Historical essay
Losing ‘sorrow in stupefaction’: American Women’s Opiate Dependency before 1900

Losing ‘sorrow in stupefaction’: American Women’s Opiate Dependency before 1900

Elizabeth Gray

In 1791 Elizabeth Blake tried to help her sister, New Yorker Catalina Hale, to end her years-long dependency on laudanum, a pain reliever that consisted of opium and alcohol. Catalina was turning twenty-two, and she had already made two attempts to quit.[1] She had begun taking laudanum under a doctor’s orders, to treat “a painful indisposition.” Her husband, Daniel, berated her for her secret and ongoing use of it. Nobody “knew the pernicious effect of the drops, or indeed, what was the medicine which you so frequently sent for,” he complained. Catalina blamed herself, referring to the “impropriety of my past conduct” in a letter to her brother. Her third attempt to end her use, however, also failed as she found the deprivation unbearable. “For three days,” her sister later recalled, “she was continually delirious and wracked with excruciating pain.” Unable to watch her suffer any longer, Elizabeth gave her some laudanum.[2]

In early America, middle-class women were disproportionately likely to become dependent on opiates. Although many could take them while maintaining the gentility expected of them, some garnered criticism from their families for their inability to perform their roles as wives and mothers. And because few understood the nature of addiction, the women often blamed themselves for their inability to end their use. Opiates – medicines that derive from the opium poppy, including laudanum and morphine – were widely used in early America, as they allayed pain and promoted sleep. According to physician and historian Stephen Kandall, almost two-thirds of Americans who were addicted to morphine in 1900 were female.[3] Most habituation originated with a doctor’s visit, and while men risked derision for seeking medical help when ill, women did not.[4] For many decades, doctors did not appreciate the risk of addiction, and they prescribed opiates to treat many ailments including uterine cancer and injuries resulting from childbirth.[5] The drugs could provide a feeling of solace or euphoria. Since opiates were medicines, women could enjoy their effects in a socially sanctioned way when their use of alcohol, for example, would have garnered criticism. Some users became addicted – “habitual users,” in the parlance of the day. Understanding of addiction, however, was limited. It would be more than a century before researchers would establish that the ongoing use of opiates changed the user’s brain, thus creating dependency and making the experience of withdrawal agonizing.[6] Women who were habituated, meanwhile, could not effectively maintain their households or attend to their children. For this reason, the lack of understanding of opiates’ addictive nature exacerbated strained relationships, as with Daniel and Catalina Hale.

A black and white engraving of a chemist serving a child.
A chemist selling a child arsenic and laudanum. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Except for some early anti-alcohol measures, no laws restricted access to drugs in the U.S. until the 1870s, and national regulation did not begin until 1909. Before then, opiates were sold over the counter and many families kept them on hand as effective painkillers. In 1800, a Philadelphia merchant recorded selling four and a half ounces of laudanum “for A Family Medicine Chest.”[7] In 1877, when recalling his time out West, a pharmacist wrote that members of his profession would sell “Strychnia, arsenic, laudanum, or any other poisonous drugs … to any one that pleased to buy, and no questions asked.”[8]

In many respects, Catalina Hale – a white, middle-class woman – was a typical laudanum habitué. Middle-class women were most likely to consult a doctor when they became ill, as they could afford the visit. Some took up the opiate habit when young, on their parents’ advice. The laudanum dependency of Sophia Peabody might have begun around 1819, when she was about ten years old and her mother gave her opiates to treat her migraines. When she was in her late twenties, Sophia was taking the drug daily.[9] In 1881, Dr. Frederick Heman Hubbard recalled the case of a country doctor’s daughter who began using laudanum at fourteen, when her father gave her the drug to treat menstrual cramps. She then “helped herself,” Hubbard explained, “until a habit was formed.”[10]

Many women continued taking opiates to enjoy relief from loneliness or sorrow. Writing in her diary in the late 1850s Henrietta Bacon Embree, a doctor’s wife in Texas, maintained that all days were “Same! Same!! Same!!!” and lamented “the want of somthing elce [sic] to do.” She missed her family in Kentucky; she was relentlessly self-critical, and she became a laudanum habitué.[11] Poet Maria White Lowell was long unwell, possibly suffering from tuberculosis, and she had lost three children in infancy. Her husband published her poem “An Opium Fantasy” in 1863, ten years after her death. In it, she described the drug’s ability to allay pain and seemingly distance her from life’s problems. One verse reads:

Soft hangs the opiate in the brain,
And lulling soothes the edge of pain,
Till harshest sound, far off or near,
Sings floating in its mellow sphere.[12]

Opiates helped other women to endure a lack of opportunities. In his 1872 report to the Massachusetts State Board of Health regarding excessive opium use, a doctor stated that many women used it because they were “Doomed, often, to a life of disappointment, and … physical and mental inaction,” as well as “utter seclusion” in rural areas. Such circumstances led to “nervous depression,” and opium appeared to be the best remedy.[13]

Because popular publications rarely addressed domestic drug dependency before the 1870s, few who were addicted understood their situation or knew how to address it. Many – including habitual users themselves – assumed that willpower should be sufficient to end their use.[14] Friends and family, consequently, assumed that pleading with the habituated person to forgo the drug would be effective. By 1784, Elizabeth Pitkin Porter had been using opiates habitually for decades following the loss of her husband.[15] That year, a friend encouraged her, unsuccessfully, to end her use. Porter’s daughter recorded the event in her diary: “Old Mrs. Alixander came here with view to persuade my mother to leave off taking opium,” she wrote, “but in vain – she took it before night the next day.”[16]

An empty bottle of opium tincture, otherwise known as laudanum. (Courtesy Wellcome Collection)

Husbands had to adjust when their habituated wives could not meet household responsibilities, and while some were supportive, others were less so. North Carolinian Anne Cameron, for example, began taking laudanum and morphine in 1845 to treat headaches that accompanied malaria. She continued her use and reached a point at which, on some days, she could not get out of bed. Her husband, consequently, took over some of her duties.[17] But when Rosanna Titus’s husband discovered that she had been taking laudanum, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1855, he “forb[ade] her the use of the drug.” Rosanna continued to take it, secretly, for a couple of years. Her husband learned of her ongoing use when she died from an overdose.[18]

Daniel Hale was no more accommodating to Catalina. He frequently castigated her for her dependency. In a letter to her, he wrote that he thought he could “expect and demand” that she would “soothe [his] peace of mind” when he faced challenges. Instead, her condition had rendered her unable to mind the home. Catalina’s brother, angry that Daniel’s “cruelty had nearly damaged her reason,” acknowledged laudanum’s psychoactive value, as it gave Catalina respites from her unhappy marriage. He wrote to Daniel that he “was not surprised that [Catalina] had recourse to laudanum to lose her sorrow in stupefaction.” With the aid of three doctors, Catalina reduced her laudanum dependency but did not forgo it altogether. She and Daniel never divorced, but they never again lived together.[19]

Evidence of such strife, however, long remained confined to private correspondence. Sometimes a death, such as the passing of Rosanna Titus, brought a story to light, and a few doctors chronicled anonymous women’s struggles with habituation in their books. But while the turmoil was real, few Americans publicly acknowledged opiate habituation as a domestic problem. Consequently, most female habitués, while suffering, maintained public decorum as they had hoped.


  1. Thomas H. Edsall, “Inscriptions from the Dyckman Burial Ground,” New York Genealogical and Biographical Record 21, no. 11 (April 1890): 82.
  2. James Thomas Flexner, States Dyckman: American Loyalist (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1980), 121, 123, and 124.
  3. Stephen R. Kandall, Substance and Shadow: Women and Addiction in the United States (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), 3.
  4. David T. Courtwright, “The Female Opiate Addict in Nineteenth-Century America,” Essay in Arts and Sciences 10 (March 1982): 164.
  5. Mara L. Keire, “Dope Fiends and Degenerates: The Gendering of Addiction in the Early Twentieth Century,” Journal of Social History 31, no. 4 (Summer 1998): 811.
  6. Alan I. Leshner, “Addiction is a Brain Disease, and It Matters,” Science 278 (Oct. 3, 1997): 45.
  7. “Day Book, 1800–1801,” John Harrison Records, Amb.4258, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
  8. Louis Weiss, “A Drug Store in the Far West,” American Journal of Pharmacy (November 1877): 563.
  9. Megan Marshall, The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), 95.
  10. Frederick Heman Hubbard, The Opium Habit and Alcoholism (New York: A. S. Barnes & Co., 1881), 60.
  11. Harriette Andreadis, “True Womanhood Revisited: Women’s Private Writing in Nineteenth-Century Texas,” Journal of the Southwest 31 (Summer 1989): 186–187.
  12. Sharon Lowe, “Behind the Soothing Mist: Women and Opiate Use in the Mining West, 1860–1900” (Ph.D. diss., Union Institute and University, 2006), 105; and Maria Lowell, The Poems of Maria Lowell (Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1907), 39.
  13. Third Annual Report of the State Board of Health of Massachusetts (Boston: Wright & Potter, 1872), 168.
  14. Susan Zieger, Inventing the Addict: Drugs, Race, and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century British and American Literature (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008), 2.
  15. Sylvester Judd, History of Hadley: Including the Early History of Hatfield, South Hadley, Amherst and Granby, Massachusetts (Springfield, Mass.: H. R. Hunting & Company, 1905), 338.
  16. Quoted in Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle, Earthbound and Heavenbent: Elizabeth Porter Phelps and Life at Forty Acres, 1747–1817 (New York: Scribner, 2007), 20.
  17. Sally G. McMillen, Motherhood in the Old South: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Infant Rearing (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 177.
  18. “Inquest,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb. 5, 1855.
  19. Flexner, States Dyckman, 119–20, 124–25, 140–41.

Featured image caption: (Courtesy Stacey Shintani)

Elizabeth K. Gray has a Ph.D. in History from the College of William and Mary, and is an associate professor of History at Towson University. Her book, Habit Forming: Drug Addiction in America, 1776-1914 is being published by Oxford University Press, and it will be released in December 2022.