The Victorian Era was the Golden Age of Poison. Lucky you, if you were a lady who needed to be rid of someone; poison was often a woman’s murder weapon of choice. A few grains of arsenic in tea or cocoa could do very well to gradually weaken the lover who betrayed you – even to death. But not all poison uses were fatal – or should I say, intended to be fatal. Poisonous concoctions were used by Victorian women to treat their family’s illnesses and any and all forms of malaise.
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‘Soothing’ syrup. Laden with opium.
Home medicine was a necessary part of life in the Victorian Era because professional medical care was, for the most part, avoided. Hospitals were harbingers of death, as diseases spread quickly inside their walls; doctor visits could become an incredible financial burden. Instead, when Victorians found themselves sick, they looked to their mothers, wives, and sisters to administer tonics that could cure them. While she did not have professional medical knowledge, the woman of the house “was reliant on the knowledge she could glean from the women around her, on the sensational promise of adverts, and on the items she could afford to purchase from the pharmacist” (1). She could also turn to books, if she was wealthy enough.
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Mrs. Beeton’s book of Household Management. Published in 1861.
What sort of strange smelling tonics and colorful pills might have lurked inside a Victorian mother’s medicine cabinet? A smattering of opium-laced, morphine-infused, and mercury-laced remedies:

Godfrey’s Cordial and Atkinson’s Infants Preservative

Atkinson's Infants Preservative. Via thequackdoctor.com.
Atkinson’s Infants Preservative.
These two tonics, among the myriad of tonics marketed for babies, were opium-based. They were commonly added to a bottle to soothe a fussy infant and coax them into a drugged sleep. A new mother, unless she was wealthy, could not afford to miss work. These cordials were her saving grace, allowing her to leave her baby in peace so that she could contribute to the family’s earnings. In addition to allowing time for work, Victorian mothers eagerly administered these cordials because they believed their infants were gaining health benefits. Atkinson’s Infants Preservative was advertised as a “general health tonic and medicine” that a poor mother might give to her baby “when it looked exhausted or unwell” (1). The troubling reality was that opium left babies malnourished; when heavily drugged, a baby would not feed. On the other hand, if a mother administered too much tonic to her child, an unintentional overdose could claim the baby’s life.

Laudanum

A household medicine and also, a poison. Image via https://www.pinterest.com/evymarques/laudanum/
A household medicine and also, a poison.
Laudanum was yet another remedy derived from opium – it was “a peroration of opiates in alcohol” to be exact (1). Laudanum was thought of as “the aspirin of the nineteenth century,” and was used for “insomnia, headaches, and the pains of menstruation,” (2). Like many common remedies found in the Victorian medicine cabinet, it was also available without a prescription and was dangerously cheap. It was this easy, over-the-counter access coupled with affordability that allowed these sorts of drugs to become immensely popular amongst all classes of Victorians.

Chlorodyne

Dr. Collis Browne's Chlorodyne, invented in 1848. Image via Wikipedia.
Dr. Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne, invented in 1848.

A concoction of morphia and chloroform, Chlorodyne was used as a pain reliever, and was advertised as curing “cholera, diarrhea, and dysentary” (1). Though it probably did no such thing, it did successfully relieve pain. Chloroform, half of Chlorodyne’s DNA, was commonly used as a pain reliever during childbirth, but only after Queen Victoria set the precedent by using it during her delivery of Prince Leopold (3). As it contained a form of morphine, Chlorodyne was also highly addictive.

Coca Wine

Coca Wine, 1904. Image via www.foodsofengland.co.uk.
Coca Wine, 1904. To be ingested by adults and children alike.

Coca wine was a cocaine-fortified, alcoholic tonic. Prescribed for lethargy, anxiety, and depression, it was commonly doled out as an elixir any time one needed a ‘lift’ (1). It gave a lift, alright – and then some: “when cocaine and alcohol meet inside a person, they create a third unique drug called cocaethylene. Cocaethylene works like cocaine, but with more euphoria” (4). Pemberton’s French Wine Coca was a popular name-brand coca wine and was advertised as being able to cure almost anything. As with opium and morphine-based remedies, coca wine helped contribute to the widespread Victorian problem of addiction.

“Blue Pills”

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“Blue pills” were often the culprit behind “The Mad Hatter Syndrome.”

Victorian housewives kept these mysterious, “cure-all” pills in their medicine cabinets to cure myriad illnesses, from “cholera to liver disease, influenza to rheumatism and syphilis” (1). Unfortunately, they were laden with mercury. Recipes for the pills often included, “one part mercury with two parts confection of roses (rose petals steeped in rosewater with honey and sugar) and licorice root” (5). When taken as a remedy for a chronic problem, such as rheumatism, the effects on the body over time could “include hypersalivation, loosening of teeth, diarrhea, vertigo, depression, intention tremor, and stomatitis, all sometimes called ‘The Mad Hatter Syndrome'” (Ibid).

Much to a Victorian mother’s dismay, many sick remedies could worsen the symptoms they were intended to cure, or even elicit premature death. While a few treatments effectively numbed pain, the trade-off was that they were highly addictive. Yet these nefarious tendencies did not deter a mother from prescribing them to her family, if only due to one simple reason: there were no alternatives.

Sources:

  1. Goodman, Ruth. How To Be A Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life. New York: Liveright Corporation, a Division of W. W. Norton, 2015. Print.
  1. Preface. Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells. Ed. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. New York: Tor, 2013. N. pag. Print.
  1. Frerichs, Ralph R. “Anesthesia and Queen Victoria.” Anesthesia and Queen Victoria. UCLA Department of Epidemiology, n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.
  1. Hamblin, James. “Why We Took Cocaine Out of Soda.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 13 Jan. 2013. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.
  1. RSC Press Release: UK Lab Reveals Shocking Mercury Level in Blue Pills That Made Abraham Lincoln Rage and Shout.” Royal Society of Chemistry. N.p., 22 Mar. 2010. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.
Patricia Lundy

Patricia Lundy

Patricia Lundy is a death enthusiast and devourer of macabre literature. She is interested in the relationship between women and death, which heavily informs her speculative fiction.
Patricia Lundy
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