I’ve often read that there were 500,000 morphine addicts running around after the Civil War. Is this true? If so, did narcotics have a deleterious effect on the Old West? How many cowboys were wacko on these then-legal drugs?

–Bill, via the Internet

You know, war is a bad thing. Even if we leave out combat deaths and injuries, civilian casualties, property damage, rape and pillage, lingering danger of unexploded munitions, economic disruption, refugees, famine and disease, and possible destruction of the planet, we’re still left with things like increased drug addiction. We’ve already talked about the huge increase in smoking and related diseases due to wide distribution of cigarettes to GIs during World War II. Now let’s turn to the massive upswing in narcotics addiction in the latter part of the 19th century–due, some feel, to the liberal use of morphine to ease the suffering of wounded soldiers during the Civil War.

At the beginning of the 19th century drug addiction was rare in the English-speaking world, but by the end of the century it was common, at least in the United States. By a conservative estimate the U.S. had 200,000 addicts in 1900, with most of the increase coming in the late 1800s. The Civil War is often blamed for this, and in fact, after the war many called morphine addiction “the army disease.”

Some historians think the war’s influence has been exaggerated. A major factor no doubt was the simple fact that more stuff became available as scientists explored the wonders of drug chemistry. Morphine, for example, was first synthesized in 1803, cocaine in 1859.

Still, there’s no denying the Civil War’s impact. Narcotics were handed out like candy by army surgeons, who were surrounded by suffering and had few remedies to offer other than painkillers. Nearly ten million opium pills were issued to Union soldiers, along with 2.8 million ounces of other opium preparations; surely Confederate troops had quite a bit of opium too. One doctor reported keeping a wad of “blue mass” (a powdered mercury compound) in one pocket and a ball of opium in the other. He’d ask soldiers, “How are your bowels?” If the answer was “open” (due to diarrhea), the soldier got opium, if “closed” (presumably because of constipation), mercury. Opiates were used to treat not just wounds but chronic campaign diseases such as diarrhea, dysentery, and malaria. Narcotics became even more popular after the war as invalided veterans sought relief from constant pain.

But soldiers weren’t the only or even the major users of drugs, nor was drug abuse more prevalent in the Old West, as you suggest. On the contrary, casual use of hard drugs was widespread. Several surveys in the midwest found that the majority of opiate addicts were women; they took drugs for neuralgia, morning sickness, or menstrual pain. Mary Chesnut, whose diary was read to haunting effect in Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary series, was a regular user. Narcotics could be found in the patent medicines of the day as well as in commonly prescribed medications like laudanum and paregoric, inexpensive opiates that could be ordered through the Sears catalog.

Some raised the alarm about morphine addiction as the 19th century drew to a close, but often the solution was substituting some other drug. In 1884 Sigmund Freud recommended cocaine as a means of treating morphine and alcohol addiction. (He also wrote glowingly of coke’s value as a mental stimulant and aphrodisiac, views that were still being floated nearly a century later.) “Vin Mariani,” a mixture of cocaine and wine introduced in 1865, became a popular cure-all. Coca-Cola, first concocted in 1886, initially contained a small amount of cocaine. In 1898 the Bayer company began marketing heroin as an over-the-counter cough suppressant. (Contrary to legend, however, it was not touted as a cure for morphine addiction.)

Reaction, often hysterical, soon set in. Drug opponents in the south claimed that cocaine drove black men to rape white women–perhaps one reason the Atlanta-based Coca-Cola company withdrew cocaine from its recipe in 1903. Increasingly stringent antidrug laws were passed, to the point where even mild drugs like marijuana became illegal.

Given all this, it seems clear you can’t blame any one event for the drug culture. Still, if you want to let a lot of bad things loose in the world fast, ain’t nothin’ beats a war.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.