• Weird History

History of Opium Use in the United States

The use of opium in the United States goes all the way back to the Pilgrims, who settled in Plymouth Colony in the 17th century. Physicians who traveled to America likely brought with them a drug known as laudanum, which contained 10% powered opium, to treat common ailments. The history of opium in the US evolved from a medical treatment to a recreational drug. Women were prescribed variants of opium to treat gender-specific issues, while moms fed their children morphine-spiked syrups to rid them of coughs. By the late 19th century, opiates were a habit or addiction for many Americans.

The modern-day opioid epidemic affects thousands of Americans, which got its start in West Virginia. In 2015, 52,000 people died from an opiate overdose in the U.S. It's such a lucrative business that one doctor murdered his wife when she threatened to expose his prescription opioid ring. If the trend continues, it's estimated that nearly 500,000 more will die within the next 10 years.

  • A 16th Century Physician Named Paracelsus Created Laudanum From Opium

    In the 1500s, Swiss physician Paracelsus created laudanum, which is opium power diluted in alcohol. Taken orally, it was a potent narcotic used to treat a wide variety of ailments. Paracelsus is famous for saying, “All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.” In other words, it's not the drug that's the problem, it's the amount that can be dangerous. Paracelsus developed laudanum after determining that opium is soluble in alcohol. His tincture included not only opium but also ground-up gold and pearls.

  • Photo: Anonymous / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Early Americans Used Laudanum To Treat Diarrhea, Smallpox, And Other Diseases

    When the Pilgrims traveled to America, it’s probable that they brought laudanum with them to treat common ailments. Derived from the opium poppy, the pain killer was used as both a sleeping aid and as a treatment for diarrhea. Laudanum was a crucial drug during the Pilgrims’ transition to a new land. Patients took it to treat diseases including smallpox, cholera, and dysentery.

  • Photo: Anonymous / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Opium Dens Became Common At The Turn Of The Century

    Many Chinese men immigrated to the United States in the 1840s and '50s to work on the nation’s railroads. They brought opium with them and began operating opium dens in San Francisco, California. These drug palaces were frequented by people of various economic backgrounds. Drug users would usually buy opium at a store owned by a Chinese shopkeeper. It cost approximately $8 for a five-ounce tin filled with the drug. Users smoked opium while hanging out on bunks and carpets. The dens also gave patrons drug paraphernalia when needed.

  • Morphine, Created From Opium, Was A Pain Reliever During The Civil War

    Around 620,000 people were killed during the Civil War, and many of them died not in battle, but because of disease and infection. Medical practitioners struggled to treat all of their patients, and the main medication they used was morphine. Doctors considered morphine a "wonder drug" because it worked so well to numb pain. Unfortunately, it was more addictive than opium.