Laudanum: A Dose of the Nineteenth Century

A great primary source often elicits a visceral sense of what it meant to live in the moment of the document’s creation. It’s difficult not to have this reaction when reading through two manuscript volumes of New York City coroner’s reports, (1822 -1826) in the N-YHS library. With deaths occurring from beatings, murder, disease, grisly accidents, suicides, drownings, alcoholism, abandoned babies, and of course the random “Visitation by God”, the reports certainly dispel any romantic notion of the city’s history.

Looking past this sobering reality, one of the more striking causes of death is suicide by laudanum poisoning. While it is rarely prescribed today, most people have probably still heard of this alcohol and opium concoction for which nineteenth century medicine would have had a multitude of uses. Predictably, being an opiate, it was also regularly abused. The number of suicides described as laudanum overdoses in comparison to other methods also attests to its popularity in this respect. Since it was freely available without a prescription, early on it was a common source of relief among the working classes before use before expanding beyond class boundaries.

Despite the fact that laudanum was a common ingredient in patent medicine and tonics, medical doctors themselves regarded it as a viable treatment for anything from rheumatism to coughing fits and many ailments in between. As a result, it was a commonly prescribed drug within the medical profession — even to children.

Dr. John Neilson was a physician at the Northern Dispensary, in Manhattan, during the first half of the nineteenth century. His small collection of papers is composed largely of household recipes and formulas for his own patent medicines. In the latter, laudanum or “tincture of opium” is a consistent ingredient, demonstrated by the cough medicine formula below.

The turn of the 20th century brought with it an increased awareness of the damaging effects of laudanum, and opiates in general, which led to tighter regulation on its use. Consequently, recreational use of laudanum is virtually non-existent today, and even its use in medical treatments occurs only in exceptional cases.


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