The Sherlock Holmes Handbook: Opium Dens and Narcotics in the Victorian Era

Ransom Riggs

It's been well over a century since the first Sherlock Holmes adventure was published, and yet the master detective remains as popular as ever; witness the upcoming release of Holmes, starring Robert Downey, Jr., the Holmes-inspired television phenomenon that is House, M.D., and countless adaptations over the years. But what is it about this 19th century detective that we still find so compelling today? Why do modern-day detectives still study his methods and techniques? What can we still learn from Sherlock Holmes? I set out to answer those questions, and the result is my new book, The Sherlock Holmes Handbook: the Methods and Mysteries of the World's Greatest Detective. All week I'll be posting excerpts from it, which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Quirk Books did a great job designing it -- a cute little hardback that would look right at home on your grandfather's shelf o' classics -- and Eugene Smith's illustrations are top-notch. In addition to shedding light on Holmes' methods of detection, the book also explores Holmes' fascinating world -- that of 19th century London. This is one of my favorite "sidebar" chapters from the book.

Opium Dens and Narcotics in the Victorian Era
"The division seems rather unfair," I remarked. "You have done all the work in this business. I get a wife out of it, Jones gets the credit, pray what remains for you?" "For me," said Sherlock Holmes, "there still remains the cocaine bottle." And he stretched his long white hand up for it. — The Sign of the Four

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In an era when narcotics of all sorts were legal and freely available, when opiates were the active ingredient in countless over-the-counter patent medicines and heroin was marketed as a side-effect-free cough suppressant, Watson's recognition of cocaine's addictive powers was striking. Even the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica's 1888 edition claims that addiction to narcotics "happens chiefly in individuals of weak will-power, who would just as easily become the victims of intoxicating drinks, and who are practically moral imbeciles, often addicted also to other forms of depravity."

It was an attitude toward drugs shared by many in the Victorian era. Shortly after German chemist Albert Niemann first isolated cocaine from coca leaves in 1859, it became a sensation in Europe and the United States. Hailed as a wonder drug, cocaine was widely consumed in the form of coca-fortified wine, and its fans included Queen Victoria, Sigmund Freud, and Pope Leo XIII, who endorsed it in advertisements and carried some coca-wine with him in a personal hip flask. Cocaine was especially popular with writers, artists, and intellectuals—Sherlock Holmes among them—many of whom credited the drug's stimulant properties with their ability to work unforgiving hours. By the turn of the twentieth century, however, the addictive powers of cocaine and opium were becoming undeniably clear, and the tide of public opinion was slowly but surely turning against them. Horrific depictions of opium dens in popular literature certainly played a role in this transformation, including Sherlock Holmes's famous turn as a disguised opium addict in "The Man with the Twisted Lip."

Watson describes his descent into an East End opium den as one into Hell: "Through the gloom one could dimly catch a glimpse of bodies lying in strange fantastic poses, bowed shoulders, bent knees, heads thrown back, and chins pointing upward, with here and there a dark, lack-lustre eye turned upon the newcomer. Out of the black shadows there glimmered little red circles of light . . . as the burning poison waxed or waned in the bowls of the metal pipes." To Watson's utter surprise, Holmes the master of disguise is lurking in the den as well, though at first glance Watson only recognizes him as an "old man . . . bent with age, an opium pipe dangling down from between his knees, as though it had dropped in sheer lassitude from his fingers."

But the reality of London's opium dens didn't quite match their sensationalized portrayals by authors such as Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, and Oscar Wilde. Rather than a slum teeming with dens and frequented by thousands of morally bankrupt Chinese immigrants, the East End's Limehouse district never had more than a few hundred Chinese and about a half-dozen opium dens—if you could even call them that. On the whole, these "dens" were simply rooms where Chinese men gathered to smoke opium, gamble, and gossip; they were more like informal social clubs than dens of desperate iniquity (or as Holmes describes the den he visits in "Twisted Lip," "the vilest murder- trap on the whole riverside"). It's not known exactly how many Londoners slummed it in opium dens, but the general impression at the time was surely exaggerated; many more Victorians partook of and became addicted to opium in the form of laudanum—an alcoholic derivative so popular it was spoon-fed to teething infants—than by smoking it, a practice that suggested exotic danger simply because it was associated with the "alien" culture of Chinese immigrants.

Other excerpts from The Sherlock Holmes Handbook:

How to Disguise Yourself