Oh, just, subtle, and mighty opium!

The title is a quote from Thomas De Quincey’s infamous 1821 Confessions of an English Opium Eater. I got opiuminterested in opium whilst searching for methods to murder nervous women for Moriarty Takes His Medicine. The stuff was as common as aspirin is for us in the Victorian period. Not just legal, it was the active ingredient in laudanum, a remedy for practically everything for several hundred years.

Ancient origins

This history comes from the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) Museum. I didn’t even know there was such a thing! But yes, there’s a DEA Museum and Visitors Center in Arlington, VA. That’s good. Government agencies should have information centers and websites full of useful facts. It’s one of their functions.

The history of opium begins in Mesopotamia way back in 3,500 B.C. The Sumerians passed it to the Assyrians, who passed it on to the Egyptians. Good things travel fast! Humans have always loved to get high, one way or another. Opium was traded along the Silk Road, which stretched from China to Rome.

It was coveted for more than merely recreational purposes. Ancient Greek and Roman physicians used it as a pain reliever, probably the most powerful one they could supply. Opium and its derivatives have reigned supreme in that role upwards of five thousand years. Amazing!

Opium was known in Elizabethan times, but not common. It must have been imported at great cost along with other Eastern luxuries like cinnamon and pepper. Although given its disreputable character, it wouldn’t have been so well known as those highly desirable spices.

Here’s a quote from 1615, via the OED: “G. Sandys Relation of Journey 66   The Turkes are also incredible takers of Opium.” Turks were the ultimate in exotic and unacceptable behavior back then.

 A spoonful of poppies

laudanumI looked for quotes about laudanum and found this insightful thought from Frederick Saunders: “Pride, like laudanum and other poisonous medicines, is beneficial in small, though injurious in large quantities.” If I’ve got the right guy, Sir Fred was the Treasurer of Ceylon from 1890 – 1897.

Laudanum originally meant any preparation of which opium formed the major ingredient. It evolved into a somewhat standard tincture of opium, meaning a mixture of mainly alcohol with approximately 10% opium by volume.

This medicine was known in early modern times, as attested by my old pal the OED: “c1602   J. Manningham Diary (1976) 82   There is a certaine kinde of compound called Laudanum..the virtue of it is verry soveraigne to mitigate anie payne.”

I should note that poppy juice, the substance from which pure opium is extracted, was not an uncommon medicament in Elizabethan times. Francis Bacon liked a few drops in his wine now and then, possibly to cool his brain down so he could sleep.

I’m not sure you can read the label in this photograph. You can probably see the word “Poison” at the top, but perhaps not the entries under “Directions.” Here they are, for your shocked amusement.

Three months old…….. 2 drops

One year old…………… 4 drops

Four years old…………..6 drops

Ten years old……………14 drops

Twenty years old……….25 drops

Adults…………………….30 drops

I like that distinction between 20-year olds and adults! But you can clearly see that laudanum was given tolaudanum ad absolutely everyone. According to the Victorian Web, laudanum was “recommended for a broad range of ailments including cough, diarrhea, rheumatism, ‘women’s troubles’, cardiac disease and even delirium tremens.” That article lists notable persons who used the stuff, including Charles Dickens and Mrs. Gaskell.

I must note that in normal use, the effects were mild. More like a couple of Tylenol than a needleful of heroin. If used as directed, there was very little risk of addiction. But that’s a mighty big IF in a time when regulations were few and far between. Apothecaries mixed their own proprietary blends and nobody went around testing them for purity or toxicity. Caveat emptor was the rule of the day!

Drops and drachms and daily doses

opiumSince my villains were murdering nervous women without detection, I had to be precise about dosages. Here’s a description of Sydenham’s Laudanum: “opium, 2 ounces; saffron, 1 ounce; bruised cinnamon and bruised cloves, each 1 drachm; sherry wine, 1 pint. Mix and macerate for 15 days and filter. Twenty drops are equal to one grain of opium.”

A drachm is a weight approximately equivalent to the ancient Greek coin = 60 grains or 1/8 of an ounce.

4-5 grains may be regarded as the minimum fatal dose for an adult. That would be 100 drops. Apparently there are different conversion methods, but one teaspoon equals between 76 and 98 drops. I’d just give my victim a full teaspoon to be sure. 

Although, the more of the stuff you took, the more you could tolerate. De Quincey brought himself to the daily use of 9 ounces of laudanum, which is equivalent to about three hundred and sixty grains of solid opium. Mind boggling, and I mean that in every sense of the term.

If you wanted to murder someone by tampering with their laudanum, obviously you would just add more opium to their formula. You could be really clever and make the second bottle the one with the fatal dose. The neat trick is that their families and servants would assume the victim had simply forgotten and taken too much.

And the limited forensics of the day couldn’t reliably detect an opium overdose anyway. A forensics textbook from 1884 says, of the opiates, “Their morbid effects are not very distinctly marked.”

Opium derivatives

morphineBy the nineteenth century, doctors were beginning to worry seriously about addiction. They also wanted more predictable, faster-acting pain medicines. Science had advanced to the point where new, sleeker derivatives of opium could be produced.

This from the DEA: “In 1803, morphine, the principal ingredient in opium, was extracted from opium resin. Morphine is ten times more powerful than processed opium, quantity for quantity. Hailed as a miracle drug, it was widely prescribed by physicians in the mid-1800s. Morphine is one of the most effective drugs known for the relief of severe pain and remains the standard against which new pain relievers are measured.”

Codeine was discovered and named in 1832 by Robiquet of Paris. Heroin was produced at Bayer Laboratories in Germany in 1897 by chemist Felix Hoffman. The name ‘heroin’ was based on the German word ‘heroisch,’ heroic or strong. They were looking for a drug as effective as morphine and codeine, but less addictive. Oops.

For a decade or so, doctors thought heroin bayer heroinmight be useful in helping people break their addictions to morphine. Well, yes, and no.

All of these drugs were freely available for many years. They must have been relatively expensive, though. I don’t read about opioid dependency epidemics in Victorian London although pretty much everyone took laudanum. Gin seems to have remained the drug of choice for the working class.


Reese, John J. 1884. Textbook of Medical Jurisprudence and Toxicology. Philadelphia: P. Blakiston & Son, Co. (Yours through the efforts of Google Books and the libraries whose collections were scanned.)


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