If only we knew then what we know now. Yes, I’m talking about the medical profession. Doctors in the old West weren’t all they were cracked up to be. Many had no formal education at all. And the ones that did often practiced medicine in the bigger cities.
But thankfully, there were those that went west. And just as unfortunate, so did a good share of quacks, home bugs, charlatans, swindlers, and tricksters. each of these unscrupulous chaps (not to mention a few women) hawked tonics, potions, and pills aplenty. And, believe it or not, they were quite successful at it too. So long as they were plying their wares to an unsuspecting public.
So how did they do it? Unsuspecting or no, one would think the people would figure it out. Easy. They played on people’s fear of death and sickness. Problem was, all those tonics potions and pills didn’t work. Half the time they did more damage than good and even killed the poor patient. Granted, there are those that have scams in the ensuing decades since the old West existed and thankfully we’re not as unsuspecting as we used to be. But back in the good old days, things were done differently and often painfully. For instance, have a baby that won’t stop crying? Why not reach for Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup? If that wasn’t handy you could try Godfrey’s Cordial, Jayne’s Carminative Balsam, or Daffy’s Elixir. Hmm, I wonder how daffy, Daffy’s Elixir made you? Considering all of this contained morphine or opium (no wonder babies went right to sleep) it was a safe bet one might get a little loopy. Problem was, some people took them and never woke up.
But opium did get an upgrade. And when it did, it got a new name too. Laudanum. For those of us who write historicals, this is something we’ve used in our stories on occasion, having our characters down in a spoonful or two mixed with water. believe me, if there was anything else we could give our characters to get the better we would. But there’s only so many things available in the time. You were writing in.
Opium might’ve started wars in the East, but its upgraded version, laudanum, took its toll on the west. Sure, it wasn’t as potent as straight opium, but laudanum packed its own particular punch and tasted better. Added alcohol only intensified the euphoric and mind-altering effects. Laudanum was touted by most physicians of the time and you could get it without a prescription. You could take it home, (no opium den required) and, if you were really good at taking it as the doctor ordered, form an addiction. This dark side of early medicine was all too real. Druggists of the times sold gallons of laudanum, opium elixirs, and narcotic nostrums. And then morphine showed up …
Back in the 19th century, bleeding, purging, leaching, and enemas were still the rage. Yes, I know, ew! But when morphine came along, doctors discovered a much gentler treatment. Coupled with opium, it went on to occupy materia medica tests forever after and was recommended for obvious ailments like pain and diarrhea. By the way, Cholera and dysentery killed far fewer people, thanks to opium, so there is that. However, the medicines were also thrown at people for anything that ailed them. And I do mean anything. They used it for rabies, tetanus, ulcers, snakebites, diabetes, poisoning, depression, and other mental illnesses. All of which was said to be cured by these incredible wonderment’s. Are you shaking in your boots yet? Yikes!!
Since I researched these things, (I’ve had characters with bad coughs and other ailments) I’ve grown a new appreciation for modern medicine and sometimes think about the quacks of the 1800s when I’m in line at the pharmacy. We’ve come a long way since then, thank Heaven. And though there were a lot of tricksters back in the day there were also some good home remedies that actually worked. Did your grandparents or parents use home remedies? If so, what were they? I’ll pick a random winner from the comments below to receive my Brides of Noelle Book Collection, which does include the story with the character with the bad cough. Oh horrors, he had to take some laudanum! He survived, by the way …