Death by Laudanum

Photo credit: Welcome Images, Science Museum, London, UK

It would be the height of neglect for me to set a series in Victorian England and not include a plot that involves laudanum. Book 6, A Newlywed’s Guide to Fortune and Murder is that book. Laudanum was a tincture of opium diluted with alcohol. It was considered the aspirin of the era and people used it for everything, predominantly to kill pain, but also for coughs, rheumatism, insomnia, and the always vague “women’s troubles.”

What I didn’t know was how frequently people died from too much laudanum. I read vintage newspapers using the British Newspaper Archive, and when I searched “Death by laudanum,” I was stunned to see a dozen stories a week in the London papers. That made it very easy to work the drug into a murder mystery, but the thing is, almost none of the stories linked these deaths to murder. People tended to dose themselves with laudanum. Thus, death was considered accidental.

By 1868, laudanum could only be sold by licensed chemists (pharmacists in the US), but since doctors prescribed it for a wide variety of ailments, there was often at least one bottle around the house. There are many tales of Victorian men dosing their rich wives with the drug so she wouldn’t have the will to object to him spending her money. Laudanum was highly addictive so the wife would continue to need it. Should he decide he didn’t need her any longer, a few large doses should do the trick. In those days, it was much easier than obtaining a divorce. And of course, death would be determined to be accidental.

That is, unless someone noticed a trend of these deaths, or the death was just a bit suspicious. That’s when you have a mystery.

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