Sister Morphine: Ladies’ Choice

Jo Schellenberg and Bruce DuBose as Mary and James Tyrone at Undermain Theatre

Long Day’s Journey Into Night is Eugene O’Neill’s most explicitly autobiographical and deeply personal work. The portraits of his family members as reflected in “all four haunted Tyrones” were so damning that O’Neill explicitly requested that the script “be published twenty-five years after [his] death – but never produced as a play.” One of the most shocking family secrets that takes center stage in this tragedy is the mother’s addiction to morphine. In the decades before this play takes place, the attitude toward drugs and the people who used them in the Unisted States shifted dramatically from one of tacit acceptance to vehement intolerance. This sea-change made the battle with addiction all the more complicated for Mary Ella O’Neill (and by proxy, for her fictional parallel, Mary Cavan Tyrone).


The 1800s to the early 1900s saw a rise in the use of morphine and other opiates for both medicinal and recreational purposes. As early as 1803, when morphine was first synthesized, physicians began calling the cure-all painkiller “God’s own medicine” because of its perceived effectiveness and safety. By the time the mid-century rolled around, so did the invention of the hypodermic syringe, which allowed for the administration of this new cure-all painkiller via injection – even in the privacy of one’s home. This made treatment even more convenient which was good news for doctors treating “women in high places” who were considered exceedingly prone to nervous conditions. Their “fragile” natures meant women were more susceptible to the favorable effects of morphine, making them ideal candidates for treatment. A medical textbook from the year 1886 explained that “to women of the higher classes, ennuyee and tormented with neuralgias or the vague pains of hysteria and hypochondriasis, opium brings tranquility and self forgetfulness.” Remember that at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, the United States was moving out of the Victorian Era, into Prohibition and the Roaring Twenties. (Think two decades after Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” and one decade before Fitzgerald’s novella The Great Gatsby – or smack dab at the start of the first season of Downton Abbey – whatever suits your fancy.) This is the age of medicine where terms like “female hysteria” and the “wandering uterus theory” were being bandied around like nobody’s business, and morphine was the essential ingredient in curing women of almost any ailment that fell under the umbrella term “female problems” and then some.


Had commercial breaks existed in the early nineteenth century, a morphine commercial listing all the ailments treatable by morphine might have sounded shockingly similar to an extended Pepto Bismal jingle (or maybe even folk comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates’ “Weed Card” which lists – in song – every condition for which one can attain a prescription for medical marijuana). The following is a brief – and alphabetical – list of conditions and complaints for which one could be treated with morphine at the end of the nineteenth century. (Please enjoy responsibly.):

Abortion; Constipation; Chronic Diseases; Dysmenorrheal; Falling of the Womb; Female Weakness; Gonorrhea; Hysteria Indigestion; Miscarriage; Nervous Debility; Paralysis; Severe Flowing; Suppressed Menstruation; Uterine Disease; or Vaginitis

And then, of course, there was neurasthenia, or nervous weakness, which served as a comprehensive diagnosis for a myriad of symptoms including – but still in no way limited to:

Chills and Hot Flashes; Depression; Floating Specks Before the Eyes; Headache; Insomnia; Neuralgias; Nervous Dyspepsia; Noises in the Ears: Morbid Fears; Pain and Heaviness; Partial Memory Failure; Pulse Variability or Palpitations; Sensitivity to Changes in the Weather; Sensitivity to Hot or Cold; Sexual Exhaustion; Tenderness of the Scalp, Spine, and Body; Ticklishness; Vague Pains; or Weakening of the Legs.


Cleary, morphine was as popular with prescribing physicians as it was with their patients who found the effects of the drug quite “agreeable”. According to an article by Stephen R. Kandall, entitled “Women and Addiction in the United States: From 1850 to 1920”, upper-class women used opiates to “combat boredom and the loneliness and isolation of rural living”. The shift that changed the landscape of drug use in America was gradual but drastic one. By the start of the twentieth century, societal intolerance of drug use was gaining momentum and was medical understanding of morphine and its dangerous effects was on the rise. By then, however, scholars estimate that over 100,000 women living in the United States were opium users.


It is hard to get an exact picture of how many women struggled with addiction at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, because the new shame surrounding drugs and their users led many addicts to conceal their drug use from family members and close friends. This shift to secrecy is particularly interesting when taking into account the dramatic change in the nation’s idea of what a drug user, formerly a white, genteel, woman of fashion living the life of luxury in rural areas, became a poor, urban, minority male. Silent propagandist films coupled with sensationalist journalism propagated this notion and made it dangerous, spreading the that vulnerable, young, white women would be were lured into opium dens to be seduced, hooked on drugs and turned into prostitutes by minority men. Linking the ideas of crime and sex to drugs with racist propaganda was essential to the cultural attitude adjustment that turned drug use from something fashionable into something deplorable in the minds of mostly white, upper class Americans. It would more than a century after morphine’s synthesis that laws like Supreme Court decisions Webb et al. v. U.S. and U.S. v. Doremus and the Harrison Anti-Narcotic Act in 1914 were passed, making drugs harder to acquire and driving the bulk of drug trade out of the hands of doctors and into brothels and other establishments of ill-repute where many genteel women were unwilling or unable to go. These women were then faced with finding a new way to secure a their supply – at the expense of their reputation and/or physical safety or embarking on the long, harrowing path of withdrawal.


This is the atmosphere in which Long Day’s Journey Into Night begins: women have begun supporting their morphine and other opiate habits in secret, ashamed by the stigma of drug use and its association with a seedy underbelly of crime and prostitution. It was only gradually that the medical community and pharmacies stopped supplying their patients with a steady supply of morphine, and even longer before sympathetic cures and treatment centers would come into existence. In the meantime, women like Ella O’Neill and Mary Tyrone were left with little understanding, struggling in a hell that their doctors knew as little about as they did.

~ Abigail Birkett, Emerging Artist

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