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'The laudanum evil': The 19th century opiate epidemic in Maryland

Thousands of Marylanders have died from opioid overdoses in recent years, with a surge in deaths from fentanyl. But our present-day opiate epidemic has a Victorian precursor.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, hundreds, if not thousands, of Marylanders died by overdosing on laudanum, a mixture of opium and alcohol. Then available at local pharmacies, the drug was used to treat insomnia, headaches, menstrual cramps, colic in babies and more.

The pages of The Baltimore Sun were filled with accounts of people who died after taking it, often driven by lost love, lost business, sickness and, sometimes, sheer ignorance.

A respected sea captain swallowed a fatal dose in 1879 after running into business troubles. Gertrude Staleup, “despondent over her inability to obtain work,” took a lethal dose in 1898, The Sun reported. Miss Simmons of Cumberland, 25, overdosed on the drug rather than die by consumption in 1905. Perhaps the saddest case of all was 7-year-old Lillie Benjamin, a Baltimore girl who died after her mother mistook a bottle of the stuff for ipecac in 1896. The bottles were side by side, “and the fact that the two liquids were nearly the same color was one of the causes of the fatal mistake,” according to The Sun.

Modern readers may experience déjà vu when reading of legislation proposed in attempts to quell the deaths in the face of a mounting drug supply — called “the laudanum evil” in one Sun editorial. “Another prohibition is needed,” warned an 1855 piece arguing for tougher drug laws.

Yet the value of the opium and morphine trade more than doubled from 1898 to 1902, according to newspaper accounts, going from less than $1 million to $2.56 million. Professor H.P. Hynson of Baltimore warned in 1902 that “use of habit forming drugs is largely increasing.”

ctkacik@baltsun.com

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