I’m researching book one in my Wintergale Orchard series, titled When Love Wins. In this story, the hero is addicted to laudanum. Laudanum is an opium tincture made with 10% opium and 90% alcohol and then flavored with cinnamon or saffron. The tincture is reddish-brown in color and has a bitter taste. Laudanum is known as a “whole opium” since it historically contained all the opium alkaloids, this includes morphine and codeine. (A Swiss-German alchemist found that alkaloids are more soluble in alcohol than water.) Obviously this was a potent medicine.
Opium was known in ancient Mesopotamia five thousand years ago and its medicinal properties were recorded on cuneiform tablets. So opium has been here a while. (I shall keep this article focused on England’s usage of laudanum and save the East India Company, China, and the Opium Wars for other articles).
During the Regency Period, opium was used to aid mild pain. According to The Writer’s Guide to Everyday in the 1800’s by Marc McCutcheon, “In 1868, it is estimated that 100,000 people from all stations of life were addicted to the drug, which was sold openly in drugstores in pill form or as laudanum.”
Since laudanum was cheaper than beer or wine, it was affordable for even the lowest paid workers. Nevertheless, it was purchased by all classes in society. Laudanum was prescribed for many diseases as well as being used as a sleeping aid. Although the addictive qualities of opium were known at the time, it was still the ingredient added to most medicines of the day. This meant laudanum was prescribed for ailments from colds to meningitis to cardiac disease, in adults and children.
Due to laudanum’s potency, accidental or deliberate overdose could occur in a single dose (2-3 teaspoons). Suicide by laudanum was not uncommon in the mid-19th century. Side effects with laudanum are similar to those of morphine and include euphoria, dysphoria, sedation, respiratory depression, as well a psychological dependency, and the list goes on… People who became addicted to the tincture were often referred to as “Opium Eaters”. This was to differentiate themselves from the opium smokers. Thomas De Quincey wrote an autobiographical account of his laudanum addiction and its effect on his life in his book, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which was published in 1822.
In 1919 England, the production and export of opium was prohibited and a law in 1928 banned its use. Some notable laudanum users were John Keats, Charles Dickens, Lord Byron, Edgar Allen Poe, William Taylor Coleridge, and many more. The drug was seemingly popular as it was readily available. During the Victorian Period laudanum was even recommended for women to relieve menstrual cramps.
When looking at the old bottles of laudanum, I cannot help but wonder why anyone would wish to drink from a bottle that is clearly labeled poison with a skull and crossbones. But throughout history, human beings seem to have a compulsion to enhance their perceptions and alter their moods. Unfortunately, addictions can also ruin and cost lives.
Currently, laudanum is considered a Schedule II drug and recognized as an addictive substance. Its use is strictly regulated and controlled throughout most of the world. Laudanum is still prescribed in the US and the U.K. and is used to alleviate pain, treat diarrhea, and ease withdrawal symptoms from people addicted to heroin or other opiates. It should be mentioned that the laudanum of today differs from the laudanum of the 1800’s. Due to current drug processing, laudanum today is not a tincture of opium, but rather a tincture of morphine.
A special thank you to All About Heaven, http://www.allaboutheaven.org and The Heroin of the 19th Century, Frank Sanello