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Opium Use in the 19th Century

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This is a guest post by Amira Dehmani, a student at Stanford University who worked with the Library’s education team as a 2022 Liljenquist Family Fellow.

Advertisement for Dr. McMunn's Elixir of OpiumOpioid medicines are used today primarily as painkillers, but in the 19th century, advertisers claimed that they could be used for much more. In 1840, a broadside for “Dr. McMunn’s Elixir of Opium” claimed that the drug was able to “produce sleep and composure, relieve pain and irritation, nervous excitement and morbid irritability of body and mind, [and] allay convulsive and spasmodic actions.” However, this treatment was also portrayed as having serious consequences.  An 1887 newspaper column, “The Opium Habit. The Most Abject of Slaveries- Is There Any Emancipation?,” described opium addicts as “hopeless, helpless slaves, mind weakened, lacking energy for any effort toward recovery, rapidly drifting into imbecility and untimely graves. A peculiar feature is that victims craftily conceal it from their nearest friends.” The column concludes with testimonials for a different product touted as offering a “safe cure.” A book published in 1868, The Opium Habit, described the extent and effects of opium use and also described possible cures for addiction.

Image of Michael Dunn, soldier who had his legs amputated and is sitting in a wheel chair
Michael Dunn. G.W. Hope, photographer

Opium and morphine were widely used during the American Civil War. Because Civil War soldiers–including Sergeant Alfred A. Stratton and Michael Dunn, whose portraits can be found in the Library’s online collections–experienced amputations and other painful medical procedures, opium and morphine gained popularity as pain management drugs. Thousands of veterans grew addicted, sometimes with deadly results. In 1876,  The Daily Free Press of Trenton, New Jersey, reported that, “Wm. Perrin was found dead in his bed. While in Libby Prison he had a leg badly amputated, and was in the habit of using morphine. It is supposed that he died from an overdose of that drug.”

Notably, while some African American soldiers also endured amputations and other medical procedures, addiction seems to have been much less common. This could have been caused by the disparity in medical access for Black soldiers, or by persistent medical myths about African American people. In an article published in 1886, Dr. Tipton of Selma, Alabama, suggested that African American people were “little susceptible to malaria, diphtheria, croup, deafness, insanity, and the opium habit.”

Teaching Activities

  • Ask students to read the accounts of opium addiction in the Southern Standard and The Daily Free Press. What  symptoms of opium addiction do they name? Ask students to consider why they think each account was written.
  • Ask students to analyze primary sources from the Liljenquist Collection to learn more about medical practices and conditions of the Civil War, such as make-shift operating rooms and mass amputations. How might these have contributed to addiction? What else may have contributed?
  • Patent medicines like “Warners Safe Cure” claimed to reverse liver and kidney disease created by opium addiction. Political cartoons compared products like these to poison. Allow time for students to examine and analyze the advertisement and the political cartoon. What conclusions can they draw about the safety of the products? What questions do they have?

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