Drugs in the Old West

Opium Den

Opium Den

The dice and the guns weren’t the only things loaded in the Old West — so were many 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 many 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 called it 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 relieve the bowels. Its pleasurable effects were also noted.

Opium Den

Opium Den

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 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 are 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 used by 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 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, 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 applied directly to open wounds. In later years, syringes became more readily available to surgeons in field hospitals and were 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, addiction was so prevalent among veterans after the war that it became known as “Soldier’s Disease.”

Morphine was used to treat the same symptoms as opium 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, a drinkable medicine made by dissolving opium in alcohol. It was used as a sedative and painkiller to treat headaches, toothaches, heart ailments, insomnia, nerve pain, and “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.

Eleanor Dumont

A more well-known name was Eleanor Dumont, better known as Madame Moustache, a gambler who worked the mining camps in Nevada, Montana, Arizona, and California. She died of an overdose after suffering a large gambling loss in Bodie, California, in 1879. Another was Mattie Blalock, 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 widespread 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 building the Transcontinental Railroad. Bringing their opium smoking habits with them, opium dens soon opened up in several settlements where a population of Chinese could be found. From about 1850 to 1870, the practice of smoking opium remained primarily a Chinese habit. Still, 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 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.

Childrens' Soothing Syrup

Children’s Soothing Syrup

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 and 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.


One of the oldest, most potent, and most dangerous stimulants of natural origin, the Coca leaf has been used since 3000 BC. The ancient Inca chewed coca leaves to get their hearts racing and to speed their breathing to counter the effects of living in the thin mountain air. The Peruvians chewed coca leaves during religious ceremonies and used them as a local anesthetic to dull pain in an open wound.

cocaine was first extracted from coca leaves in 1859 by German chemist Albert Niemann. In 1863, a French chemist named Angelo Mariani made a fortune selling a new beverage called Vin Mariani, made from coca leaves. Advertised as fortifying and refreshing the body and restoring health and vitality, it was regarded as a wonder medicine for various ailments. Two glasses of drink were believed to contain about 50 milligrams of pure cocaine.

Cocaine Toothache Drops

Cocaine Toothache Drops

But, it would not be until the 1880s that cocaine started to be popularized in the medical community. In 1883, Dr. Theodor Aschenbrandt, a German army physician, issued a supply of pure cocaine to Bavarian soldiers during maneuvers. He later reported positive results, including beneficial effects on the soldiers’ ability to endure fatigue during battle-like conditions. This got the attention of the medical community as well as others. One such man was Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who used the drug himself and was the first to broadly promote cocaine as a tonic to cure depression and sexual impotence.

Before long, cocaine was found in several patent medicines, and cocaine lozenges were recommended as effective remedies for coughs, colds, and toothaches. Doctors and pharmacists often prescribed it to treat indigestion, melancholia, pain, and even relieve vomiting during pregnancy. Cocaine was widely available and could be purchased over the counter. It was used in cough medicines, enemas, and poultices. By 1885, cocaine was sold in various forms – cigarettes, powder, and even injection by needle. In medicine, it was commonly used as a local anesthetic.

In 1885, John Styth Pemberton of Atlanta, Georgia, who had previously manufactured such patent medicines as Triplex Liver Pills and Globe of Flower Cough Syrup, introduced “French Wine Coca”, advertised as an “Ideal Nerve and Tonic Stimulant.” The product relied heavily on the extract of coca leaves. The next year, Pemberton introduced a syrup called “Coca-Cola” named for the presence of an extract of the kola nut. At various times it was advertised as “a remarkable therapeutic agent” and as a “sovereign remedy” for a long list of ailments, including melancholy and insomnia. Coca-Cola once contained an estimated nine milligrams of cocaine per glass. (For comparison, a typical dose or “line” of cocaine is 50–75 mg.) In 1903, the cocaine was removed.


Cannibas Fluid Extract

Cannabis Fluid Extract

The oldest known written record on cannabis (marijuana) use dates back to China in  2727 B.C. There, it was considered a legitimate medication. Ancient Greeks and Romans were also familiar with cannabis, while in the Middle East, use spread throughout the Islamic empire to North Africa. In 1545 cannabis spread to the western hemisphere, where Spaniards imported it to Chile for its use as fiber. In North America, cannabis, in the form of hemp, was also introduced by the Spanish and later grown on many plantations for use in rope, clothing, and paper.

During colonial days, the plant became a staple crop for farmers, who reportedly grew it for its fiber. Along with tobacco, hemp became a major export crop before the American Revolution.

The settlers of Jamestown, Virginia, brought the plant to the states in 1611, cultivating it for its fiber. It was introduced into New England in 1629, and from that time until after the Civil War, cannabis was a major crop in North America, playing an important role in both colonial and national economic policy. In fact, even George Washington grew hemp in 1765 at Mount Vernon.

In 1775, hemp culture was introduced into Kentucky, and large hemp plantations flourished in Mississippi, Georgia, California, South Carolina, and Nebraska until well into the 1800s.

In 1830, an Irish doctor and herb specialist was credited with training his Western colleagues in relieving muscle spasms and pain. It was also used to treat migraines and insomnia and as a primary pain reliever until the invention of aspirin.

From 1850 until 1942, the United States Pharmacopoeia, which lists the most widely-accepted drugs, recognized marijuana as a legitimate medicine under the name “Extractum Cannabis.”  In 1851, the United States Dispensary said of it: “The complaints in which it has been specially recommended are neuralgia, gout, rheumatism, tetanus, hydrophobia, epidemic cholera, convulsions, chorea, hemorrhage.”

An autobiographical book by Fitz Hugh Ludlow called The Hashish Eater was published in 1857.  The volume described the author’s altered states of consciousness and philosophical flights of fancy while he was using a cannabis extract. In the United States, the book created popular interest in hashish, leading to hashish candy and private hashish clubs. Within 25 years of the publication of The Hashish Eater, many cities in the United States had private hashish parlors.

Limited non-medical use of cannabis was reported in an 1869 issue of the Scientific American: “The drug hashish, the cannabis indica of the U.S. Pharmacopoeia, the resinous product of hemp, grown in the East Indies and other parts of Asia, is used in those countries to a large extent for its intoxicating properties and is doubtless used in this country for the same purpose to a limited extent.”

The use of cannabis products for recreation grew gradually. The December 2, 1876, issue of the Illustrated Police News featured a drawing of five exotically-attired young ladies supposedly indulging in their “hashish” habit in a room where hookahs were conspicuous. The News captioned the drawing: “Secret Dissipation of New York Belles: Interior of a Hashish Hell on Fifth Avenue.”

This was the status quo until 1906, when the federal government stepped in with its landmark Pure Food and Drug Act, which required any “dangerous” or “addictive” drugs to appear on the label of products. More regulations followed in an attempt to stop drugs and addiction. However, as we see today, little has changed.

Compiled & edited by  Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated January 2023.

Another fun video from our friends at Arizona Ghost Riders


Agnew, Jeremy; Medicine in the Old West: A History, 1850-1900; McFarland, 2010
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Drug Free World
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The Guardian
Kate Bridges
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