Opioids in the 1930s

Opium smokers in the East End of London, London Illustrated News, 1874

As part of my research for book 4, I’ve been reading up on morphine addiction in the early part of the 20th century. I found out, for example, that Sigmund Freud died of a morphine overdose that was administered by his own doctor in an assisted suicide (Freud had mouth cancer and decided he was done at the age of 83 in 1939).

Addiction to morphine was called the ‘soldiers disease’ as many fighting men came back from the first world war (and second) addicted to the pain killer.

Laudanum (a pill or tincture made from opium and sometimes the addition of saffron, castor, ambergris, musk and nutmeg) was widely used in the 16th century, and well into the 20th.

Although many drugs containing opium were required to be labelled at the beginning of the 20th century, they were also commonly available without a prescription.

My first exposure to an opium den was in Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” one of my less favourite Holmes tales. Watson goes to find Holmes in the opium den down a “vile alley” on Upper Swandam Lane. In London in the 1930s, opium dens could be found in and around Pennyfields and the Limehouse Causeway.


From what I’ve read, the description of the seediness and danger around these drug dens were both racially charged and more negative than real. But, any drug den, whether it’s in the 1930s or today, will attract a certain kind of customer, so the danger was probably accurately described. For example:

In a talk at the Docklands Museum on 28th January 2007, Dr. John Seed from Roehampton University explored some of the realities of Chinese life in Limehouse from 1900 – 1940. He showed how public responses to several drug scandals, to interracial marriage, to housing shortages and unemployment, contributed to an enduring myth: the idea of a Chinatown in Limehouse that never really existed. Read more here.

An anti-opium movement sprang up in response, mostly as a method of controlling the populace from “deviant” behaviours, but doctors were still prescribing various opioids as a method of pain control.


A little research on Marylebone

“Marylebone became home to the city’s wealthy elite, but it was also scarred by pockets of extreme poverty. In Marylebone’s large and notorious workhouse, opened in 1775 on land donated by the Portland Estate on the north side of Paddington Street, society’s poorest and most vulnerable exchanged unpaid labour for food and shelter. A Ragged School, founded in 1846 on Grotto Passage, was set up to provide education for destitute children. The Ossington Buildings estate, off Moxon Street, was built between 1888 and 1892 to house some of the area’s working class poor, who had previously lived at the same site in miserable slum dwellings.”
– from History: The Howard deWalden estate

Where to dump a body in 1930s Toronto

“Ashbridge’s Marsh looking northeast, circa 1909
City of Toronto Archives, Series 376, File 4, Item 63″ From the UofT’s library of maps.

Yeah, I thought that title would catch your collective eyes. Writing in Starbucks this week, my friend John Lorinc gave me an idea when I mused aloud: “Now where would one dump a body in Toronto?” It shows that he is a good friend that he knew I was speaking about my detective series and not planning a murder, but he suggested that in the 1930s, the Ashbridges Marsh might be a good spot to rid oneself of a dead body. According to the University of Toronto’s library (where that photo on the left is from) back then the Ashbridges Bay Marsh was more than five square kilometres wide. One would take the Coxwell streetcar to get into the area and Ulster Stadium was built there in 1925 (where it stood until 1945). It was incredibly polluted (with sewage and run-off from unregulated factories) but still managed to support wildlife and birds. People, horses, children all drowned in this marsh over the years, add to that the toxicity of the area, and it was due for a fix. The city finally decided to fill in the marsh between 1920 and 1950, but there was still a bit of marshland left for the murderous purposes of this author .


Excerpt of 1906 Canadian national atlas map of Toronto, showing Toronto harbour.

Portia’s favourite library in Toronto

Portia's favourite library in Toronto
The Queen and Lisgar Branch Library, designed by Robert McCallum, City Architect, was built to serve residents of the city’s west end. The branch opened on April 30, 1909. In 1957, the library’s Foreign Literature Centre was located at the branch. Queen and Lisgar Branch was closed in February 1964, and was replaced by Parkdale Branch Library. The City of Toronto Public Health Department, Parkdale District, now uses the building.


I need a celestial event!

Phases of the Moon
Phases of the Moon

….and other impossible things in Book6.

I had this dream last night about how to involve Sergeant Michaels in Portia’s latest case, and for it to work, I need a celestial event to occur in the summer of 1931 that is visible from London.

No prob, right?

Wikipedia has a listing on Eclipses by century:

1930 Apr 13 5:59 Partial D 111 0.955 1.132 0.112 76 13.42 -8 5:21 6:37
1930 Oct 07 19:07 Partial A 116 -0.981 1.117 0.03 42 0.87 4.6 18:46 19:28
1931 Apr 02 20:08 Total D 121 0.204 2.489 1.508 208 90 12.75 -4.6 18:24 19:23 20:53 21:52
1931 Sep 26 19:48 Total A 126 -0.27 2.432 1.325 228 84 0.18 0.9 17:54 19:06 20:30 21:42
Southern Delta Aquarids
Southern Delta Aquarids as interpreted by http://astrobob.areavoices.com/2011/07/25/uptick-in-meteors-as-summer-ripens/

How about the Delta Aquarid meteor shower instead?

The Southern Delta Aquariids are a meteor shower visible from mid July to mid August each year with peak activity on July 28 or 29 July. The shower originated from the breakup of what are now the Marsden and Kracht Sungrazing comets.

The meteor shower was first recorded by G. L. Tupman in 1870, and was further studied well into 1933. A journalist and astronomer named Ronald A. McIntosh studied the meteor shower in the 1920s, and I think I can therefore extrapolate that Portia Adams, an avid reader, might have come across his articles on the phenomenon.

The viewer/victim would have to be ‘facing South East’ to see the shower (according to this article I found on SpaceDex.com) and would have to be watching before dawn on the 28 or 29th of July.

additional info on lighting

Prompted by the comments below, I’m doing some research today on light pollution and whether it would be possible to see a meteor shower from downtown London in 1931. Here is some helpful data from UK Roads:
“The gradual spread of street lighting across the UK led to the first set of national standards being established during 1927. Due to efficiency and economic constraints, the standards required lighting accompanied by reflectors which would direct all light into a narrow channel in the roadway. This resulted in no uniform illumination of the roadway, causing pavements and large parts of the carriageway to remain unlit. And a large amount of glare where the road was lit!”