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Elizabeth Siddal. Via Wikimedia // Public Domain
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The Lure of Laudanum, the Victorians' Favorite Drug

November 29, 2016
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Elizabeth Siddal. Via Wikimedia // Public Domain

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Down to a sunless sea”

Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s most famous poem, “Kubla Khan,” was written after an intense laudanum-induced dream; poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning largely depended on laudanum to function; and Lord Byron’s daughter, the celebrated mathematician Ada Lovelace, claimed laudanum calmed her overactive mind. The fact that many writers and artists of the Victorian period used laudanum is clear—but what was it about this heady drug that ensnared so many creative people?

Opium has been known since at least 3400 BCE, when the Sumerians produced the first written reference to the drug. The power of opium to dull pain while allowing the user to remain functional meant it was the drug of choice for those suffering both mental and physical anguish. In the 16th century, the alchemist Paracelsus created laudanum (possibly named from Latin words meaning “something to be praised”) by mixing a tincture of opium with alcohol. By the 17th century, the physician and medical pioneer Thomas Sydenham had simplified and standardized the recipe, marketing it as a cure-all. (Today the word laudanum refers to any alcoholic tincture of opium.)

By the 1800s laudanum was widely available—it could be easily purchased from pubs, grocers, barber shops, tobacconists, pharmacies, and even confectioners. The drug was often cheaper than alcohol, making it affordable to all levels of society. It was prescribed for everything from soothing a cranky infant to treating headaches, persistent cough, gout, rheumatism, diarrhea, melancholy, and “women’s troubles.”

 

Laudanum became widely used throughout Victorian society as a medicine, and soon many writers, poets, and artists (along with many ordinary people) became addicted. Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and many others were all known to have used laudanum. Some managed to take it briefly while ill, but others became hopelessly dependent. Most famously, the English writer Thomas De Quincey wrote a whole book—Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821)—on his use of opium and its derivatives. The book proposed that, unlike alcohol, opium improved the creative powers, an opinion that only served to make the drug more appealing to those searching for artistic and literary inspiration. A number of other writers also played on the perceived glamor of the drug, praising its ability to enhance the imagination.

Laudanum’s association with the Romantic poets likely stems from Coleridge’s addiction. Like many of his contemporaries, the poet suffered from poor health, and resorted to laudanum as both a painkiller and a sedative. Coleridge famously admitted that he had composed "Kubla Khan" after waking from an opium-induced reverie. But the drug that was at first inspiring soon became enslaving, and Coleridge’s addiction and resultant health issues plagued him for the rest of his life. The once-vibrant young man became listless and wan, and suffered terribly from withdrawal if he did not get his fix. In an 1814 letter to his friend John Morgan [PDF], Coleridge admitted it was not just the physical effects of the drug that grieved him, but its effects on his character: “I have in this one dirty business of Laudanum an hundred times deceived, tricked, nay, actually & consciously LIED. – And yet all these vices are so opposite to my nature, that but for the free-agency-annihilating Poison, I verily believe that I should have suffered myself to be cut in pieces rather than have committed any one of them.”

The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning first took laudanum at the age of 15 after suffering a spinal injury. After that, she used it for various ailments, including hemorrhaging of the lungs. When she began corresponding with the poet Robert Browning, who would later become her husband, she revealed to him that she took 40 drops of the drug a day—a pretty substantial dose even for an addict.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Image credit: Lewis Carroll via Wikimedia // Public Domain

 
Golden-haired Elizabeth Siddal was another famous laudanum user. The muse, and later wife, of the great pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, she suffered from poor health and became hopelessly addicted to laudanum. For years she continued to function despite her addiction, until she lost a baby daughter in 1861—a tragedy that deepened her desire for the mindless oblivion offered by the drug. In 1862, when she had become pregnant once more, her husband returned from dinner one night to find her unconscious after an overdose. Rossetti called for a doctor, but when the physician sadly announced he could do nothing for her, Rossetti refused to believe the diagnosis and sent for three more doctors, who all confirmed Siddal’s untimely death.

Another famous victim of laudanum addiction was Branwell Brontë, the brother of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. Together the four siblings shared the same tragic and lonely upbringing, which in the sisters unleashed a creative spark that kindled into some of the greatest works in English literature, including Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Yet Branwell, who seemingly shared the same potential talent as a poet and artist (he created respected juvenilia alongside his sisters), instead descended into alcohol and laudanum dependency, his sensibilities seemingly too delicate to take the constant rejections an artist must endure. Branwell died a penniless addict at 31 years old in 1848, just a year after his sisters’ most famous novels were published.

An ad for laudanum in the Sears catalog. Image credit: Mike Mozart via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

That so many writers and artists were known to have taken laudanum is perhaps unsurprising considering that this was an era before aspirin, anti-depressants, or effective sleeping pills. But as the negative effects of laudanum became better-documented—the euphoria it provided was followed by crashing lows, restlessness, torpor, and sweats—it became clear that the drug needed to be better regulated.

Accounts by addicts helped sway public opinion: in one influential piece published in the Journal of Mental Sciences in 1889, a drug-addicted young girl revealed her anguish during withdrawal:

“My principal feeling was one of awful weariness and numbness at the end of my back; it kept me tossing about all day and night long. It was impossible to lie in one position for more than a minute, and of course sleep was out of the question. I was so irritable that no one cared to come near me; mother slept on the sofa in my room, and I nearly kicked her once for suggesting that I should say hymns over to myself, to try and make me go to sleep. Hymns of a very different sort were in my mind, I was once or twice very nearly strangling myself, and I am ashamed to say that the only thing that kept me from doing so was the thought that I would be able to get laudanum somehow. I was conscious of feeling nothing but the mere sense of being alive, and if the house had been burning, would have thought it too much of an effort to rise.”

By 1868 laudanum could only be sold by registered chemists in England and, in a nod to its dangers, had to be clearly labeled as a poison—the first restrictions on its use. In 1899 pure aspirin was developed, a far safer painkiller, heralding an era of better-regulated medicines. And although the tortured writer self-medicating with laudanum became a thing of the past, many other illicit substances soon stepped into the breach—leaving the trope of the drug-addled creative genius safely intact.

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This Week's Best Amazon Deals You Can Still Get
April 30, 2017
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As a recurring feature, we share some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. These items were the ones that were the most popular with our readers this week, and they’re still available.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers (including Amazon) and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

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Warner Bros., IStock
History
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When the FBI Went After Mad Magazine
April 29, 2017
Original image
Warner Bros., IStock

In a memo dated November 30, 1957, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation identified as “A. Jones” raised an issue of critical importance: "Several complaints to the Bureau have been made concerning the 'Mad' comic book [sic], which at one time presented the horror of war to readers."

Attached to the document were pages taken from a recent issue of Mad that featured a tongue-in-cheek game about draft dodging. Players who earned such status were advised to write to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and request a membership card certifying themselves as a “full-fledged draft dodger.” At least three readers, the agent reported, did exactly that.

Mad, of course, was the wildly popular satirical magazine that was reaching upwards of a million readers every other month. Published by William Gaines, who had already gotten into some trouble with Congress when he was called to testify about his gruesome horror comics in 1954, Mad lampooned everyone and everything. But in name-checking the notoriously humorless Hoover, Gaines had invited the wrong kind of attention.

The memo got several facts incorrect: Mad had switched from a comic book to a magazine format in 1955, and it was Gaines’ E.C. Comics that had “presented the horror of war” in other titles. Despite getting these crucial pieces of information wrong, Jones didn’t hesitate to editorialize: "It is also of interest to note that…it is rather unfunny.”

The agent recommended the Bureau’s New York offices “make contact” with Mad’s headquarters to “advise them of our displeasure” and to make sure “that there be no repetition of such misuse of the Director’s name.”

Less than a week later, the Feds entered the hallowed hallways patrolled by Alfred E. Neuman. Their New York office would later report to Hoover directly that they had met with John Putnam, the magazine’s art director. (Conveniently, Gaines was not in that day.) Putnam told the agents he regretted the magazine using Hoover’s name and that nothing malicious was intended:

Putnam said that the use of the membership card and the name and address of the Director at the end of the game was referred to in their business as a 'gag' or 'kicker' in the same way that a comedian like Bob Hope or Milton Berle might use it.

Putnam swore that Mad would never again take Hoover’s name in vain; Gaines sent off a letter of sincere apology to the Director.

The Smoking Gun

Just two years later, in January 1960, Agent A. Jones was forced to file a second notice about the shenanigans at Mad. A recent issue had made not one, but two derogatory mentions of Hoover, including one in which he is blatantly and disrespectfully portrayed as being associated with a vacuum cleaner, “The Honorable J. Edgar Electrolux”:  

Obviously, Gaines was insincere in this promise…and has again placed the Director in a position of ridicule…it is felt we should contact Gaines…and firmly and severely admonish them concerning our displeasure…

It was by now clear Mad was not only polluting young minds, but that Gaines had absolutely no regard for the honorable Hoover’s position.

In June 1961, the FBI’s worst fears had been realized. Detailing an investigation into a Seattle-area extortion attempt led to the following:

Investigation … resulted in gaining admissions from the victim’s 12-year-old son and an 11-year-old companion that they had gotten the idea of preparing an extortion letter after reading the June issue of 'Mad' magazine.   

Working in concert with the Buffalo field office, the FBI determined another letter had been sent by a young boy demanding money in the style of a recent issue’s extortion advice. And there was a third under review that was sent to the agent of some professional wrestlers.

Mad was quickly becoming the scourge of the federal government. The FBI suggested the magazine be brought to the attention of the Attorney General for “instructing [readers] to deliberately violate the Federal Law.” They tried reaching out to Gaines, who was on vacation. (Time and again, Gaines simply not being in the office when called upon seemed to confound the FBI.)

Agent A. Jones, having exhausted all attempts to reason with these irresponsible anarchists, filed one last memo:

Despite assurances, they have continued to publish slurring remarks about the Bureau. In view of this situation, it was deemed useless to protest all such irresponsible remarks to a magazine of this poor judgment and capriciousness … we will have to wait and see if our action will result in increased discretion by this publication.

Poor A. Jones was unable to put an end to Mad’s reign of terror. But the magazine redeemed itself somewhat. In the 1970s, when the Bureau was trying to suppress the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, an agent suggested they copy and distribute a sticker from the magazine that read, “Support Mental Illness—Join the Klan!”

Hoover said no.

Additional Sources:
The Smoking Gun.

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