Laudanum: The Aspirin of the Nineteenth Century

In an era before aspirin, anti-depressants or effective sleeping pills, narcotic drugs played a huge part in Victorian life. Called the ‘aspirin of the nineteenth century’, laudanum was a popular painkiller and relaxant and was available to purchase without a prescription in any pharmacy.

Laudanum contained approximately 10% opium combined with up to 50% alcohol. Due to its bitter taste, it was mixed with many ingredients including spices, honey, chloroform or ether, wine, whiskey or brandy. Depending on the tincture’s strength and the severity of the patient’s symptoms, an average adult dose ranged from ten to thirty drops.

Many laudanum tinctures were targeted at women and were widely prescribed by doctors for problems with menstruation and childbirth and even for nervous afflictions such as ‘the vapours’ which included hysteria, depression and fainting fits.

Laudanum was extremely addictive and addicts enjoyed highs of euphoria followed by deep lows of depression along with slurred speech and restlessness. Withdrawal symptoms included aches, cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea but it was not until the early 20th century that it became widely recognised as addictive.

The 1868 Pharmacy Act attempted to control the sale and supply of opium-based preparations by ensuring they could only be sold by registered pharmacists and they had to be clearly labelled as a poison. This was largely ineffective, however, as there was no limit on the amount the chemist could sell to the public. Twenty-five drops of laudanum could be bought for a penny, making it affordable to all classes of society.

Because of the demand, every pharmacy stocked laudanum but for inexperienced pharmacists, this could prove to be dangerous. Cutting opium fresh from a damp lump rather than waiting for it to dry out, or carelessly weighing it could result in a stronger batch. In 1899 aspirin was developed, a far safer painkiller, beginning an era of better-regulated medicines.

Dublin, Ireland, September 1883. The rift between the Fitzgeralds deepens when Will’s father threatens legal action to gain visiting rights to his three grandchildren. But Will, Isobel and John are brought unexpectedly together by Will’s mother when Sarah’s increasingly erratic behaviour spirals beyond their control.

Isobel is reunited with a ghost from her past unearthing memories she would rather have kept buried while the fragile marriage of convenience orchestrated by John becomes more and more brittle before it snaps with horrifying consequences.

Read an excerpt from Chapter Five… 

“Has no study been made into the detrimental effects of laudanum?” {Isobel} asked. “Or is it too useful to the medical profession and also to husbands in keeping their wives docile?”

“No and yes,” {Alfie} replied simply before grimacing. “For a study to be made, the researcher will need evidence from a dependant and who would wish to admit to a stranger that they are – or were one? You’re right, laudanum is too useful but there are mutterings that it is too widely available and too easy to obtain but—” He shrugged. “It is a vicious circle – more dependants would have to come forward and explain how they obtained it and where from for something to be done…”

“…And that is not likely to happen,” she concluded and Alfie shook his head.

There was one other cab standing outside the gates to the cemetery when they got out of theirs.

“This is the first time I have come here and not been frozen,” she said as they walked up the Avenue.

“But this time you can barely see anything.” Alfie laughed and she gave him a dig in the ribs. “Ouch. What was that for?”

“I am supposed to be in deep mourning,” she reminded him, pulling a tiny handkerchief edged with black lace from her sleeve. “Look – I even brought this useless thing with me.”

“Mother gave you that handkerchief.”

“I know. It’s lovely to look at but utterly inadequate. Will has wonderful handkerchiefs – ones you can actually get your nose into,” she added and Alfie had to stifle another laugh. “I shall pretend to dab my eyes with this if we meet anyone.”

“Is it possible to walk a circuit of the cemetery?” Alfie asked.

“I don’t know, I’ve only walked directly to graves and back to the entrance. Can we walk to Fred Simpson’s?” she asked suddenly. “Will and I only come here on Fred’s anniversary and I would like to see if the grave is tidy while I am here.”

“Of course we can.”

“It is a little further on and along a path to the right,” she said, lifting the veil a little.

They walked on and turned right, only for Alfie to pull her behind a large pedestal adorned with a praying angel.

“What is it?” she whispered fiercely as she crouched beside him, having to retie the ribbon holding the lace veil to her hat.

“Margaret Powell is at the Simpson graves,” Alfie replied and Isobel peered around the side of the pedestal, lifting the veil and draping it back over her hat so she could see clearly.

Margaret, dressed in black, was kneeling at the graves where her first husband, Fred, their baby son, Nicholas, Fred’s mother, Maria, and Maria’s husband, Duncan, were all buried. Ida Joyce, Margaret’s lady’s maid, was standing a few feet behind her.

“…Give me yours,” Margaret was demanding and Ida walked forward and held out a handkerchief. Margaret snatched it from her and bent over the grave. “This is filthy.”

“What is she doing?” Alfie whispered and Isobel slowly straightened up and looked out from behind the praying angel.

Margaret was busily polishing a glass globe which encased red porcelain roses. Isobel had bought the globe to place on the grave to commemorate the first anniversary of Fred’s death. The globe was as clean as could be expected but Margaret continued to polish it vigorously, a lock of her blonde hair escaping its pins and falling across her face.

“Mrs Powell,” Ida began but Margaret ignored her. “Mrs Powell, perhaps, we should return—”

“I want to have this globe sparkling before we leave,” Margaret interrupted and Ida rolled her eyes.

“Poor Ida,” Alfie murmured as Isobel crouched beside him again. “To go from being Grandmother’s lady’s maid to Margaret Powell’s.”

“Mrs Powell, the small patch of green you can see is moss or some such like on the inside of the glass,” Ida told Margaret remarkably calmly. “It is a result of the globe being here in all weathers. Thanks to you, the outside of the glass is sparkling now.”

“But the inside is not,” Margaret replied, picking up the globe and, before Ida could stop her, throwing it away. Isobel clapped a hand to her mouth as the globe landed with a smash on a neighbouring grave, the glass and porcelain scattering all over it. “That is much better,” Margaret continued, sitting back on her heels to survey the Simpson graves. “I will not have filthy adornments on the graves of my husband and son.”

“No, Mrs Powell,” Ida responded in a voice which shook a little. “Mrs Powell, the graves are tidy now and the cab is waiting.”

“Yes.” Margaret got to her feet, wiping her hands clean with Ida’s handkerchief, then dropping it on the path. “I am delighted with how the graves look now. We shall visit again soon.”

And with that, Margaret strode away towards the Avenue. Ida quickly picked up her ruined handkerchief, shoved it up her sleeve and ran after her mistress.

Behind the pedestal, Isobel exchanged an incredulous glance with Alfie.

“When did you see Margaret last?” he asked.

“Well over a year ago when I brought the box of David’s belongings from the surgery on Pimlico to number 1. She certainly wasn’t like… that. Alfie, we can’t leave the other grave in such a condition,” she said, glancing at the shards of glass and porcelain glistening in the sunshine.

“But we have nothing to put the pieces in.”

“We can leave them beside the grave.”

They got up, crossed the path, and carefully began to tidy the grave. They cleared the area as best they could and she went to the Simpson graves noting how the gravestone was beginning to weather already.

“What will you tell Ben about Fred?” Alfie asked. “He has Fred’s name so he is bound to be curious eventually.”

“Will and Jerry have hundreds of stories about Fred – Fred at Wesley – Fred at Trinity – Fred being Fred – he will not be forgotten,” she said, lowering the veil. “I don’t like seeing the Simpson graves bare but if Margaret’s mental state means she is simply going to throw away anything she disapproves of then what can we do?”

Alfie squeezed her hand then took her arm and they walked back to the Avenue.

“I’m sorry,” he said with a sigh. “I had hoped our jaunt would have been rather more enjoyable than this.”

“You brought me to a cemetery,” she teased. “But, thank you, it was very thoughtful of you.”

“And very enlightening,” Alfie added and she replied with a sombre nod.

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Photo credit: Empty bottle for opium tincture, London, England, 1880-1940. Credit: Science Museum, LondonAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Photo credit: An unscrupulous chemist selling a child arsenic and laudanum. Wood engraving after J. Leech. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Photo credit: An ad for laudanum in the Sears catalog: Mike Mozart via Flickr. Attribution CC BY 2.0
Photo credit: WMS 3339, For cholera: ’30 drops of laudanum. Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Photo credit: Interior of typical victorian (pharmacy). Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Photo credit: Laudanum poison 100ml flasche.jpg This work has been released into the public domain by its author, Cydone. This applies worldwide.