Muntfest – Victorian Drug Use

This entry is part 8 of 19 in the series Countercultural History

Britain´s Victorian era saw the widespread recreational use of an array of mind-altering substances, at least partially due to the expansion of the Empire accelerating the introduction of new drugs from overseas. Vast quantities were consumed by all social classes – alcohol, opium, hashish, cocaine, heroin, laudanum, barbiturates and depressants were easily available for pleasure and widely prescribed for a host of ailments. On the basis that Victorian use of these substances has been extensively discussed elsewhere (and in the interest of brevity), I shall not be covering those substances listed above, but there is a wealth of fascinating documentation available if you have a look around. Instead, I shall focus on the slightly more obscure –

Discovered in 1832, the oft-abused chloral hydrate was a sedative and hypnotic also used as a chemical reagent and precursor. The first depressant developed specifically for the induction of sleep, it was marketed as being non-addictive, yet in reality was often extremely habit forming. It was widely used recreationally from c1869 onwards and, in solution with alcohol, comprised the infamous “knockout drop” or “Mickey Finn”. Other routes of ingestion included enemas and even as an ingredient in some French and Swiss chocolate.

A more exclusive class of munter was those with access to the first of the anaesthetic gases, nitrous oxide (forty years prior to its initial medical use as such). Huffing the dissociative caused states of euphoria, waking dreams, sedation and fits of laughter (leading to the coining of the name “laughing gas”). From 1799 until at least 1863 the specialized nature of the equipment needed to inhale the intoxicant, together with the low frequency of medical usage (and thus supply) limited the use of nitrous mainly to medical students and members of the upper classes, who imbibed at exclusive “laughing gas parties” and “sweet gas salons”. By the latter quarter of the century it had become so popular that some enterprising folk started to sell designer masks for nos inhalation (paralleled by the modern availability of solid silver snorting tubes, razor blades and the like).

In the early part of the nineteenth century people had begun to realize that the anaesthetic vapours of ether could alter consciousness too (a mixture of chloroform and ethanol, it could also be taken orally). In 1850 the British government enacted a strict tax on alcoholic drinks, causing Northern Ireland to become rife with ether abuse; these “angelic vapours” were “preferred in some ways, and especially among the poor, to the now-expensive whiskey. The drunk was quick and cheap, and could be achieved several times a day without a hangover. If arrested for drunkenness, the offender would be sober by the time the police station was reached.” In the 1870s many cases of chronic gastritis and terminal overdose (not to mention an increased incidence of death by fire – ether is extremely flammable!) were reported by physicians, and towards the end of the century regulations limiting its sale were brought in. Strangely however, until at least the first quarter of the twentieth century many respected authorities (including the Encyclopaedia Britannica) believed “the habit of ether-drinking is certainly not so injurious as alcoholism.” Hard science there!

The final anaesthetic we´ll cover, chloroform, was discovered in 1831, independently yet simultaneously in France, Germany and the USA. In 1847 it was introduced to Scotland for use in anaesthesia during surgery and childbirth; its proponent Dr. James Y. Simpson later bringing chloroform to public notice when he administered it to Queen Victoria, during the birth of her eighth child, in 1863. Whilst never anywhere near as prevalent as that of ether, recreational chloroform use continued for a while, then gradually fell into general disrepute (likely due to the hazard of sudden death from overdose).

Now, while it is a belief based mainly on supposition on my part, I am fairly certain that a small stratum of Victorian society must have experimented with some of the hallucinogens too (steampunk psychonauts anyone?). As is still the case to the present day, several varieties of psilocybin mushroom and the fly agaric grew in the wild around the British Isles and I would think that, due to these fungi’s sporadic yet documented use in the centuries prior to the 1800s, at least a small number of individuals would have been inquisitive enough to explore the consciousness altering properties of these mushrooms…

The first well-documented (accidental) mushroom experience in the UK took place in London in 1799, when a man picking edible mushrooms managed to inadvertently dose himself, his wife and his kids, causing a state of confusion and “…black spots and odd flashes of colour bursting across his vision…disorientat(ion)…difficulty in standing and moving…stomach cramps and cold, numb extremities.”

As reported in The Medical and Physical Journal;
“The family’s symptoms were rising and falling in giddy waves, their pupils dilated, their pulses and breathing becoming fluttering and laboured, then returning to normal before accelerating into another crisis. They were all fixated on the fear that they were dying, except for the youngest, the eight-year-old Edward S, whose symptoms were the strangest of all – he had eaten a large portion of the mushrooms and was “attacked with fits of immoderate laughter” which his parents’ threats could not subdue. He seemed to have been transported into another world, from which he would only return under duress to speak nonsense; ‘when roused and interrogated as to it, he answered indifferently, yes or no, as he did to every other question, evidently without any relation to what was asked’.”

Whilst attributed at the time to the “deleterious effects of a very common species of agaric”, the symptoms would appear to indicate they were more likely to have been caused by the ingestion of a psilocybin species (most likely the relatively common liberty cap). The fly agaric mushroom induces effects including “general wooziness and disorientation, drooling, sweats, numbness in the lips and extremities, nausea, muscle twitches, sleep and a vague, often retrospective sense of liminal consciousness and waking dreams.” The distinctively coloured species (red with white spots) appears throughout artwork of the age, with many pieces associating it (along with several other types of fungi) with “elves, pixies, hollow hills and the unwitting transport of subjects to fairyland”. Author and minister The Reverend Charles Dodgson was definitely aware of the psychoactive properties of the fly agaric (though not necessarily via direct personal experience, as some have claimed), as keenly demonstrated by the extremely hallucinatory nature of the imagery and narrative in his “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (written in 1865).

Finally, let´s discuss the fairly obscure area of Victorian experimentation with the more esoteric entheogens. It is a matter of record that the Victorians were inquisitive regarding the hallucinogens: throughout the 1850s and 1860s botanist Richard Spruce had travelled throughout the Amazon basin, collecting plants with potential for medicinal use and experimenting with ayahuasca, a brew containing DMT (structurally virtually identical with psilocybin, one of the main tryptamine alkaloids found in the liberty cap mushroom). In the mid-1880s, Henry Hurd Rusby made the first of seven trips to South America to gather coca leaves and other psychoactive plants…

Though the peyote plant and its extracts were not widely available, reports (sadly rather racist in language) of the Native American’s religious usage of peyote began to appear in the medical press in the late 1800s, causing researchers to start experimentation with this “…professional intellectual’s perfect drug.” One experimental subject wrote; “I would experience everything, understand all, no limits would bind my perception”. Men such as Havelock Ellis and peers Prentiss and Morgan began to map the peyote experience’s potential (though with mixed results, often wondering at the marked difference in tolerance between Native American and English users). Ellis famously supplied William James (author of the seminal “The Varieties of Religious Experience”) with one button, making him extremely nauseous for a whole twenty four hours. Controversially Ellis maintained that educated people could use hallucinogens in a safe and productive manner, resulting in the editors of The British Medical Journal proclaiming; “We rather fear that Mr. Ellis, instead of being the discoverer of a new Paradise, has only shown the way to a new Inferno”, other commentators predicting “a perilous reign of the mescal habit when this agent becomes available”. Establishment views seem to have been founded not on any demonstrably addictive properties of the hallucinogens, but instead on society’s previous and ongoing experiences with the opiates, cocaine and chloral hydrate. Our tale started with Victorian drug use, but the story continues.

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