Monday, March 9, 2015

The Victorian Magical Elixir

by Sandra Byrd

What magical elixir could be recommended, in Victorian times, for conditions as wide ranging as infant teething discomfort, anxiety, loose stools, PMS, and insomnia? The answer, of course, was laudanum, the opium-derived narcotic painkiller, mood-lifter, and life destroyer of the ages.

God of Sleep... and Addiction

"Laudanum, another opium derivative, was, like morphia, freely available from chemists, and never very expensive. It was a mild soporific and painkiller but a supreme sedative, and particularly helpful at deathbeds. ...There was no restriction imposed on chemists in respect of the sale of laudanum and other such sedatives," recounts Liza Picard in her book, Victorian London: The Tale of a City. 

Laudanum contained all the opium alkaloids, including morphine and codeine. In order to make its bitter taste more palatable, it was often blended into a syrup which would contain vanilla, spices, sugar, and citrus.   Barbara Hodgson, in her book, In the Arms of Morpheus: The Tragic History of Laudanum, Morphine, and Patent Medicines, says that "Opium, and after 1820, morphine, was mixed with everything imaginable: mercury, hashish, cayenne pepper, ether, chloroform, belladonna, whiskey, wine and brandy." Indeed, it was the combination of opium and alcohol which made it so effective, addictive, and deadly.  Laudanum dulled or removed pain, produced vivid dreams, and led to deep and also disruptive sleep. There is good reason morphine is named after Morpheus, god of sleep.

Euphoria and Hallucinations

Opium poppy.
Pod, when lacerated weeps latex, or opium
Opium has been widely in use as a medicinal since the time of Hippocrates, he of the famous oath.  In addition to its pain relieving, sleep inducing properties it brought about a sense of euphoria. Researcher Rudolf Gelpke says, "Opium...loosens the soul from its entanglements with everyday things and the outer world.  (It) makes one silent and gentle. It inspires and gives flight to the imagination."

For the downsides of its use, a brief reading of Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey (free kindle copy here); he recounts the paranoia, delusions, and hallucinations he suffered, even while he consented to continue indulging his addiction.

Fame and Infamy

In the Victorian Era, laudanum was used world-round, particularly by artists, writers, and woman. The Encyclopedia of Psychotropic Plants claims that Edgar Allan Poe wrote most of his work while under its influence.  Baudelaire, a sometimes collaborator with Poe published, a collection of poems entitled, The Flowers of Evil, which explored his experiences with opium.  Mary Todd Lincoln was said to be addicted to laudanum, as was Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Like addicts of any ages, once in the grasps of the drug, it was hard to free oneself.  Then, as now, certain people were more disposed to fall under the guile of opiates than others.

Although it is now highly regulated, laudanum does remain available even today, by prescription, in the US and the UK.


For more about Sandra Byrd's new Victorian Gothic Romance series, Daughters of Hampshire, including the first book, Mist of Midnight, please visit her website at


  1. This was a fascinating article. I learned quite a few things. I didn't realize that Poe and Baudelaire collaborated, and I didn't realize that Elizabeth Barrett Browning was addicted to laudanum. She was one of my favorite poets when I was growing up.

  2. Me too, Elizabeth. When I researched it I was surprised to find out how widely available it was!


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