By the late 19th Century, dipsomania, or alcoholism, was being treated as a disease. The first arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol was in 1897.
Physicians began to consider alcoholism a disease, but they had no real cure. There were facilities for the treatment of dipsomania, and if that failed, there were always insane asylums where people with disabilities of all sorts were put to get them out of the way.
He tells her, "Alcohol consumption eats at your innards over a long period of time and brings about a long slow death. It grinds away a man's liver and other organs. Those who recover from it are often plagued with liver and heart problems the rest of their lives." He tells her of asylums back east where they treat dipsomania, but he doesn't recommend them. "Horrible places they are," he says.
But alcohol wasn't the only addiction rampant in the nineteenth century. During this time, much of the food consumed by working-class families was adulterated by foreign substances, contaminated by chemicals, or befouled by animal and human excrement. By the 1840s home-baked bread had died out among the rural poor; in the small tenements of the urban masses, unequipped as these were with ovens, it never existed.
The list of poisonous additives reads like the stock list of some mad and malevolent chemist: strychnine, cocculus inculus (both hallucinogens) and copperas in rum and beer; sulphate of copper in pickles, bottled fruit, wine, and preserves; lead chromate in mustard and snuff; sulphate of iron in tea and beer; ferric ferrocynanide, lime sulphate, and turmeric in chinese tea; copper carbonate, lead sulphate, bisulphate of mercury, and Venetian lead in sugar confectionery and chocolate; lead in wine and cider; all were extensively used and accumulative in effect, resulting, over a long period, in chronic gastritis, and often fatal food poisoning.
And adults weren't the only ones imbibing these poisons. Most medicines, even for children, contained alcohol or opiates or both. Laudanum is a tincture of opium containing approximately 10% powdered opium by weight (the equivalent of 1% morphine). Medical officers were convinced that one of the major causes of infant mortality was the widespread practice of giving children narcotics, primarily opium, to quiet them. Laudanum was cheap enough, about the price of a pint of beer. Opium killed far more infants through starvation than overdose. Dr. Greenhow, investigating for the English Privy Council, noted how children 'kept in a state of continued narcotism will be thereby disinclined for food, and be but imperfectly nourished.'
At mid-century at least ten proprietary brands of medicines containing opiates existed, with Godfrey's Cordial, Steedman's Powder, and the grandly named Atkinson's Royal Infants Preservative among the most popular. Opium in pills and penny sticks was widely sold and opium-taking was described a way of life in places.
Morphine was treated like a new-fangled wonder drug. Injected with a hypodermic syringe, the medication relieved pain, asthma, headaches, alcoholics’ delirium tremens, gastrointestinal diseases and menstrual cramps. By the late 1800s, women made up more than 60 percent of opium addicts.
By 1895, morphine and opium powders, like OxyContin and other prescription opioids today, had led to an addiction epidemic that affected roughly 1 in 200 Americans. The Civil War helped. The Union Army alone issued nearly 10 million opium pills to its soldiers, plus 2.8 million ounces of opium powders and tinctures. An unknown number of soldiers returned home addicted, or with war wounds that opium relieved. Opiates made up 15 percent of all prescriptions dispensed in Boston in 1888, according to a survey of the city’s drug stores.
Only around 1895, at the peak of the epidemic, did doctors begin to slow and reverse the overuse of opiates. Advances in medicine and public health played a role: acceptance of the germ theory of disease, vaccines, x-rays, and the debut of new pain relievers, such as aspirin in 1899. Better sanitation meant fewer patients contracting dysentery or other gastrointestinal diseases, then turning to opiates for their constipating and pain-relieving effects.
Charlene Raddon is an Amazon best selling and award winning author of western historical romance and designs book covers at Silver Sage Book Covers.
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