A Victorian addiction: The cocaine monster (1898)

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Victorian drug problem - 1900

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Victorian drug problem - 1900

The cocaine monster

Throwing his tentacles around the nation

How it grips its victims

The deadly drug whose influence carries men to insanity and death becoming too popular

Value of cocaine leaves imported at the port of New York in 1894: $14,384; imported in 1897: $54,122; indicated value of imports for 1898: $75,000.

In these simple figures are contained the elements of a warning sermon that would startle all America. We seem to be rapidly becoming a nation of cocaine fiends. If the number of those addicted to the use of the dreadful drug continues to increase at the present rate, the importation of what was originally regarded its a blessed alleviator of pain will have to be classed with opium and its use prohibited by law, except for medicinal purposes.

At present, the cocaine fiend can purchase the drug without trouble, and the ease with which it is taken is a fatal recommendation to those who crave a nerve-deadener. No laborious cooking of pills over a lamp, cleaning of implements or troublesome necessity for secrecy, as with the use of opium. Cocaine can be taken at any time, with scarcely any trouble, and without a soul besides the being aware of his being in the toils.

At first, that is. It will not be long before every intimate friend will observe a change, a gradual and scarcely-perceptible change, come over the appearance and general conduct of the cocaine fiend. If the one who yields to the toxic influence of the drug be a lawyer, then it will be noticed that his language as he pleads a case in court has become particularly diffuse, while his arguments are long drawn out and lacking in logic. Others will notice this peculiarity and wonder.

The victim will be in blissful ignorance of anything wrong, for another queer phase of the progress of cocaine poisoning is that it lulls the user into a delightful feeling of self-satisfaction, and, whatever his shortcomings, he is contented and happy — until the influence of the drug departs and leaves him only with the deadly craving for more that none can fight off.

The lecturer who becomes a victim to the cocaine habit will, to the surprise of his audience, spend the entire period allotted to a certain subject on a single insignificant part of it, or seem to forget the topic entirely and wander into something entirely foreign. It will strike the listeners that the learned lecturer has been drinking or is beginning to get feeble-minded. There will be nothing in the appearance or manner of the speaker to indicate that he himself has the slightest knowledge that he has not been treating the subject in the brightest and most careful way.

Cocaine is a drug that deludes its victims. It is the very devil himself in the form of an innocent-looking crystal, and the way the much-to-be-pitied cocaine user is dragged slowly, but with awful certainty, down to insanity and death is a terrible tribute to the strength of the demon that links in the drug.

This confusion of ideas and language is the first symptom of the toxic influence of the cocaine beginning to work. If you have a friend in whom these symptoms are noticed, it might be well to find out if he is addicted to the use of cocaine, for at this early stage the habit may be broken. Later, it is almost hopeless for the victim to try to sunder his chains.


Begun in many cases in a legitimate way, as an anesthetic, the surprisingly pleasant effect is sought, for again by the one who has had a glimpse at the portals of Elysium.

This is the beginning of the terrible habit. The effect is a sense of exhilaration followed by a quiet, dreamy state that causes the worried man to forget his troubles and the sufferer his pain. Once this freedom from physical and mental sickness has been experienced, the cocaine fiend will rob or kill to get the drug. Enforced non-use of it will not cure the victim. Sentence him to a term of imprisonment, and he will go straight from the jail door to the nearest drug store to secure cocaine before he eats or sleeps.

This, of course, cannot last. From an occasional use of the drug to insatiable craving is the rational course of the cocaine fiend. From thence to the insane asylum anil the grave is a swift and easy descent.

In his fall from health to physical and mental disintegration, the cocaine fiend undergoes a terrible experience. When not in the temporary heaven that the drug provides, the victim is in the lowest depths of an inferno. He is subject to apprehensions, delusions and hallucinations. He suffers from insomnia, anorexia and gastrologic pains, dyspepsia, chronic palpitations and will-paresis. He is a terror both to himself and others. The life of the man is a living death. He knows it, and with this knowledge staring him in the face, he rushes for the drug, and is happy for a brief period under its influence.

It is time something were done to keep from this high-strung nation a drug so deadly. Clear-minded medical men have recommended its exclusion from the country, believing that its use medicinally should be foregone rather than that such a cursed temptation should be placed in the way of weak humanity.

What the real action of the drug is, and how to counteract its influence, are at present puzzling questions to the medical fraternity. A lending member of the profession to whom these questions were put replied, after careful consideration, as follows:

“Its physiological action is practically unknown. As an analgesic, it is uniform in its action, and this is due to the suspension of the physiologic functions of the sensory cells which it comes in contact with. Beyond this, it is an excitant of the cerebrospinal axis, later it has a peculiar action on the encephalon, manifest in a wide range of physical phenomena.

“Beyond this, a great variety of widely variable symptoms appear. In some cases, all the intellectual faculties are excited to the highest degree. In others, a profound lowering of the senses and functional activities occur. Morphine takers can use large quantities of cocaine without any bad symptoms. Alcoholics are also able to bear huge doses without hunger. Not infrequently, the excitement caused by cocaine goes on to convulsions and death. Sometimes its action is localized to one part of the cerebrospinal axis and then to another. In some cases, well-marked cerebral anemia appear, and for a time is alarming, but soon passes away.

“Few cases of death are recorded from an overdose, as they are comparatively rare, and the poisonous states which follow usually give way to appropriate remedies. Small doses frequently given are more readily absorbed than large doses. Habitues always use weak solutions, the effects being more pleasing with less excitation. The morphine and alcoholic inebriates very soon acquire a certain tolerance to large doses taken at once. The cocaine user takes large quantities but in small doses frequently repeated.

MORE: The drug terror: American cocaine addicts (1914)

He becomes frightened at the effects of huge doses, and when be cannot get the effects from small (to him safe) doses, he resorts to alcohol, morphine or chloral. In many cases, memories of the delusions and hallucinations are so vivid and distressing that other narcotics are used to prevent their recurrence. In other cases, the recollection is very confused and vague, and strong suspicions tell the mind that the real condition is grossly exaggerated by the friends for some deterring effect.

“In common with opium and alcoholics, there is moral paralysis, untruthfulness and low cunning in order to conceal and explain the condition by other than the real causes.

A Victorian addiction The cocaine monster (1898)

“The prognosis is always doubtful when the addiction has continued any length of time. The temporary removal of the drug and restoration of the case occurs in nearly all cases, but unless a radical change of life and living is made, and the patient gives unusual care to his health and to the avoidance of every source of exhaustion of nerve and brain, and every condition of peril to his health, the danger of relapse is very prominent.

“The treatment must be pursued on general principles. Isolation and removal of all exciting causes and building up of the brain and nervous system comprise the general principles. In every case, certain special localized means are essential to meet the various conditions present. The sudden removal of the drug is the first step. The continuous activity of the skin from hot air, sweating and baths is essential, and this should be kept up for a long time.

“Among foods, meats are to be used sparingly at first. As the case improves, their use may be increased. A diet of eggs, milk and grains with fruit is best. The patient should remain in bed or reclining at full length most of the time during active treatment. Muscular exercise by massage for an hour a day should be given. If this is not practicable, walking in the open air with an attendant or a few moments exercise with ropes and pulley will aid in reducing the muscular nervousness.

“Exercise and massage depend for their value largely on the adaptability of the case to bear it. In a brain-worker, less exercise or massage is required than in a muscle worker, or one who if out in the open air much of the time. In an over-fed, plethoric person, exercise is better borne and followed by greater relief than in spare ones. Most cases should remain in bed the first week after treatment, and then begin to sit up and take mild exercise. Daily baths should be continued with regularity and care.

“Persistent watchfulness over all acts of the patient should be kept up for six or eight weeks, then a rigid course of living and diet should be arranged and its importance insisted upon for a long period to come. All these cases should be under medical care and control for a long time before full recovery can be expected.”

Top illustration: Portion of “The age of drugs” by Louis Dalrymple, as published in Puck (October 1900). Shows the interior of a drugstore with a pharmacist, dispensing a “Bracer” to a crowd of eager buyers, while a girl has a bottle of “Soothing Syrup.” On the counter are bottles and packets of “Arsenic, Strychnine, Antipyrin, Nerve Stimulant, Opium, Cocaine” and “The Needle.” Signs on the wall state “The Killem’ Quick Pharmacy,” “Open all night,” and “Prescriptions carefully compounded.”

Second illustration: Ad c1885 for COCAINE TOOTHACHE DROPS — “Instantaneous Cure! Price 15 Cents.

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