A keen collector of ‘crime artefacts’, I was thrilled to find an authentic Victorian laudanum bottle in an antiques emporium, and for only £6. It now sits alongside my poison bottle in my study. Recently I attended a conference on poison and poisoners, it piqued my interest in the lethal substance once sold in my precious bottles.
Self-Medication was rife in the Victorian era and laudanum was the drug of choice for many. The narcotic was the most popular derivative of opium and was easily available over the counter. A mixture of powdered opium and alcohol (usually brandy) and flavoured with spices, laudanum was widely used as a stimulant. Costing about the same as a pint of beer, the Victorians bought laudanum from the local druggist a pennyworth at a time, to relieve the rigours of life. As well as being an effective analgesic, it was used to alleviate a variety of ailments, such as rheumatism, coughs, insomnia and diarrhoea. Highly addictive, the body soon became accustomed to the drug, requiring a higher dose to achieve the desired effects.
For some, laudanum was used to combat depression and ‘low spirits’ and, according to contemporary journalist Angus Reach, the most habitual users of laudanum were women.
In 1862, Elizabeth Siddal, artist, poet and wife of Gabriel Dante Rossetti, died of a laudanum overdose. Other Victorian celebrities who took the drug included Charles Dickens, Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell.
Laudanum was also widely used for babies and young children. Druggists sweetened it with syrup or treacle and sold it as concoctions such as ‘Godfrey’s Cordial’, to make infants sleep through the night. Known also as ‘Mother’s Friend’ or ‘The Quietness’, it was the Victorian equivalent of Calpol. Not only exhausted parents administered laudanum to their children, but it was a regular feature of Victorian childcare.
Baby farmers administered laudanum to their nurse children to keep them quiet. Some practitioners neglected their young charges, starving them and keeping them sedated with laudanum. The fate of fostered children was worse still and once their desperate parents had handed them over, unscrupulous baby farmers drugged them until they wasted away. The babies eventually died of malnutrition and their ‘carers’ pocketed the profits. Notorious Victorian baby farmer Amelia Dyer took this nefarious practice even further, and after medicating the children in her care with laudanum, she strangled them. Dyer herself was addicted to the drug and when she was summoned for the first time in 1879, following the suspicious deaths of four infants, she took a laudanum overdose and was unable to testify. It’s possible that her drug addiction contributed to her becoming one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers.
In 1868 the sale of opium was restricted and could only be bought in a pharmacy. Derivatives, such as laudanum, followed suit in 1908. However, the purchase and use of laudanum was still legal well into the 20th century. Whilst I admire the beauty of the bottle on my bookshelf, I am mindful of its sinister history.
(Featured image © Sigi Kirkpatrick)