I, Fatty Tidbit #9: An Early History of Opiates

by Jerry Stahl

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I, Fatty Tidbit #9: An Early History of Opiates

Unread postby DeppInTheHeartOfTexas » Tue Jun 14, 2005 8:26 am


For those of you that have not read the book and wonder why this tidbit is here, Roscoe’s addiction to opiates is an important part of his story.


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In the mid to late 1800’s, opium was a fairly popular drug. Opium dens were scattered throughout what we know today as the wild west. The opium influx during this period was due in large part to the drug being brought into the country via Chinese immigrants who came here to work on the railroads.

It was from opium that, morphine, a derivative, was developed as a pain killer in approximately 1810. It was considered a wonder drug because it eliminated severe pain associated with medical operations or traumatic injuries. It left the user in a completely numb euphoric dream-state. Because of the intense euphoric side effects, the drug in 1811 was named after the Greek god of dreams, Morpheus, by Dr. F.W.A. Serturner, a German pharmacist. By the mid 1850’s morphine was available in the United States and became more and more popular with the medical profession. The benefits of using the drug to treat severe pain were considered nothing short of remarkable to doctors of the time. Unfortunately, the addictive properties of the drug, on the flip side, went virtually unnoticed until after the civil war.

During the civil war the numbers of people exposed to morphine in the course of being treated for their war-related injuries sky rocketed. Tens of thousands of northern and confederate soldiers became morphine addicts.

In just over 10 years time from its arrival into this country the United States was plagued with a major morphine epidemic. Even though no actual statistics were kept on addiction at this time, the problem had grown to large enough proportions to raise serious concerns from the medical profession. Doctors became perplexed and were completely in the dark as to how to treat this new epidemic.

By 1874 the answer to this increasing problem was thought to be found in the invention of a new drug in Germany. This new wonder drug was called Heroin, after its German trademarked name. Heroin was imported into the United States shortly after it was invented. The sales pitch that created an instant market to American doctors and their morphine addicted patients was that Heroin was a “safe, non-addictive” substitute for morphine. In the early 1900’s, the he philanthropic Saint James Society in the U.S. mounted a campaign to supply free samples of heroin through the mail to morphine addicts who were trying give up their habits.

Hence, the heroin addict was born and has been present in American culture ever since.

From the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s the reputable drug companies of the day began manufacturing over the counter drug kits. These kits contained a glass barreled hypodermic needle and vials of opiates (morphine or heroin) and/or cocaine packaged neatly in attractive engraved tin cases. Laudanum (opium in an alcohol base) was also a very popular elixir that was used to treat a variety of ills. Laudanum was administered to kids and adults alike - as freely as aspirin is used today.

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There were of course marketing and advertising campaigns launched by the drug companies producing this product that touted these narcotics as the cure for all types of physical and mental ailments ranging from alcohol withdrawal to cancer, depression, sluggishness, coughs, colds, tuberculosis and even old age. Most of the elixirs pitched by the old “snake oil salesmen” in their medicine shows contained one or more of these narcotics in their mix. Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup was an indispensable aid to mothers and child-care workers. Containing one grain (65 mg) of morphine per fluid ounce, it effectively quieted restless infants and small children. It probably also helped mothers relax after a hard day's work. The company used various media to promote their product, including recipe books, calendars, and trade cards such as the one shown here from 1887 (A calendar is on the reverse side.).

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Heroin, morphine and other opiate derivatives were unregulated and sold legally in the United States until 1920 when Congress recognized the danger of these drugs and enacted the Dangerous Drug Act. This new law made over-the-counter purchase of these drugs illegal and deemed that their distribution be federally regulated. By the time this law was passed, however, it was already too late. A market for heroin in the U.S. had been created. By 1925 there were an estimated 200,000 heroin addicts in the country.
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Unread postby Raven » Tue Jun 14, 2005 11:39 am

all I can say is WOW!

and is that the actual poppie that produces heroin? or do we know which flowers do?

thanks DITHOT!

nice job.

Ravenbaba
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Unread postby DeppInTheHeartOfTexas » Tue Jun 14, 2005 12:17 pm

Thanks, raven. It is a poppy that produces the raw material. It's really scary how it was considered just an over the counter miracle drug when it was first introduced. I thought that picture of the mom and baby was quite disturbing! :freaked:
Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming -

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Unread postby Raven » Tue Jun 14, 2005 12:22 pm

thanks for all your work!

you know that life was tough for women back then, I can imagine how you could easily escape with some soothing syrup, it was available like alcohol was and event the doctors recommended it. I am sure that women would have an easier time of using heroin or morphine then using alcohol.

thanks again

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Unread postby suec » Tue Jun 14, 2005 12:22 pm

It is shocking to think that the stuff was freely available, from basically the corner shop, and even advertised. I'd read that ladanum used to be given to babies and this sort of adds to the picture, really. Terrible.
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Unread postby Bix » Tue Jun 14, 2005 1:49 pm

Soothing syrup, indeed!!! I can easily see how wonderful morphine must have seemed to many women. Women had to be in pain daily from the restrictive corsets and layers and layers of clothing they wore all day long while going about their housework and child rearing. This would have been the perfect "Mother's little helper"!

I can't believe the whole "heroin as a cure for morphine addiction" thing either. Amazing.

I also remembered that Coca-Cola originally had cocaine in it, so I went and checked that out at www.snopes.com/cokelore/cocaine.asp
Coca-Cola was originally marketed as a patent medicine and was named for its two "medicinal" ingredients: extract of coca leaves and kola nuts. As more was learned about cocaine and addiction, the amount of cocaine in the syrup was reduced, until it was completely cocaine-free in 1929.

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Unread postby Theresa » Tue Jun 14, 2005 2:07 pm

That part from the International Medical Magazine - No other preparation has had its therapeutic value more thoroughly defined or better established, than Glyco-Heroin

Boy! It sure makes you look twice at the "tested" and "safe" medicines we take today, doesn't it?


Makes me think about the diet pills from the 1970's...I tried taking those once, and bounced off the walls of my classroom! (but didn't lose any weight, darn it.)

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Unread postby DeppInTheHeartOfTexas » Tue Jun 14, 2005 2:15 pm

That part from the International Medical Magazine - No other preparation has had its therapeutic value more thoroughly defined or better established, than Glyco-Heroin


Amazing, isn't it? The testing they did showed that it worked wonders on the diseases, of course that probably meant the people were so out of it they didn't even know or care they were sick. It sounds to me like they didn't do any testing for long term effects or side effects. Some of that still occurs today, eh? Good point about Coca-Cola too, Bix. I had forgotten about that. Pharmacology in the early late 1800's and early 1900's was certainly interesting!
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Unread postby lizbet » Tue Jun 14, 2005 2:27 pm

double WOW - this is one of the many parts of Victorian / Edwardian society that I just can't wrap my head around - "patended medicines" - you're right Bix about Coca Cola - my dad worked for them for 42 yrs and really early on we got C.C. 101 cause even in the mid-sixties the kids at school teased us about daddy being a drug dealer :eyebrow: the early advertising marketed Coke at theatres during intermission or at drugstores as being 'refreshing' - a way to 'revive' yourself

laudanum goes back even further - any of you read Jane Austin's Mansfield Park - Fanny's aunt has 'vapours' yah right she's high - its laudanum that she's sipping throughout the day - no wonder she snoozes much of her life away - Victoria Thompson writes the gaslight mystery series (New York City 1880 - 90's) and in one story there is a pregnant woman addicted to "patended medicines" and her baby is born addicted to whatever it was that 'soothed' the mother's nerves

I've only got far enough along to read about Roscoe's alcohol addiction - I can't imagine how much worse things are going to get with drugs added into the mix - as usual DITHOT you get :cool: for your efforts
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Unread postby Raven » Tue Jun 14, 2005 4:54 pm

So I ordered I Fatty today from the library!

I guess I am in so to speak!

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Unread postby DeppInTheHeartOfTexas » Tue Jun 14, 2005 6:30 pm

Way to go Ravenbaba! Glad you will be joining us! :bounce: This is a much shorter read than Shantaram so there is plenty of time.
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Unread postby luvdepp » Tue Jun 14, 2005 7:45 pm

I must include my WOW here also. That is just incredible to read. I knew a little of morphine and heroin being widely available around the turn of the century, but not to the extent that I guess they were! Scary! And the kit with the hypodermic needle is really creepy. :-O

Boy! It sure makes you look twice at the "tested" and "safe" medicines we take today, doesn't it?

yes theresa, it does make you wonder just how "tested" and "safe" we are today. Seems like they are constantly pulling drugs back off the market because they suddenly find out they really aren't "safe" at all. Makes you wonder how the drug companies managed to get them on the shelves in the first place. :-?
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Unread postby fansmom » Sat Jun 18, 2005 7:12 pm

Oh, the irony--my daughter had two of her wisdom teeth out and is currently taking a poppy-derived narcotic for the pain. Yep, I'm giving my baby drugs for teething pain.

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Unread postby DeppInTheHeartOfTexas » Sat Jun 18, 2005 11:11 pm

At least the dangers are well known now! That pic of that mom holding that "medicine" over that baby was creepy!
Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming -

Wow! What a ride!


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