Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Laudanum

In the sort of spirit of Halloween, I decided to make my very own bottle of laudanum. An old bottle previously used as décor for our kitchen fit the bill, and from there I found a vintage laudanum label on the internet and printed it. From there, I aged the paper, stained it a little for good measure and cut it out. I used a spray adhesive on the back to reduce bleed-through. Since laudanum was used as a cough suppressant, I decided to go for a cough-syrupy color for the liquid. Basically, just a combo of green and blue food dye did the trick. To top it off, I finally found a use for a small collection of old wine corks that have been accumulating in a drawer.

Laudanum was originally invented by the famed Swiss doctor and alchemist, Paracelsus, although his version was quite different from what was later known by the same name. Paracelsus’ version included the mandatory opium and high proof alcohol, but henbane, musk, coral, amber, gold and crushed pearls were also integrated into it.

By the nineteenth century, the formula was reduced down to just opium and alcohol. Generally, it consisted of 10% powdered opium by weight (equivalent to 1% morphine) and about 48% alcohol by volume, although the alcohol content varied.

The uses of laudanum varied as well. It was generally used as an antidiarrheal and cough syrup. It was oftentimes, as the label used on my recreation states, billed as a universal cure-all. With such opium content, it is not surprising that it would relieve the symptoms of just about any ailment. Also not surprising, it was used as a sedative. Women were prescribed it for menstrual cramps, and fussy babies were given it to help them sleep. A powdered form of laudanum was rubbed into the gums of teething babies as well.

Of course, not all of its uses were strictly medical. Many artists, poets, and authors used it for inspiration.

The origin of the name is not known. It is believed to originate from the Latin laudare which means “to praise” or “to recommend.” I was unable to connect any usage of this word to explain why laudanum’s name would be derived from it, leading me to suspect the alternative to be the true origin.

Ladanum was used to describe an herbal medicine made of plant resins, particularly of Cistus ladanifer and Cistus creticus, for centuries. In the middle ages, ladanum was used to treat colds, coughs and rheumatism. The ninth century rabbi Saadia ben Joseph suggested that ladanum was actually an ingredient in the sacred incense used in the Temple known as ketoret. Considering that Pliny the Elder wrote that an extract from an herb known as “ladan” was used in the incense, the rabbi might have been correct.


While true laudanum has been illegal for the almost a century, it is still available by prescription today under the name “Tincture of Opium.” However, it is not typically used anymore. The two main uses today are for severe diarrhea that does not respond to other treatments and for neonates born addicted to opiates due to gestational drug use. The newborns are given small doses to prevent life-threatening withdrawals and are slowly tapered off over the course of a few weeks.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Spirit of the Town by Tod Robbins

Illustration from the first edition
“Strange as this tale may be, my readers, do not consider it the weak wanderings of a disordered brain, nor yet as a fiction formed to please alone, but, looking deeper still, perceive the truth. The truth—what a word is that to conjure with, and yet how difficult it is for a mere man to penetrate the cloak of conventionality and custom, and behold it in all its bright nakedness!

“When you have done this, you have looked into the eyes of God.” – From the author’s introduction.


The Spirit of the Town (1912) is today an all but forgotten novel by an all but forgotten author. Spirit is Robbins’ second novel, but it was published the same year as his first, Mysterious Martin.

The novel centers on Jim, a young aspiring author, who leaves his small hometown to seek his fortune in Manhattan. Jim has recently heard from an old friend, George, who had been living there and offered to let him stay at his apartment until Jim could get a start. It sounds very promising.

Almost immediately upon arriving in the Big Apple, Jim encounters the reality of life there when a man jumps out a high-rise window to his death. To Jim’s surprise, no one so much as bats an eyelash at the sight. Jim feels nauseous and begins to faint. Enter the charismatic Mr. Noman, who, after staring at the dead man, sweeps in to offer Jim a helping hand. Mr. Noman escorts him into a nearby pub and buys Jim a drink. We later discover via George that Mr. Noman is the man to know, and if you want to make it, you need to go through him.

After some time in the City, Jim comes to realize its true nature. Mr. Noman offers Jim everything he could ever want, but at what cost? Jim must choose between being a famous sellout or a true, but likely poor, poet.

While it is not overtly displayed, Mr. Noman exhibits vampiric tendencies. He doesn’t drink blood, but he does feed off of the life-force of the young and hopeful that arrive in Manhattan and naïvely fall under his influence. Once he’s done with them, he tosses them to the wind without a moment’s hesitation. He is, after all, the spirit of the town, and the town is the ultimate vampire. It is no coincidence that we first meet Mr. Noman standing over the dead body of the man who jumped out of the window—another victim drained.

Early on in the novel, we meet two charming transients who give the young author his first taste of the Big City. Will and John, or The Merry Old Gentleman and The Clergyman as Jim names them, make a few appearances throughout the novel and are actually more intrinsic to the story than they ever appear. Although they appear as nothing more than conmen, they are used as archetypes to show how modern values destroy men who, in another time, would have been noble men.

Robbins, true to form, works in a brief subplot involving a deranged murderer. This one isn’t outwardly deformed, but is still an outsider. Robbins does an excellent job of subtly working the man into the background of the storyline, only to reveal his true purpose—as well as the imminent danger the main characters were in—midway into the novel.

We are even privy to the killer’s diary, which I suspect to be inspired by a short story of Guy de Maupassant. “The diary of a Madman” reads very similarly to the diary of the madman used in Robbins’ novel. It is a known fact that Robbins was a Francophile and loved French literature, and Maupassant, especially during Robbins’ time, was one of France’s most widely read authors. Perhaps a young Robbins read in the papers of Maupassant’s descent into madness and his eventual death in a Parisian insane asylum. Tod Robbins had much in common with Maupassant—they were both intrigued with insanity, both wrote in a variety of genres, and both were writers of weird fiction—so it would not be surprising to find that Maupassant was an early influence over Robbins.

This book is more than just a social commentary; it is Robbins’ honest look into American greed and our vulture capitalist culture. The dead eyes of the denizens shuffling down busy-yet-empty streets of New York City, each wrapped up in their own world and completely oblivious to everyone else, may as well be the lifeless eyes of zombies. While it is true that Robbins grew up in the bosom of New York’s elite, it is clear that he never identified with them, and it is not surprising that he would leave the U.S. for France within ten years of the publication of this novel.



I have included The Spirit of the Town, as well as numerous others of Tod Robbins’ works, in the anthology Tod Robbins: His Life and Work. It is available on Amazon, Kobo ,and Barnes & Noble for $2.99.