Researching hundreds or thousands of direct ancestors and collateral relatives, one expects to find some alcoholics or problem drinkers. They often show up in the newspapers getting into accidents or getting arrested. Sometimes their death records make it clear that alcohol caused or accelerated their demise even if their obituary does not. One of the saddest death notices I have read was for Joel Wilkins, the husband of my 5th great aunt Elizabeth Haseltine West. She had left him a few years before he was found in December of 1891, “frozen stiff” in a shed in Danvers, Massachusetts. His death record indicates he died of “alcohol and exposure.”
Though alcohol has been the most common drug of abuse throughout European and American history, I have a British relative who died from an overdose of laudanum, an alcoholic extract of opium.
A typical bottle of laudanum would be 25-60% alcohol and about 10% opium by weight. In the 19th century it was prescribed to people of all ages for everything from coughs and menstrual cramps to heart disease and yellow fever. It was also used in many home remedies and in the patent medicines whose makers guaranteed that their product would solve all of one’s problems. As a result many people became laudanum addicts, including Mary Todd Lincoln and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Duncan Clerk Winter was born 16 May 1829 in Martock, Somerset, the son of glove manufacturer John Winter and his wife Mary Presgrave. The 1841 census captures him in Kent, living at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School at Sevenoaks, where the headmaster was Duncan’s uncle, the Rev. William Presgrave.
By 1851 Duncan was boarding in Leeds, Yorkshire and working as a commercial traveler or traveling salesman, selling shoe lastings, a trade he would follow the rest of his life. In 1858 at Bradford, Yorkshire, he married Sophia Vincent Whitworth, the daughter of my ancestor Robert Whitworth, a wine merchant in Wakefield, Yorkshire. Duncan and Sophia had five children between 1858 and 1867, though one died in infancy.
At some point about two years before his death, Duncan became very ill and had difficulty sleeping. The opium and alcohol in laudanum do promote sleep, and he seems to have become addicted to the substance in the last months of his life. The inquest after his death determined the cause to be an overdose. Sadly Sophia died the next year, leaving their four living children orphaned. The youngest, James Presgrave Winter, was only eight years old.