Learning from the past, living in the moment, and leaving footprints for the future. Stories of lov

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Society Saturday, Opium and Southworth Gammons

Southworth Gammons, my 4th great grandfather was born in Middleboro Massachusetts in 1769.  He died on July 25, 1827, suddenly, it is written, by opium. Now that caught my attention and I just had to learn more.

At the beginning of the 19th century, opium was used as an everyday remedy for common ailments. Even President Harrison was treated with opium in 1841.  During the Civil War the Union Army used opium, a predecessor to morphine. They treated conditions such as malaria, known as "ague".

My 2nd great grandfather, Philip Roesch, who served in the Civil War wrote in his diary that he suffered from the ague and was put on a ship with others that were sick.  He wrote, "The person at my head,  and to the left and right side of me rolled over in death, yet I continued to get well".   Now I realize that he too was most likely treated with opium.

Other ailments treated with opium included rheumatism, diarrhea, excessive drinking, and even childbirth.  So now I can include my great grandmothers and great aunts for they too might have treated? Opium was known as "God's Own Medicine".

I wonder how many ancestors were treated with opium and perhaps even died because they became addicted?

The acceptance of opium was so general that societies gave awards for growing the poppy and medical practitioners were among the prize winners. It wasn't until 1879 that a growing number of doctors documented the dangers of addiction with opium use.  It wasn't classified as a dangerous drug until 1920.

So where does this lead us?  Remember the Wizard of Oz and that massive field covered in poppies.  Poor Dorothy, the lion, and the scarecrow all fell asleep. I guess they had a massive overdose of opium. That witch really was wicked. The book was written in 1900, 20 years before opium was declared a dangerous drug. 

Oh well, the Wizard of Oz is still a good movie.  Just close your children's eyes and ears as Dorothy and the gang run across the opium field.


  1. How interesting, especially about the poppy field in Wizard of Oz. I haven't seen that movie for years but when I next watch it I'll notice the poppy field. I have a great-uncle who died of opium poisoning in 1911. It seems he'd had a mental breakdown and was given opium for two years. Thanks for an interesting psot.

  2. I do remember the poppy field in the Wizard of Oz but never gave it much thought until now. Dangerous stuff. Thanks for the story. Very interesting.

  3. Is this why I like poppy seed muffins so much? :-) All kidding aside, yes, it's amazing what ailments were treated back in the old days with stuff that was even MORE dangerous than the things they were treating. Elixirs that were supposed to "quiet" fussy babies often had opium in them as well!

  4. Great post - I have seen ads for cocaine tooth drops, but hadn't thought of opium as a common pain reliever back then. Very interesting!

  5. Kathryn,

    I want to let you know that your blog is listed in today's Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2014/04/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-april-18.html

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  6. Very interesting post, particularly in view of the current opioid crisis. (The state where I live, New Hampshire, has been especially hard-hit.) You might be interested in this blog post about the death of an ancestor from addiction to morphine. I was so affected by it that it inspired me to write a story told by members of a family in those circumstances. https://casbonjourney.wordpress.com/2018/05/01/the-death-certificate-of-mary-payne-casbon-1832-1903/

  7. I read your blog with much interest and sadness. It is somewhat surprising that Doctors have continued to over prescribe opioids. Don't they teach history in medical school?

  8. An linteresting slant on your family history and an example how family history can take you diwn diverse sidelines.


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