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Opium, opiates and illicit drugs in the Old West

If you think drug addiction is a recent problem, look back into the annals of the old west and beyond. Laudanum (an alcoholic tincture of opium) was widely used in the 1800's as a pain reliever before aspirin came onto the scene. Here’s some notable users: Lord Byron, Kate Chopin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe. Its use is mentioned in many literary works. Victorian women were prescribed the drug for relief of menstrual cramps and vague aches and used it to achieve the pale complexion associated with tuberculosis (frailty and paleness were particularly prized in females at the time for some unknown reason) If you watched the movie, "Tombstone" you would have noticed Wyatt Earp's wife had an affection for using it. I do not know how historically accurate this was, but I believe she died of an overdose of some sort of narcotic.

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Tags: drugs, illicit, narcotics, opiates, opium

Comment by Sue Cauhape on March 22, 2012 at 3:09pm

Interesting page you linked to. Surprises me that the Victorians were capable of accomplishing anything due to their drug use. A lot of people were in a frequent if not constant fog. 

Comment by Unkle Sherman on March 22, 2012 at 3:40pm

Because laudanum was the main pain killer during the Civil War a lot of Soldiers became addicted to it. Morphine additcion was called "Soldiers disease".

Comment by Dave McGowan on March 22, 2012 at 6:51pm

We tend to concentrate, in our western stories from eras past, on the hold-ups, robberies, shootings and hangings. I personally believe that all of the things we see on today's news existed during earlier days. However, some of the crime (and vigilante justice) was not talked about because the crime involved was "just not discussed in polite company." And of course, so-called "international" coverage did not exist. If local people refused to talk about incest or rape, then the local paper wouldn't cover it unless the editor/publiser was intent on destroying the people involved. If the local paper didn't cover it then other papers would know about it.

Thus such things as drug addiction probably recieved better coverage, very poor though it was, than many other problems.

Comment by anthony martin on March 22, 2012 at 7:25pm

  I don't know if there was actually any evidence for Mattie's long term use but she certainly died from it-her corpse's face had the characteristic purplish black blotches of a laudanum overdose.

   Women in the 19th century and before chose paleness as a mark of genteelity as a tanned complexion was associated with the lower classes who worked in the open.Our current fascination with tans as a mark of outdoorsy health is rather recent-part of the flapper look of the 20's,signifying women who engaged in a more active,liberated role.

Comment by anthony martin on March 22, 2012 at 7:28pm

   I might also add that our first big epidemic of drug abuse came in the years following the Civil War.Many wounded soldiers became firmly hooked on opiates.

Comment by Eric James on March 22, 2012 at 7:30pm

Yea, Coca-Cola!!!

Comment by Mundo Osterberg on March 23, 2012 at 7:28am

Comment by Buck Grizzly on March 23, 2012 at 10:06am

Very thorough history of drugs including abuse and recreational aspects throughout history.


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