Ever notice how possible side effect warnings for many prescription or over the counter medications sound worse than the illness? Any number of possible side effects are listed, from mild to more serious side effects, including death. 

Just one possible consequence among a litany of side effects for an insomnia medication advertised on television is the inability to move when sleeping or upon waking. In other words, temporary paralysis. On the up side, the patient gets a good night’s sleep. Egads!

Still, at least we are informed. Even when one picks up a prescription from their local pharmacy, a printout of information about the medication, its use, and possible complications are provided the patient. 

But what about people in the past who knew nothing about possible side effects, placing their trust and their lives in the treatment their physician prescribed. And if they didn’t have a local doctor, they sought traveling medicine shows or believed advertisements from fraudulent companies that mass produced ‘cures’.

As a writer of historical fiction, everything about life in that time period is researched. And that includes medication and/or health treatment used in the past. Consequently, it really is mind-boggling to think about how illnesses were treated, and the often fatal effects that resulted.

In the 19th century, especially in the American West, settlers were isolated. Living far from civilization, they were forced to rely upon themselves in times of injury and illness. Patent medicines (what we consider over-the-counter medicines today) were not readily available. Some people had knowledge about herbs and plants that could be used for medicinal purposes, but not always. 

As more people moved west and towns were established, doctors (as well as traveling medicine shows), arrived and brought with them methods of treatment that were often inaccurate and deadly poisonous. Although most frontier doctors spoke against medicine shows peddling their miracle cures, physicians also prescribed treatments that were both toxic and addictive.

For example, it was not uncommon in the 19th century for lead, mercury, and arsenic – all very poisonous – to be dispensed as medicine. 

This begs the question; did people even know or understand what they were taking?

Did no one question why arsenic, widely known at the time as a poison to kill rats, was also being prescribed to humans? 

Guess not, because doctors prescribed arsenic to their patients to treat rheumatism, syphilis, strengthen one’s lungs, and even told women it would help their complexion.  Laird’s Bloom Of Youth and Dr. MacKenzie’s Arsenic Complexion Wafers were just two brands women consumed as a beauty aid. 

In truth, they seemed to work from an appearance standpoint, which only promoted continued use. Arsenic made the skin pale by destroying red blood cells. Unfortunately, side effects from using these complexion wafers (pills) were blindness and death.

Mercury, also known as calomel (pictured above), was used for any type of inflammatory disease, i.e., cholera and typhoid. At the same time, it was used to treat gastrological problems. Taken too liberally, one experienced mercury poisoning. Side effects for mercury poisoning include neurological problems such as trembling, loss of memory, and the disintegration of one’s bones, teeth, and gums.

The most common remedies used in the American West were Alcohol and Laudanum, both of which were dispensed and consumed in great abundance. They were also highly addictive.

Understandably, it should come as no surprise, given the poor quality (or lack) of drinking water and the abundance of watering holes (aka ‘saloons’), that alcoholism was a big problem in the Old West. Cowboys, miners, gamblers, ranchers, railroad workers, and just about any man that worked hard in those days would visit the local saloon and quench their thirst with whiskey, or some other form of alcohol. 

Ironically, the fact many men drank themselves into a stupor was of little consequence. Whiskey was not only considered the beverage of choice, but also viewed as a cure for just about anything — from heart palpitations, dropsy, epilepsy and kidney disease to chills, stomach ailments, and even rabies

Physicians routinely prescribed whiskey to patients with consumption. Forts dispensed three grains of quinine in an ounce of whiskey on a daily basis to soldiers as a preventative against malaria. The use of whiskey as a painkiller, antiseptic and disinfectant has also been documented, especially on the battlefield. Considering the clearly believed miraculous benefits of whiskey as heralded during the 19th century, it shouldn’t be surprising that whiskey was also mixed with castor oil to make a shampoo. 

Although heavy drinking by men, even to the point of drunkenness, was acceptable at the time, a woman’s reputation would be destroyed if she were to be seen inebriated, let alone drinking in public. This is not to say that women did not drink alcohol. They might take a small shot of whiskey to relieve pain, but more often than not they were prescribed medicines that contained a high content of alcohol. One such drinkable medication was laudanum, basically a mixture of opium and alcohol.


Also called ‘tincture of opium’laudanum was used primarily as a sedative and painkiller, often prescribed for headaches, toothaches, as well as aches and pains. Its extensive use among women can be attributed to the fact it was the medicine of choice for female problems — which also explains why so many women became addicted to it. 

Girls as young as fourteen were prescribed laudanum. Infants were spoon fed laudanum. Physicians cited its benefits as not only helping to calm nerves and quiet the disposition, it was prescribed as an aid for childbirth, menstruation and menopause. If one was not careful, taken in large doses, it caused unconsciousness. Many women, particularly prostitutes, used laudanum to commit suicide. 

Because of its addictive properties, laudanum was extremely dangerous. A person could build up a resistance and, therefore, need a larger dose. The same can be said with regard to alcohol use, particularly in the 19th century. 

Forgetting the medicinal effects that were falsely attributed to alcohol, saloon keepers encouraged their patrons to drink and gamble. The two went hand-in-hand. The more someone drank, the more they gambled. Even if a man drank just a moderate amount, their judgment could be affected and their behavior might become argumentative and excitable. One can well imagine the number of alcohol induced gunfights that occurred. And since alcohol affects the nervous system as a depressant, if one drinks too much they could become incoherent and be rendered unconscious. 

Not surprisingly, because drinking was so prevalent, alcohol-related problems increased, and not just at saloons. Soldiers at forts often developed problems with drinking, particularly on isolated frontier posts. It became so serious an issue, in fact, that an officer found drunk on duty was subject to court-martial or a reduction in rank; enlisted men were fined and/or punished.

It is interesting to note that as much as we might be fascinated about the American West and struggles the pioneers faced to survive, we often overlook the subversive dangers they faced, especially doing something they believed would not harm but help them live longer lives. 

Thank you for stopping by today, and I hope you found this post interesting and informative. Still, the next time you watch a commercial for medication, listen carefully to all those side effect that must be legally disclosed. Although side effects are rare in many cases, many medications once approved by the FDA have been later recalled (often afters years of being prescribed) due to life-threatening and even fatal consequences. Another concern is that many medications (particularly generic) are manufactured in other countries and a patient is unaware of this until there is a serious issue with an ingredient used in their version of medication.

Still, as frightening as medications (and vaccines) can be, at least — for the most part — we are informed ahead of time. We are also better equipped in the 21st century to do our own research as well, which is something I highly recommend. Be safe. Stay well.