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The Victorians' Favorite Drug

A couple hundred years ago, before aspirin and drugs that dealt with specific health problems, people could seek relief from not only physical pain, but also stress and depression with laudanum. It’s easy to see how, as the drug was a tincture of opium in alcohol. In the first half of the 18th century, you could get it over the counter. Laudanum gained a reputation as the answer to everything.

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…

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