
1800s. The Pulaski Citizen
newspaper of Nashville, Tennessee (1875),
ran advertisements by doctors listing concoctions to help calm unruly
children. One of the leading causes of infant and child mortality during the
19th century was the practice of attempting to quiet children by giving them
narcotics, such as opium and morphine, at times mixed with alcohol (laudanum).
These 'remedies' were certainly effective in calming the agitated child.
In the 19th century, the Pulaski
Citizen carried lengthy advertisements for dozens of inexpensive opium
based concoctions under a variety of names. These included: 'Godfrey's Cordial
', 'Infant's Quietness
', 'Atkinson's Preservative
These tonics may have contained various
ingredients but most popular of the time was 'Godfrey's Cordial' which
contained high levels of laudanum. It was inexpensive, and it was
completely unregulated. An aspect of this problem that went unrecognized for
years was associated with the fact that opium is fat-soluble and does not
dissolve easily in water and because of this will tend to settle at the bottom
of the bottle. This last dose, quite often was exactly that. The 'dregs' at the
bottom of the container had the potential to be fatal, especially to a small
child. In addition, the 'recommended' dose was usually stated 'as needed', 'at
the discretion of the parent' which allowed the parents to drug their children
as often as they liked.
For women, different versions of this
same product were advertised: 'Ayer's Sarsaparilla Cures', 'Prof. Low's
Liniment and Worm Syrup
' and 'Wine of Carday
', all aimed at the 'exhausting
calls of being a woman'.
Physicians in the Victorian era ( and
even today) were known to treat their own headaches, insomnia, and anxieties
with narcotics (see post: The High Doctor
). Dr. Jekyll in the novel by Robert
Louis Stevenson 'The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' is an example
of a physician who takes a 'potion' that changes his persona.
In the 1870s, the majority of male
addicts in the US were physicians, estimates being between 10 and 20
percent of the entire physician workforce being morphine addicts.
|The London Stock Exchange|
In Britain, Dr. James Crombie
believing that the 'delicacy of the syringe' hindered the use of morphine,
developed a cheap method of subcutaneous injection by coating a silk thread
with morphine which he then drew under the skin, led by a needle. Crombie
himself died of a narcotic overdose following surgery on his own wrist.
The stock exchange in
Victorian times and today is known as a workplace of high tension and angst. In
1871, it was reported that Wall Street brokers countered 'one sort of
excitement', the gold fever, with another, a 'stimulating opiate
A 25 year old New York lady who visited
the exchange on a regular basis was found to be taking morphine several times a
day using a syringe to take the drug rectally.
|Union Soldiers in the American Civil War|
Narcotic addiction was also regarded as
the 'army disease', recognition of the soldiers' exposure, appropriately (and,
at times, inappropriately), to treatment with morphine. The emotional damage
caused by battle (in the 20th century called 'Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
was recognized in the 19th century.
In the American Civil War
, there were
over four million troops involved with huge dead, dying and injured on both
sides. Opium poppies were grown both in the north and in the south, with the
opium doled out often indiscriminately.
The number of addicted civil war
survivors is impossible to estimate but by 1900 (nearly 40 years after the end
of the war), when the last of the Civil War veterans were dying out, the per
capita use of opium and morphine fell dramatically.
Narcotic addiction of veterans was also
seen among British forces following the Crimean War
(1853-1856) as well as
among Prussian militia in the Austro-Prussian War
The Victorian Era was a period of great advances
in industry, in war, in medicine and in society. But not everything went well
and not everything is well remembered. Some things have been kept as 'secret'.