I had a friend (now deceased, sadly) who used to write “Phantom of the Opera” fan fiction. (Maybe we should call it “Phan fiction.”) She shared one with me in which the heroine was constantly being given laudanum by a man looking to control her. And I didn’t want to admit it, but I had never heard of laudanum. I asked Mary, who reads a lot of Victorian romance, if she had heard of it, and she said “Of course, it shows up in a lot of my books.” Still had no idea what it was, but I assumed, based on the woman’s behavior in my friend’s story, it was some kind of an intoxicant that was addictive.
Well, I did some reading up on it, and learned it was opium mixed with alcohol as a tincture. That explained why it was so addictive. It was discovered by a Swiss alchemist named Phillip von Hohenheim, who took on the name Paracelsus after a First Century Roman physician. “Paracelsus” sang the praises of this new drug, which he named laudanum because he was singing its praises.
To be sure, it was effective as a painkiller. To this day, people are given opiates to dull their pain. I was prescribed hydrocodone with acetaminophen when I had my periodontal work done. Turns out I didn’t need it, but I had the prescription filled because, as a friend of mine in the inventory business used to say, “I’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it.” Morphine is regularly prescribed for people suffering with cancer, particularly in the end stages where the pain can be excruciating. We used to be able to buy cough syrup with codeine over the counter in the Sixties.
Likewise, laudanum was used for almost every ache and pain during Victorian times. It was effective for dealing with menstrual cramps, colds, even yellow fever. It was effective against diarrhea because, like every opiate, it caused constipation. It was marketed freely in both England and the United States under such names as Godfrey’s Cocktail and Bailey’s Quieting Syrup.
It’s now a Class 2 drug, still available but by prescription only. Making opiates prescription drugs hasn’t prevented people from abusing them. In fact, the problem has only gotten worse.