Early on a Sunday morning in May 1838, a man called Rye, a labourer at Eythorne, made a desperate attempt to destroy himself by cutting his throat. The windpipe and three arteries were nearly severed but Mr Frederick Chalk, the Eythorne Surgeon, being called in time, performed the requisite operations to save his life. The unfortunate man was stated to be be doing well soon after. The misconduct of his wife, Mary Rye, who was then in the Eastry Union, was considered to have “probably induced the rash act”. She was a woman well known to the police as the “Opium Eater”. Her penchant for the drug frequently led her to obtain it in quantities fraudulently from different chemists in Dover and elsewhere.
Several months earlier in February 1838 “a distressed looking creature, tall, gaunt, with sallow complex, soiled, elevated on pattens (protective overshoes worn outdoors over normal shoes to keep the wearer above the dirt, grime and manure on the streets) and enveloped in a cloak that had once been scarlet and wearing an antiquated straw bonnet of dingy hue was brought up from the police station where she had been confined on Saturday evening” to the magistrates court. The prisoner stated that her name was Mary Rye, that her husband was a labourer at Eythorne.
She had been brought before magistrates and charged with defrauding Mr Cotterell, Chemist of 2oz of opium. “About 10 O’clock on Saturday night the prisoner, who said she came from Eastry came into his shop and gave orders for nine packages of medicine. After they were weighed, she took up the opium which formed one of the articles and requested that the other articles might be laid to one side until her return whilst she left the shop on the pretence of fetching a basket to put them in. She did not return to the shop. Suspicion attaching to her intentions, information was given to the police. She was apprehended by a police sergeant who found the opium concealed in one of her shoes. It was subsequently ascertained that the prisoner had been for some time in the habit of similar practices at the shops of other chemists in the town. On being asked her motive for doing so she admitted the different offences saying she committed them to obtain the opium for her own use, that she was in great distress having been turned out of doors by her husband the previous day and begged for mercy. The magistrate considering the charge did not to amount to actual theft, and as the prisoner had been punished by two nights confinement, dismissed her with an admonition as to the manner of obtaining her favourite narcotic in future.”
Mary Rye continued obtaining opium by criminal means and was imprisoned for it some time after February 1838.
In February of the following year (1839) it was reported that “Mary Rye the woman belonging to Eythorne, whose passion for opium has frequently led her into the practice of fraudulently obtaining a supply, was brought up on Monday on a charge of vagrancy (under the vagrancy act of 1824, amended 1838, the long title of which is “An act for the punishment of idle and disorderly persons, rogues and vagabonds”). It appeared that since her imprisonment, she had been placed in the Eastry Union and which she had left of he own accord. The magistrates directed her to be placed in the charge of the officers of Hougham, in which parish she was found, to be restored to the Union (Hougham is in the Dover Union). The wretched opium eater has however been since following her vagrant ways. Mary Rye after being repeatedly in the charge of the police for acts of vagrancy, was on Wednesday again committed to gaol for a month at the end of February 1839.
Mary Rye could have become addicted to opium because of its common use at this time in medicines. It was commonly used to treat toothache, coughs, diarrhoea and even bruises (and was also apparently by some as a stimulant prior to work). In the form of laudanum, which is 10% opium with morphine, codeine and alcohol, it appeared in many formulations including ones used by mothers to quieten babies with its principal use being as a pain medication and cough suppressant. Laudanum is highly addictive leading to many of its users forming a drug addiction. One notable addict was the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Attached is an cartoon depicting various “quack cures” being offered to an ailing duck. Godfrey’s Cordial is at the forefront. Godfrey’s Cordial was a patent medicine, containing laudanumin a sweet syrup (treacle), which was commonly used as a sedative to quiet infants and children in Victorian England. Used mostly by mothers working in agricultural groups or industry, it ensured that she could work the maximum hours of her employment, without being disturbed by her infant, and thus increased the family income. It was also used by nurses and baby-minders to enable them to neglect their duties if they wished. Use of Godfrey’s Cordial and similar formulations undoubtedly added to infant mortality in this period.
Opium killed far more infants through starvation than directly through overdose. An investigation by a Dr Greenhow for the Privy Council, noted how children ‘kept in a state of continued narcotism will be thereby disinclined for food, and be but imperfectly nourished.’ Marasmus (undernourishment causing a child’s weight to be significantly low for their age), or inanition (exhaustion caused by lack of nourishment), and death from severe malnutrition would result, but the coroner was likely to record the death as ‘debility from birth,’ or ‘lack of breast milk,’ or simply ‘starvation.’