The dice and the guns weren’t the only things loaded in the Old West — so were many of the men and women. Generally, when we think of people being “loaded” in those days, the image of men standing at a long bar knocking down shots of Firewater or White Lightning immediately comes to mind. However, the fact is that drugs such as morphine and cocaine were being used with frequency. These, along with cannabis (marijuana), heroin and other narcotics, were legal, could be purchased over the counter, and were liberally prescribed by doctors for a multitude of ailments, even to children. Coupled with opium dens, patent medicines, and the easy availability of laudanum, it’s a wonder more pioneers didn’t overdose.
The earliest reference to opium use was in 3,400 B.C. when the opium poppy was cultivated in lower Mesopotamia (Southwest Asia). The Sumerians referred to it as Hul Gil, the “joy plant.” The Sumerians soon passed it on to the Assyrians (Middle East), who in turn passed it on to the Egyptians. Opium was known to ancient Greek and Roman physicians as a powerful pain reliever used to induce sleep and to give relief to the bowels. Its pleasurable effects were also noted.
As people learned of the power of opium, demand for it increased. Many countries began to grow and process opium to expand its availability and to decrease its cost. Its cultivation spread along the Silk Road, from the Mediterranean through Asia and finally to China around 700 A.D. Smoking opium in China began in the 1600s and was commonplace in China by the 1800s.
The first known opiates brought to America is thought to have been by a physician named Samuel Fuller who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. In his medical kit, he likely carried an early form of laudanum, an opium/alcohol mixture first created in the 16th Century. Like all opiates, it was an effective painkiller, an anti-diarrheal medication, a sleep inducement and was used to treat colds, fevers, consumption (tuberculosis), insomnia, stomach disorders, and more.
By the American Revolution, laudanum was a common medical tool, which was used several well known personalities including Patrick Henry who was said to have been an addict and Benjamin Franklin who used it to relieve his gout pain. Even Thomas Jefferson, who was generally skeptical of the medical treatments of his day, turned to laudanum in his later years to help ease his chronic diarrhea.
Opium contains more than 25 derivatives that were used in medicine, the most popular of which is morphine. Named after Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep, it was first isolated in 1803. However, Morphine was slow to be adopted as a painkiller because its effectiveness was limited when taken by mouth, though it was sometimes added to whiskey for greater results. It wouldn’t see its full objective until the hypodermic syringe was invented in the 1850s.
During the Civil War, both opium and morphine were widely used as painkillers. In the early years, they were generally taken as a pill, mixed with alcohol to form laudanum, or as a powder which was applied directly to open wounds. In later years, syringes became more readily available to surgeons in field hospitals, and it was injected in liquid form. During the war, some soldiers became addicted and hospitals and doctors were forced to have their medicine supplies guarded by armed men to stop theft. In fact, the addiction was so prevalent among veterans after the war, that it became known as the “Soldier’s Disease.”
Morphine was used to treat the same symptoms as opium as well as being prescribed for hangovers and even in the treatment of alcoholism when doctors thought morphine addiction was the lesser of two evils. It was also used during childbirth.
Another important opium derivative was laudanum, which was a drinkable medicine made by dissolving opium in alcohol. It was commonly used as a sedative and painkiller to treat headaches, toothaches, heart ailments, insomnia, nerve pain, “female complaints”, and was added to cough syrup. Unfortunately, it was also utilized to commit suicide, especially among disillusioned prostitutes in Old West. Some of these included a 21-year old named Sallie Talbot in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1873, Laura Steele in Virginia City, Nevada in 1875, and Ida Vernon, also of Virginia City, Nevada.
A more well known name was that of Eleanor Dumont, better known as Madame Moustache, who was a gambler who worked the mining camps in Nevada, Montana, Arizona, and California. She died of an overdose after having suffered a large gambling loss in Bodie, California in 1879. Another was Mattie Blalock, who was either the common law wife or girlfriend of Wyatt Earp. She was known to have abused laudanum while she was with Earp and several years after he left her she took a lethal dose of laudanum and alcohol in 1888. It is not known whether it was suicide or an accident.
Many writers and poets of the time were known to use laudanum including Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Edgar Allen Poe.
The first wide-spread recreational use of opium came to the United States in the 19th century with immigrant Chinese laborers working in and around the mines during the California Gold Rush and during the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Bringing their opium smoking habits with them, opium dens soon opened up in a number of settlements where a population of Chinese could be found. From about 1850 to 1870 the practice of smoking opium remained primarily a Chinese habit but during the 1870s it began to spread especially amongst those in the underworld — such as pimps, gamblers, prostitutes, and criminals. Opium dens were usually located in the Chinese section of town and often called “Hop Alley.” In the 1880s, Denver’s Hop Alley had 12 opium dens with five more located nearby.
News of the effects of smoking opium soon spread to the general population and opium dens spread across the continent as far as New York City. The importation of opium increased steadily from 24,000 pounds in 1840 to 416,924 pounds in 1872.
Opium imports hit their peak in the 1890s, right around the rise of the temperance movement. This may have been due to the demonization of alcohol, or perhaps because opiate use was easier to hide. In 1900, estimates were that 250,000 people were opium addicts
However, most Americans didn’t need an opium den to get a “taste” of opiates as they were often the main ingredient of many patent medicines. In everything from teething powders, to cough syrup, to aids for “female complaints”, these elixirs were prevalent on the market.
In 1898, the Bayer pharmaceutical company discovered that when morphine was boiled it created another “effective” medicine – heroine. The name was based on the German word heroisch, which means “heroic, strong.” The company quickly began an aggressive marketing campaign to sell its commercial preparation of Heroin as well as another recent invention — aspirin. Heroine was touted as a treatment for asthma, coughs, colds, bronchitis, and tuberculosis, even for children. It was also promoted as being non-addictive and as a substitute for alcohol and morphine. The promotions continued through 1912.