Sunday, April 30, 2017


By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky

Ever notice how prescription side effect warnings are often worse sounding than the illness?

Just the other day I saw a TV advertisement about medication for insomnia. Just one of the possible side effects among a frightening litany of side effects was the "inability to move when sleeping or upon waking". In other words, temporary paralysis.

On the up side, the patient gets a good night's sleep. Egads!

Still, at least we're informed beforehand. Right? After all, nowadays, when one picks up a prescription from their local pharmacy, a printout of information about the medication, its use, and possible complications are provided to the patient.

As a writer of historical fiction, everything about a person's life should be researched -- just like the setting, climate, clothing, government, etc. And it would be remiss to think that characters were not concerned with health or injuries.

What if someone was in constant pain because of a back injury sustained while changing a wagon wheel? Or a broken arm or leg that was not set properly? I am often reminded of the almost debilitating pain Thomas Jefferson had after breaking a wrist while ambassador to France. The break never healed properly and for a man who did a lot of writing (with a quill pen, no less) and loved to play the violin, one can only imagine how painful and aggravating the wrist remained.

But back to the Old West. What medication and/or prescribed treatments were available to them? Consequently, the more research I do, the more mind-boggling it is to think about the often fatal effects that resulted from prescribed care.

In the 19th century, especially in the American West, settlers were isolated. Far from civilization, they were often forced to rely upon themselves in times of injury and illness. Patent medicines (what we consider over-the-counter medicines) were not readily available. Some people had knowledge about herbs and plants that could be used for medicinal purposes, but not always.

What about people who knew nothing about natural remedies? People (educated and uneducated) who placed their trust -- and their life -- in the treatment a physician prescribed. It should also be noted that for many who didn't have a local doctor, they sought traveling medicine shows.

Traveling medicine shows brought with them methods of treatment from back East that were often inaccurate and deadly poisonous. Although most legitimate frontier doctors spoke against medicine shows peddling miracle cures, physicians also prescribed treatment that was toxic and addictive.

For example, it was not uncommon for Lead, Mercury, and Arsenic — all very poisonous — to be dispensed as medicine.

This begs the question; why didn't people understand what they were taking? Surely they must have been concerned why Arsenic, widely known as a poison to kill rats, was also being prescribed to humans beings?

Guess not, because doctors routinely prescribed Arsenic to treat rheumatism, syphilis, strengthen one’s lungs, and even told women it would help their complexion.

Laird’s Bloom Of Youth and Dr. MacKenzie’s Arsenic Complexion Wafers were just two brands women consumed as a beauty aid.

In truth, Arsenic did seem to work from an appearance standpoint. Arsenic made the skin pale by destroying red blood cells. Unfortunately, the side effects from using products such as these wafers (pills) was blindness and death.

Mercury, known as calomel (pictured), was used for any type of inflammatory disease, i.e., cholera and typhoid. At the same time, it was also used to treat gastro-intestinal problems.

Taken too liberally, one experienced Mercury Poisoning. Side effects for Mercury Poisoning include neurological problems such as trembling, loss of memory, and disintegration of one’s bones, teeth, and gums.

Perhaps the most common remedies used in the American West were Alcohol and Laudanum, both of which were dispensed and consumed in great abundance. They were also highly addictive.

Understandably, it should come as no surprise, given the poor quality (or lack) of drinking water and the abundance of watering holes (aka 'saloons'), that alcoholism was a big problem in the Old West, particularly among men. Cowboys, miners, gamblers, ranchers, railroad workers, and just about any man that worked hard in those days would visit the local saloon and quench their thirst with whiskey, or some other form of Alcohol.

Ironically, the fact many men drank themselves into a stupor was of little consequence. After all, whiskey was not only considered the beverage of choice, but also viewed as a cure for just about anything -- from heart palpitations, dropsy, epilepsy and kidney disease to chills, stomach ailments, and even rabies.

Physicians also prescribed whiskey to patients with consumption. Forts dispensed three grains of quinine in an ounce of whiskey on a daily basis to soldiers as a preventative against malaria. The use of whiskey as a painkiller, antiseptic and disinfectant has also been documented—-especially on the battlefield.

Considering the believed miraculous benefits of whiskey, as heralded during the 19th century, it shouldn't be surprising that whiskey was also mixed with castor oil to make a shampoo.

Although heavy drinking by men, even to the point of drunkenness, was acceptable at the time, a woman’s reputation would be destroyed if she were to be seen inebriated, let alone drinking in public. This is not to say that women did not drink Alcohol. They might take a small shot of whiskey to relieve pain, but more often than not they were prescribed medicines that contained a high content of Alcohol. One such drinkable medication was Laudanum, basically a mixture of Opium and Alcohol.

Also called ‘tincture of opium’, Laudanum was used primarily as a sedative and painkiller, often prescribed for headaches, toothaches, and aches and pains. Its extensive use among women can be attributed to the fact it was the medicine of choice for female problems, which also explains why so many women became addicted to it.

Girls as young as fourteen were prescribed laudanum. Even infants were spoon fed Laudanum! Physicians cited its benefits as not only helping to calm nerves and quiet the disposition, it was prescribed as an aid for childbirth, menstruation and menopause. If one was not careful, taken in large doses, it caused unconsciousness. Many women, particularly prostitutes, used Laudanum to commit suicide.

Because of its addictive properties, Laudanum use was extremely dangerous. A person could build up a resistance and, therefore, need a larger dose. The same can be said with regard to Alcohol use, particularly in the 19th century.

Forgetting the medicinal effects that were falsely attributed to Alcohol, saloon keepers encouraged patrons to drink and gamble. The two went hand-in-hand. The more someone drank, the more they gambled. Even if a man drank a moderate amount, their judgment could be affected. Their behavior might become argumentative and excitable. One can well imagine the number of Alcohol induced gunfights that occurred. And since Alcohol affects the nervous system as a depressant, if one drinks too much they could become incoherent and be rendered unconscious.

Because drinking was so prevalent, Alcohol-related problems increased...and not just at saloons. Soldiers at forts often developed problems with drinking, particularly during the Indian Wars. It became so serious any officer found drunk on duty was subject to court-martial or a reduction in rank; enlisted men were fined and/or punished.

It is interesting to note that as much as we might be fascinated about the American West and the struggles pioneers faced to survive, we often overlook subversive dangers they faced -- often doing something they believed would not harm but help them live longer lives.

Today, in the 21st century, as more and more complications are noted from prescription medicines -- and class action lawsuits are filed, there is a greater awakening among people and a keen desire to research natural alternatives. As you might have guessed, I am one of those individuals who prefers to research anything prescribed to me or my family. Although there are great advancements in science, medical care, and pharmaceutical products that can greatly relieve health problems, it is fair to say that we must all remain diligent with regard to possible negative consequences.

Thank you for stopping by today. I hope you found this post interesting and informative. ~ AKB


  1. HI I enjoyed your post. Very interesting, and a great job researching.

    1. Thank you! Appreciate your commenting. 😊

  2. I have a book written by Dr. A. W. Chase and published in 1866. He provides both treatments he has heard were successful and those he used. Very interesting, but drives home the points you made in your post.

    1. Sounds like an interesting book, Caroline. Thank you for your comment.

  3. Herbal medicine was huge! A little was okay and a lot could kill you. Nothing has really changed on that front. :-)

    The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (forerunner of prohibition movement) gained a strong foothold in the west in the 1870's. Most of the whiskey, etc. came from private stills and that stuff could be poisonous! Those women were determined to keep their men on the "right" path.

  4. Thanks for the excellent article--very detailed research. I knew some of these, but not in such detail. I'll remember to look in our Archives for this post when needed. As usual, Ashley, your post is timely and useful.

  5. Thanks, Ashley, for a informative post. I hate taking pills and just as you pointed out, I am astounded at all the scary side effects that are attributed to so many drugs on the market today. But at least we're made aware of the risks, unlike those a century ago.

    1. Thanks very much, Cheri. I am happy you found the post interesting.

  6. What a wonderful list. Thanks for helpful information that I know I'll come back to again!

  7. So many things were done out of ignorance in those days. People were told certain remedies would work for what ailed them and the people believed them. Even as modern as the 1950s were, I remember my mother taking a medication for her heart failure. One afternoon, she kept falling asleep and we had a hard time arousing her. Pop took her to the hospital and it turned out the medication she was taking had mercury in it. Yikes! I also remember thermometers used mercury and, as kids, we would break those thermometers and use the mercury to rub on pennies to make them look like dimes (stupid in so many ways). All the while we were rubbing the mercury into the pennies we were rubbing it into our skin.
    Just a year or two ago it was brought to the attention of the public and to doctors that they needed to limit the amount of Vicodin (Hydrocodone) they prescribed to patients because so many people were becoming addicted to it.
    My grandmother and my parents kept a book on home remedies. Shoot, going to the doctor was for only broken bones, spurting blood from wounds, or near death. Bee stings, toothaches, strained muscles, poison ivy, and so on were all treated at home with remedies from those books. Now it seems people go to the urgent care, ER, or the doctor for every tiny ailment. I like the idea of natural remedies whenever possible. Peppermint tea for an upset stomach works for me.
    This was certainly an interesting article, Ashley. I love research for stories. Did you use this research in a particular story?

    1. I am with you in researching natural remedies if possible, Sarah J. I remember those thermometers breaking, and my mom almost panicked not wanting us kids to touch the mercury. Cannot imagine what you did trying to make a penny look like a dime. Egads!

  8. Ashley, your comment about mercury made me remember when I was in junior high and a friend and I would sometimes stop by her sister's house on the way home. Her sister was pregnant and had broken a thermometer. She loved to play with the mercury which she called "quicksilver" and I shudder thinking about the baby she was carrying. Our school changed so we went home a different way and I don't know what happened with her baby.

    1. Oh, that's my excuse! I can't tell you how many times I had one of those mercury thermometers break in my mouth. Shiver with a fever and under the tongue that glass would go. Break it and there were glass shards and mercury to spit out, but the fun part was playing with the mercury afterwards.Omigosh!

    2. That is terrifying, Caroline. Makes ypu wonder how lucky people were to survive when things like this happened. Women smoked during pregnancy in the 1950s and 60s; drinking a martini every night was commonplace, even on family shows like Bewitched. The Temperance Society that E. Ayers commented on were zealots against drinking alcohol, but did they also campaign against laudanum and medicine given to women and children that had morphine and/or alcohol in it that were highly addictive. Makes you wonder. Would be an Interesting plot device about a woman Temperance member who secretly is a laudanum addict who thinks because it is "medicine" it is ok and doesn't even realize she is as addicted to it as a man on hard liquor.

    3. Oh, Ashley, is that the plot to your next book? I'd love to read it! :-) That would make for a super read today as a contemporary, just change the drug!

  9. Wonderful post, Ashley! I knew some of these "cures" but not all. Thanks for sharing your research.

    1. You are most welcome, Lyn. Glad you liked it.


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