The “Worst Species of Inebriety:” Opiate Addiction in Antebellum NYC

By Jonathan S. Jones

Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) in Joseph Carson, Illustrations of Medical Botany: Consisting of Coloured Figures of the Plants Affording the Important Articles of the Meteria Medica and Descriptive Letterpress Vol I (Philadelphia: Robert P. Smith, 1847).

Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) in Joseph Carson, Illustrations of Medical Botany: Consisting of Coloured Figures of the Plants Affording the Important Articles of the Meteria Medica and Descriptive Letterpress Vol I (Philadelphia: Robert P. Smith, 1847).

Lately it seems like opioid addiction is in New York City’s newspapers nearly every day. New Yorkers, alongside Americans around the country, are inundated with story after story after story about the United States’ ongoing opioid crisis, and for good reason. Decades in the making, the crisis is only now reaching its grim fever pitch. In 2017, more than seventy thousand Americans died of drug overdoses, and most of those deaths involved heroin, fentanyl, and other opioids. That adds up to more overdose deaths in a single year than all American deaths in the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined.

The media frenzy surrounding the opioid crisis tends to frame the problem as unprecedented. Situating today’s opioid crisis in its long historical context, however, reveals that while the staggering number of deaths is extraordinary, the opioid addiction crisis itself is anything but new. Indeed, New Yorkers have been plagued by addiction to opiates since before the Civil War. New York City’s exceptional historical records, including its prolific newspapers and long-running, extant coroner’s reports, provide a harrowing portrait of the opiate addiction crisis that stalked antebellum New York City.

Addiction to opiates emerged in New York City as a vexing social and public health problem during the first decades of the nineteenth century, when the city matured into an international commercial hub. This pattern mirrored other east coast cities, especially Boston. As opium imported from China and Turkey flooded east coast cities in early nineteenth century, medicinal opiates including opium pills, opium’s tincture laudanum, and morphine sulphate became affordable and widely available. Simultaneously, many American physicians invested their professional identity in “heroic medicine.” Heroic doctors prescribed medicinal opiates with gusto. Consequentially, opiates emerged as the most widely prescribed medicine of the nineteenth century. Taken together, the increased supply and heightened medicinal use of opiates generated a wave of opiate addiction during the antebellum decades.

Most opiate addiction was caused by physicians’ prescriptions, as one New Yorker explained in The New York Daily News in 1852. “I know of one case,” wrote “Candor,” of a “gentleman [who] was afflicted for several years with Neuralgia. His sufferings were intense and his physician prescribed Morphine. The doses increased until they became enormously large… the poor sufferer had contracted what was far worse, a nervous condition which demanded the continuance of the Opium.” The addicted man tried to quit the narcotic, but to no avail: “He deeply lamented his bondage and made desperate efforts to free himself, but in vain.”[1] Because opiates were so widely used — in half or more of all prescriptions, as well as many patent medicines and home remedies — countless antebellum New Yorkers of all stripes found themselves in similar circumstances.[2] Opiates flowed freely from the city’s pharmacies, as the pharmaceutical industry was unregulated, and would remain so until the progressives implemented effective narcotics laws during the progressive era. “Opium eating” quickly emerged as a public health concern during the 1830s, ’40s, and ‘50s, drawing the attention of the city’s press.

NYC coroners investigating deaths in 1876, image courtesy of NYPL.

NYC coroners investigating deaths in 1876, image courtesy of NYPL.

New York City newspapers covered medicinal opiate addiction heavily throughout the antebellum decades. Outlets including The New York Herald, The New York Daily Tribune, and the New-York Daily Times — today The New York Times — regularly published stories about opiate addiction. Like today’s coverage of the opioid crisis, antebellum newspapers coverage both illustrated the frequency of opiate addiction among New Yorkers and served to ratchet up public fears about addiction. Coupled with coroners’ reports, these stories paint a dire picture of antebellum New York City’s opiate crisis.

Much coverage focused on the link between opiate addiction and fatal overdose. Opiates were — and still are — dangerous drugs, and their abuse often to overdose, both accidental and intentional. Indeed, swallowing a massive dose of laudanum was one of the most common ways to commit suicide in nineteenth century America. As one writer explained about the relationship between opiates and suicide, “the use of opium has a powerful tendency to bring about this state of things.”[3] At least 402 New Yorkers died of opiate overdoses between about 1823 and 1849, according to reports of some 9,700 deaths kept by the New York City coroner.[4] Opiate overdose was thus responsible for more than four percent of the city’s recorded deaths between during the period, a substantial portion.

Many overdose deaths were classified by the coroner as suicides. Apparent suicides, however, were murky. City coroners attempted to investigate the circumstances of deaths within the city, but oftentimes investigators could only speculate about suicidal intent. Whether or not individuals intended to commit suicide was — and still is — ambiguous and hard to nail down. Those who committed apparent suicide in the nineteenth century rarely left notes to explain their actions, or even if they intended to die at all, as the historian Diane Miller Sommerville explains.[5] For example, on June 6, 1843 Sarah Barker “took a quantity of laudanum,” according to the coroner’s report, and died.[6] But did she mean to kill herself? The coroner could not conclusively determine her intent, so the circumstances of Barker’s fatal overdose were as unclear then as they are now. Certainly, many people gulped laudanum to commit “self-murder,” as the newspapers sometimes labeled suicide.

Yet many of the apparent suicides recorded in the antebellum New York City coroner’s records and newspapers were likely accidental overdoses, a pattern indicating that opiate addiction was a public health problem in the city. In 1859, the Times editors warned readers that suicide and fatal overdoses were on the rise in New York City, and this alarming pattern was to blame, in part, on the abuse of opium and other substances.[7] Like today, those addicted to opiates during the antebellum years were much more likely to fatally overdose on opiates than the general population, a consequence of the high doses of laudanum, opium, and morphine required to sustain an addicted person who developed tolerance to the drugs’ effect.

By mid-century, New York City’s opiate addiction crisis reached alarming new heights. In 1852, the physician John S. Schofield shocked the city with a series of reports in the Daily Times in which he alleged that opium eating was perilously on the rise. He estimated the city’s 500 pharmacies sold 1,000 pounds of opium per week, enough to support a substantial population of opiate addicted New Yorkers. Indeed, Schofield offered eyewitness testimony that “recruits from the alcoholic ranks” had converted their intemperance into opium addiction because opium was cheaper than alcohol. “Something should be done at once to meet and arrest the evil,” he warned, which was the “worst species of inebriety.”[8] Schofield’s warnings were widely reprinted, reverberating throughout the U.S. Even the Galveston Journal, a medical journal published thousands of miles away in Texas’s Gulf Coast, echoed Schofield’s claims.[9]

Schofield’s warnings touched a nerve locally, as well. New York City readers sent a flurry of letters to city newspapers in response to Schofield’s findings. “We have seen a great deal of opium-eating” of late, another doctor warned in a center column, above-the-fold column in November 1852.[10] A third man applauded the Daily Times’s coverage of opiate addiction, writing in a letter to the editor: “I have noticed with gratitude, your occasional efforts to awaken attention to the powerful mischief growing out of the habit of using Opium, which seems to be greatly on the increase in this country.”[11]

Antebellum New Yorkers, like many Americans today, debated the proper response to the emerging opiate addiction crisis. Should addicts be condemned for their “habits,” or should they extend a measure of sympathy? The issue struck a chord with New Yorkers because, like alcohol intemperance, opiate addiction was associated with moral degeneracy, and therefore stigmatized. Some coverage of the city’s addiction crisis therefore condemned opiate addicts for their perceived vices. Like drunkenness, explained one writer, opium eating, “make[s] men beat their wives or starve their children,” “induces a suspension of the will,” and “brings its subjects down to hopeless imbecility.”[12]

A surprising volume of commentators disagreed, however, and called for sympathy for the victims of the opium habit. Responding to an 1859 editorial lamenting the perceived increase in suicides in the city, one doctor lambasted the Times editors for victim-blaming opiate addicts who fatally overdosed. He called for sympathy for medicinal opiate addicts, who were exposed by doctors or friends “while on the bed of affliction” and “had no hand in bringing it upon themselves.” “It is,” he explained, “almost death for them to be deprived of,” opium, and most would happily seek treatment for their addictions if extended the opportunity, he claimed. “They of course,” the writer concluded, “should be entitled to our sympathy.”[13] Many other writers agreed, and some went further still. “Candor” not only called for sympathy on behalf of addicted New Yorkers, but also urged for doctors to publish a cure for addiction: “Let some philanthropic physician kindly advise through your columns, any who may be struggling to get free from this despotic master. It is not necessary to rebuke or abuse him. He feels his sin and misery already. Show him how to break his chain.”[14]

Opiate addiction soon eclipsed New York City’s newspapers and coroner’s reports, storming into the national news cycle after the Civil War. From the late 1860s through the early twentieth century, media outlets reported that opiate addiction was on the rise among not only New Yorkers, but also wounded and sick Civil War veterans, Chinese immigrants, white-collar professionals, and “nervous” women invalids around the country. This Gilded Age explosion of media reports about opiate addiction has led historians to the conclusion that opiate addiction was essentially a non-issue before the late nineteenth century. Yet as the example of antebellum New York City reveals, this interpretation largely misses the mark. As the city’s newspapers and coroner documented in harrowing detail, antebellum New York Cory suffered a dire opiate addiction crisis long predating that of the Gilded Age.

Jonathan S. Jones is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Binghamton University. This research is derived from his dissertation, a history of opiate addiction in the US Civil War era. He can be reached on twitter or by email.

Notes

[1] “The Use of Opium,” The New York Times (November 6, 1852), 3.

[2] John Harley Warner, The Therapeutic Perspective: Medical Practice, Knowledge, and Identity in America, 1820-1885 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986), chapter 4.

[3] “Victims of Opium,” The New York Times (August 16, 1859), 3.

[4] Calculated using coroner’s reports published in Kenneth Scott, Coroners' reports New York City, 1823-1842 (New York : The New York Genealogical & Biographical Society, 1989) and Kenneth Scott, Coroners' reports, New York City, 1843-1849 (New York : The New York Genealogical & Biographical Society, 1991).

[5] Diane Miller Sommerville, Aberration of Mind: Suicide and Suffering in the Civil War-Era South(Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 7-8.

[6] Scott, Coroners' reports, New York City, 1843-1849, 8.

[7] “Alarming Increase in Suicides,” The New York Times (August 3, 1859), 4.

[8] “Opium Eating,” The New York Times (August 5, 1852), 1; “Opium Eating in New York,” Scientific American, no. 9 (November 13, 1852); “Opium Eating,” The New York Times (November 4, 1852), 3.

[9] The Galveston Journal, no. 21 (Friday, June 9, 1854), 4.

[10] “Opium Eating,” The New York Times (November 6, 1852), 1.

[11] “The Use of Opium,” The New York Times (November 6, 1852), 3.

[12] “Our Fashionable Narcotics,” The New York Times (January 10, 1854), 4.

[13] “Victims of Opium,” 3.

[14] “The Use of Opium,” 3.