“Which is it today? Morphine or cocaine?”
“It is cocaine. A seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?”
– Dr. Watson speaking to Sherlock Holmes, ‘The Sign of Four’
Sherlock Holmes is famous for a lot of things. His deerstalker cap, his pipe, his address (“Two-twenty-one B…Baker Street”), his phenomenal deductive powers and of course…his drug-use. That’s what this posting is about.
The Holmesian Canon (the collection of short stories and the novels), was written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was knighted in 1902 for services rendered during the Second Boer War (1899-1902). But before the Boer War, Doyle enjoyed the use of another title.
Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle.
That’s right. He was a physician.
He wrote the Holmes stories in the considerable amounts of spare time that he had between appointments and consultations, to make the extra money that his medical practice failed to provide.
It’s probably not surprising then, that medicine and drugs play a big role in the Canon, since after all, the stories were written by a doctor.
Sherlock Holmes and Drugs
The Holmesian canon gives us a window into the world of Victorian England, at the end of the 19th century. We see clothing, transport, social attitudes, science and technology. And we also get a glimpse into Victorian medicine. How many of the characters are doctors or surgeons? Dr. Mortimer, Dr. Watson, Dr. Trevelyan, Dr. Carthew…the list goes on.
But Holmes’s closest association with medicine (apart from Dr. Watson), is his use of drugs.
I will say this once. So pay close attention.
Sherlock Holmes was not a drug-addict.
He says so himself. Holmes’s brain is overactive. It is constantly whirring around looking for things to occupy itself with. When he’s working on a case, his brain is occupied with problems, facts, deductions, inferences and pieces of evidence.
When Holmes doesn’t have a case, his brain has nothing to work on. Nothing to stimulate it. He gets bored and cranky. Hence the drugs. They serve to keep his brain occupied and stimulated when he doesn’t have a case. He hops off them the moment that he does have one. At best, you might say that Holmes was a recreational drug-user. But certainly not an addict. If he was, he’d be huffing on opium and shooting up heroin all day long, even if he was on a case…which he has never done.
“…My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation…”
– Sherlock Holmes, ‘The Sign of Four’
Now, I will sit back while I’m broadsided by a group of angry people screaming at their computer-screens, saying how Holmes is a drug addict because he shot himself up with cocaine and morphine, how he did tobacco, how he huffed opium and did heroin and every other kind of illicit drug imaginable. Of course he was a druggie. Those are all illegal drugs!
…No they’re not.
Drugs in Victorian England
You have to understand that we read the Holmesian stories through modern eyes. Through the eyes of people living in the 21st Century. When these stories were written, some well over a hundred years ago, things were very different.
The most important difference, for the purposes of this posting, is that in Victorian times, opium, morphine, cocaine, laudanum and heroin were all completely legal.
Yes they were. Believe it, or not.
You could go into your Boots chemist in London on Fleet Street and buy a bottle of opium or morphine just as easily in 1885, as buying a bottle of aspirin pills is today. Nothing was thought of it and nothing was said. It was as easy as that. And 100% legal. Owning, using, purchasing and selling these drugs was as common as cough-drops. There was almost no regulation or laws surrounding these substances…mostly because at the time, their side-effects were less well-understood than they are today.
Opiates, especially (opiates are the drugs derived from the opium poppy), were used extensively in Victorian times, either as sedatives, sleeping drafts or painkillers. Sleeping-tablets contained opium or morphine. Sedatives (drugs to help you relax) most likely also contained opium or one of its related drugs.
The most common painkiller of the time was a powerful drug sold in bottles and which was used to treat everything from toothaches, headaches, joint-pains and back-ache. Called ‘Tincture of Laudanum’, this highly potent cocktail of alcohol and opium was powerful and effective…but also extremely addictive. And it was sold as freely in Victorian times as any other non-prescription pain-relief medication is sold today.
The Status of Drugs
In Victorian times, when the Holmesian canon was written, there was almost no regulation about drugs and poisons. The closest thing you had was the pharmacist’s ‘Poison Book’.
By law, pharmacists had to keep a record-book of poisons. Anyone wanting to purchase poison would have to fill out a line in the book. Their name, address, reason for purchasing poison and so-on…and sign their entry in the book. That was pretty much it.
But the drugs which, in the 21st century are illegal, had no regulation in Victorian times. Their side-effects were not understood and they were so widely used by everyone from doctors and surgeons to parents treating their sick children, that nobody thought anything of it.
It would not be until 1920, with the passing of the Dangerous Drugs Act, that drugs like cocaine and heroin would finally be outlawed in England.
Holmes’s Use of Drugs
At best, Holmes was a recreational drug-user. He shot himself up with morphine and cocaine to alleviate the agonising spells of boredom he had between the cases which were his real addiction. Opium is occasionally mentioned in the canon (most notably in ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip‘), and its famous side-effect of drowsiness (which is what made it so popular as a painkiller and sleeping-agent) was recorded therein, but no mention is made of Holmes ever actually taking the drug.
Whatever you might think of Holmes and the use of the drugs mentioned in the canon, you need to understand the historical context of the stories and the manner in which drugs were viewed at the time, and how they were used by Holmes, both very different from how they’re handled and used today.