The Opium Habit

Series historical adviser, Daniel Czitrom, looks at Opium consumption in the 19th century.

Kennedy drinks opium

Robert Cobb Kennedy drinks the brandy that Elizabeth has laced with opium.

Elizabeth’s growing drug use has become apparent to all. And her ever ready bottle of laudanum (an alcoholic tincture of opium) comes in handy when she and her husband Robert confront the escaped Confederate spy Robert Kennedy in their home. The Civil War had caused a spike in the use of opiates (morphine and opium) to treat sick and wounded soldiers. The use of hypodermic injection of morphine was still in its infancy, and only a small minority of army physicians had access to syringes. But both the Union and Confederate armies consumed massive quantities of opium administered orally. Nearly 10 million opium pills and nearly 3 million ounces of other opium powders and tinctures were issued to Union forces alone. Soldiers recuperating from battlefield wounds were routinely dosed with opium. So we were the victims of common camp diseases such as diarrhea, dysentery and malaria. Horace B. Day’s pioneering study The Opium Habit described its persistent use among veterans and their families. “Maimed and shattered survivors from a hundred battle-fields,” he wrote in 1868, “diseased and disabled soldiers released from hostile prisons, anguished and hopeless wives and mothers, made so by the slaughter of those who were dearest to them, have found, many of them, temporary relief from their sufferings in opium.”

Opium, the poor child's nurse (via http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/harp/0129.html)

Opium was also used in the 19th century by poor parents to medicate their children in pain from teething or illness.
Harper’s Weekly, 1859.

Opium’s tranquilizing and analgesic properties made it popular with non-veterans as well, particularly in an era when doctors had few genuinely effective therapeutic techniques at their disposal. In fact, most nineteenth century opiate addicts were women not unlike Elizabeth Morehouse. Usually middle or upper class, female users often became addicted while being treated for such conditions as neuralgia, morning sickness, painful menstruation, or depression. Women might self medicate their daily aches and pains with a regular supply of opiates, either with alcohol or as a substitute for it. By the 1880s opium smoking gained popularity in American cities. In contrast to orally ingesting the drug, smoking involved a lengthy preparation process and required the user to visit an opium den. By the end of the century opium smoking had become popular with an urban bohemian subculture that included writers, journalists, actors, and prostitutes, part of a broader challenge to Victorian social norms.