Sherlock Holmes And the Seven Percent Solution

In the 19th century cocaine and opium and their various derivatives, were widely, and legally, available as painkillers and pick-me-ups in over the counter remedies from pharmacists.

Indeed, the number of legally available products that contained cocaine is truly mind-boggling. It was present in nerve tonics, throat lozenges and gargles. It was used as a local anaesthetic, and it could also be found in wines, sherries and ports.

The second Sherlock Holmes adventure, The Sign of Four, which was set in 1888, the year of the Jack the Ripper murders, opens with the following startling passage:-

“Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.” 

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson
Holmes and Watson

Later, in the same story, we’re left in no doubt whatsoever as to just what Holmes is up to:-

“It is cocaine,” he said, “a seven-per-cent solution.  Would you care to try it?”

What’s this? Sherlock Holmes, the greatest consulting detective of all time a coke head?

Well, in short, yes.

But Holmes’s wasn’t  the only 19th century  brain that was addled by a dependency on stimulants and narcotics.

For society at large, the 19th century must have flown by in a drug induced haze. Not only cocaine, but also opium and cannabis, were widely, and freely available, and taking them was commonplace amongst rich and poor alike.

William Gladstone, the great Victorian politician and prime minister, for example, used to put opium in his coffee before he addressed Parliament in the belief that it would improve his effectiveness as an orator.

Teething children were even given opium via such innocent sounding remedies as Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup.

A 19th century advert for cocaine tooth ache drops.
Cocaine Advert

It was, according to some commentators, also used on their children by the urban poor to still their resultant crying from hunger pangs.

Whereas its use, no doubt, silenced the crying, there can be little doubt that some, if not many, infant fatalities were as a result of overdosing on these sweetened, and seemingly innocuous, medicinal concoctions. Opium was also prescribed for illnesses such as dysentery, cholera,  bronchitis and measles.

But, it was also a popular recreational drug, and Victorian Londoners in search of an opium fix could, if they so desired, venture into the depths of the East End to frequent the opium dens down in Limehouse, which are featured in the Jack the Ripper film From Hell,  and which are also mentioned in the works of Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde, as well as in the Sherlock Holmes stories.

However, the most common method by which your average Victorian would enjoy his, or her, opiate fix was laudanum – a tincture of opium and red wine, mixed with saffron and cinnamon. It was incredibly popular in Victorian London and few households were without their little bottle of the tincture.

A 19th century  advert  for laudanum
Laudanum Advert

Wilkie Collins, author of The Woman in White, became addicted to laudanum after taking it to ease the pain of gout and other ailments. Elizabeth Siddal, the wife of Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, died as a result of an overdose of laudanum.

Indeed, by the early 20th century the dangers of stimulants such as cocaine, and narcotics such as opium, were starting to be realised, and laws were passed to control and prohibit their use and to end Britain’s opium epidemic.

Sherlock Holmes’s creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, realised that his detective would need to quit his cocaine habit in order to reflect the change in attitudes towards drugs  and, in 1904, in The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter, in a passage that shows the realisation that and addict is never cured, he has Dr Watson tell his readers:-

“For years I had gradually weaned him from that drug mania which had threatened once to check his remarkable career. Now I knew that under ordinary conditions he no longer craved for this artificial stimulus, but I was well aware that the fiend was not dead, but sleeping.”