Ladies Love Laudanum

Ladies Love Laudanum

Sleepy Juice

Using “sleepy juice” has often saved a mother much trouble. Remember Dimetapp (, which was used to treat nose stuffiness and allergies? I confess that I used this when my children were small to help relieve their cold symptoms, following pediatric dosage guides, of course. It also made them sleepy, which was a relief for all concerned.

In Lifelines – The Bowen Love Letters, which covers twelve years of personal correspondence between 1846 and 1858, Katie Bowen shared a harmless sore throat recipe with her mother, Catherine Cary. Below is an excerpt from Katie’s February 3, 1851 letter to her mother:

I have a recipe that Mrs. Ricketts sent for Susan’s throat. She says she used it for hers, and her health has never been so good as now. Here it is:

  • Cod liver oil – one ounce
  • Mucilage of gum arabic – two ounces
  • Simple syrup – one ounce

Rub up the oil very gradually and intimately with the mucilage, and then add the syrup. Take a dessert spoonful two hours before breakfast for three weeks, and after that take another at night two hours after eating.

At that time in 19th century America, there were products on the market that were way less harmless. One famous product was Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, a morphine and alcohol concoction that was marketed to parents of fussy children as a “perfectly harmless and pleasant” way to produce a “natural quiet sleep, by relieving the child from pain.”

Cocaine was also used as a remedy for head and chest congestion. Allen’s Cocaine Tablets claimed to not only treat excessive mucus buildup and sore throats, but also psychosomatic conditions like nervousness and sleeplessness. These tablets would presumably dissolve in the mouth and enter the body through the mucous membranes.

Because cocaine constricts blood vessels, it does have some decongestant effects: Constricting blood vessels in the mucous membranes of the nose, for example, opens up nasal passageways for easier breathing. However, it also constricts blood vessels in the brain, which can cause strokes (even in users without other risk factors), and blood vessels in the heart, which can cause heart attacks (even in users without heart disease). And rather than curing nervousness and sleeplessness, cocaine’s stimulant properties increase heart rate, exacerbate symptoms of anxiety and elicit sleep disturbances among a plethora of other symptoms.

In Lifelines – The Bowen Love Letters, Katie and Isaac Bowen were both well-educated, well-read, and had advice from and access to country physicians and military surgeons. However, many common medical complaints of the era – including cholera, whooping cough, heart failure, consumption (tuberculosis), pneumonia, cholera, and yellow fever – were misunderstood by them, and mistreated as a result.  

In a July 3, 1849 letter to her mother from Fort Mifflin, near Philadelphia, Katie called cholera the “summer complaint.” From her letters, it was clear that neither the cause, nor cure, were commonly known.

This post seems perfectly healthy, though we are very particular about our food just now for fear something might happen when we get the bellyache. We take a little laudanum, brandy and sugar and it has the effect to keep off disease. We have got an excellent cholera medicine made up and I will send it to you in case any of the children should have summer complaint.

  • Laudanum, 1 drachm
  • Ethereal tincture of valerian 1/2 oz.
  • Capsicum, 2 drachm
  • Spirits of camphor, 4 drachm
  • Essence of peppermint, 2 drachm
  • Dose: 30 to 60 drops every half hour

America’s Problem with Laudanum

America’s opiate problem stretches back to the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620. Among the Pilgrims was physician Samuel Fuller, and in his kit bag he may have carried an early form of laudanum, the opium/alcohol tincture first created by famed Swiss alchemist, Paracelsus (1493-1541), who is credited as the “father of toxicology.”

Like other opiates, laudanum is derived from the opium poppy (the “joy plant” as the Sumerians called it 5,000 years ago). Like all opiates, it was an effective pain killer, an anti-diarrheal, and a soporific. In the rough frontier of early America, opiates helped ease the pain brought on by such ailments as smallpox, cholera, and dysentery.

By the middle of the 19th century, recreational opiate use was becoming more common. The scaremongering press condemned Chinese opium dens, playing up the drug’s immigrant associations. Most Americans didn’t need an opium den to get their fix, though. By then, opiates were the main ingredient in everything from teething powders to analgesics for menstrual cramps. Patent medicines – so-called because they often contained secret “patented” ingredients – flooded the market. Some served a useful purpose, but they also became easy methods to get high.

The Prevalence of Cholera in America

Cholera is an infectious disease that causes severe watery diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration and possibly death if untreated. It is caused by eating food or drinking water contaminated with a bacterium called Vibrio cholerae.

Cholera was prevalent in the U.S. in the 1800s, before modern water and sewage treatment systems eliminated its spread by contaminated water. The disease is most common in places with poor sanitation, crowding, war, and famine. Vibrio cholerae is usually found in food or water contaminated by feces from a person with the infection. When a person consumes the contaminated food or water, the bacteria release a toxin in the intestines that produces severe diarrhea.

Hydration is the mainstay of treatment for cholera. If not treated, dehydration can lead to shock and death in a matter of hours. The first vaccines used against cholera were developed in the late 1800s. They were the first widely used vaccine that was made in a laboratory.

The Bowens and Cholera

In Lifelines – The Bowen Love Letters, we hear about Isaac Bowen’s first incidence of cholera in 1847 during the Mexican War.

From Saltillo, Mexico on May 29, 1847, Isaac wrote to his wife:

I boasted Wednesday of being in perfect health, but on Thursday morning I was violently attacked with “cholera morbus” and have suffered a great deal for two days, but the doctor assures me that I am now in a situation that I require only a good appetite for a few days to restore me entirely to health and strength.

On July 3, 1849 from their posting at Fort Mifflin, near Philadelphia, Katie wrote to her mother about cholera and included a recipe to avoid it:

I make no objection to Isaac visiting his parents, but I shall fret all the time he is gone on account of the heat and cholera. Sixty-five cases and twenty-four deaths were reported in town yesterday. The city looks very clean, but I could smell all sorts of things the moment we stepped on shore. I should not be willing to spend much time there. This post seems perfectly healthy, though we are very particular about our food just now for fear something might happen when we get the bellyache. We take a little laudanum, brandy and sugar and it has the effect to keep off disease. We have got an excellent cholera medicine made up and I will send it to you in case any of the children should have summer complaint.

  • Laudanum, 1 drachm
  • Ethereal tincture of valerian 1/2 oz.
  • Capsicum, 2 drachm
  • Spirits of camphor, 4 drachm
  • Essence of peppermint, 2 drachm
  • Dose: 30 to 60 drops every half hour

In a July 11, 1849 letter to Katie from Buffalo, New York, Isaac wrote:  

The country people keep aloof as though the plague were raging here, and in reality, it is to a certain extent, in the shape of the cholera. The courts have all been adjourned till September as it was impossible to get jurors and witnesses from the country. As this is the only prevailing disease, I do not feel in the least alarmed, putting my trust in Providence and my cholera medicine.

In a July 15, 1849 letter, Katie wrote to her sister-in-law from Fort Mifflin:

Several days this week were quite oppressive, but yesterday we had a young hurricane and severe shower of rain, which cooled the air, and I hope will cheat the cholera. The disease has been on the increase in town for a week past, but the greatest mortality prevails in the alms house, where the poor creatures have little or no attendance. I think there is no danger if a person is careful in diet, keeps from the night air, and does not overexert themselves.

Returning to Fort Mifflin after a trip to Buffalo, New York, Issac Bowen was taken ill. Katie wrote to her mother on July 23, 1849:

Isaac has reached home. He came on Wednesday – three days before his letter, which was written a week before he reached here. He is pretty well now, but was stretched on his back for two days after his arrival. The Sunday he spent in Buffalo he was taken quite ill in church and had to go home and go to bed, and take violent doses of opium for the cholera. He got better, but before Monday evening when he was to start, he felt the symptoms coming on, but kept silent, took fifty drops of laudanum, and started, determined not to be away from home if he could get here. At Rochester he repeated the dose and never stopped on the way, but reached here Wednesday afternoon. He was quite reduced, but with mustard poultices on his bowels, and mutton broth inside, I nursed him well. He has lost fifteen pounds and his clothes hang quite gracefully. I cannot be thankful enough that he came when he did, for a few days more would have made him very bad.

Again from Fort Mifflin, Katie wrote to her mother on August 5, 1849:

I received no letter from home yesterday, but trust that you are all well. This place continues healthy, and I believe that the cholera is fast disappearing from Philadelphia. Have you heard of there being any cases in Bangor, or on the St. John River? Down east will probably escape, as it did before. It seems very strange that the doctors do not learn how to treat the disease. They seem as ignorant as ever in the treatment of it.

In late 1850, Isaac Bowen was promoted to the rank of captain and named Chief of Commissary for the New Mexico Territory. From Buffalo, New York, the Bowens traveled by a series of steamboats to St. Louis, Missouri, where they stayed at the Planter’s House Hotel for a few weeks before proceeding to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Katie wrote to her mother on March 29, 1851:

We have our windows open to get the fresh air and I have set the chambermaid and one of the boys to cleaning our room. Such another dirty place you never saw, as it was when we came in, and I told them I did not wonder that they all died of cholera, if they lived in so much dirt. 

As the Bowens prepared to travel the Santa Fe Trail from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to Fort Union, New Mexico Territory, Katie wrote to her mother about cholera on the trail:

May 31, 1851 – Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

Colonel Sumner and his large command started last Monday and I went to camp to see them off. The ladies were in good spirits and looked comfortable in their nice carriages (a large species of our old carryall). We can easily overtake them in seventeen days, or at the crossing of the Arkansas, if we can start on Tuesday. But unless we get off then, we will take the safe way and patronize the pigs and sheep. There has been some sickness, the cholera, among the recruits who came off the boat two weeks ago, but not a case here in the garrison. Isaac was threatened with another chill on Sunday last, but warded it off by taking a physic and working the bile off. He now has a pretty good appetite, but is fretted to death that these contractors act so badly.

June 7, 1851 – Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

Several men in some of the contractor’s wagon trains, camping out in this cold, damp weather, have died from cholera, but no cases within the garrison. These men in camp had not even brandy or camphor and their employers deserve severe censure for not furnishing medicine.

June 14, 1851- Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

We are well and in excellent condition to start out. Isaac did not get strong in his stomach until I persuaded him to take some of the iron pills and drink sarsaparilla that I put in gin and made good bitters. You know I brought some of the dry root with me and it has worked wonders. He is now getting a little appetite and feels some life to move, but before he did not want to taste a mouthful, and had that gnawing at the stomach all the time. He had a touch of the jaundice, too, for his eyes looked as Holman’s do when he has the headache.

The ground is completely saturated, and the ox train that was to leave today is waiting a day longer, because they gain no time in traveling while the roads are so wet. When the roads get dry, they will go twice as far in a day as they could now. Those who went three weeks ago have had a sorry time. The heavy rains caused some sickness and one of the surgeons, Alfred Kennedy, died eight days out, whether from actual cholera or from diseases caused by the weather, we don’t know. There have been cases of cholera among the recruits just off the boats, but not one case within garrison.

June 20, 1851 – Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

There is no sickness in the garrison. What cases they have had in the hospital have been from the companies of recruits that came up the Mississippi after a sea voyage from New York, and of course if cholera is anywhere, it is on shipboard. Captain Sherman, our old friend, writes that there is very little sickness of any kind in St. Louis, and no cholera. In Weston, the little town above here, on the opposite side of the river, there have been several fatal cases, and some persons who had friends here have come down to stay, because this is most always a healthy spot. It is high enough, as I can attest after climbing the hill from the steamboat landing.

Katie’s last reference to cholera was on June 26, 1851, on the Santa Fe Trail, at Pottawatomie Creek. Katie wrote this in her journal:

Our camping ground tonight is lovely, a green bank sloping down to the stream with plenty of shade and a glorious breeze. Today we have noticed several graves by the roadside where the poor fellows of Colonel Sumner’s command lie buried after the horrors of cholera and giving up the ghost, without friends to mark their mounds.

For the Bowen family between 1846 and 1858, there were other instances when substances like laudanum, morphine, creosote, calomel (mercurous chloride) and alcohol were used to treat ear aches, tooth aches, sore throats, Isaac’s occasional bouts of cholera, and for pain relief after Katie broke her leg. However, Katie and Isaac seemed aware of the dangers of laudanum and morphine if used improperly.

20th Century Recognition of Laudanum as Addictive

Per Wikipedia, until the early 20th century, laudanum was sold without a prescription and was a constituent of many patent medicines. Today, laudanum is recognized as addictive and is strictly regulated and controlled as such throughout most of the world. The United States Uniform Controlled Substances Act, for one example, lists it on Schedule II.

Laudanum is known as a “whole opium” preparation since it historically contained all the opium alkaloids. Today, however, the drug is often processed to remove all or most of the noscapine (also called narcotine) present as this is a strong emetic and does not add appreciably to the analgesic or antipropulsive properties of opium; the resulting solution is called Denarcotized Tincture of Opium or Deodorized Tincture of Opium (DTO).

Laudanum remains available by prescription in the United States and theoretically in the United Kingdom, although today the drug’s therapeutic indications are generally confined to controlling diarrhea, alleviating pain, and easing withdrawal symptons in infants born to mothers addicted to heroin or other opioids. Recent enforcement action by the U.S. FDA against manufacturers of paregoric and opium tincture suggests that opium tincture’s availability in the U.S. may be in jeopardy.

The terms laudanum and tincture of opium are generally interchangeable, but in contemporary medical practice the latter is used almost exclusively.