Sherlock Holmes is a masterful and intelligent investigator created by writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For years, stories of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures with his sidekick and closest companion, Dr. John Watson, have captivated avid readers and mystery lovers alike. But today, we aren’t discussing the character’s eerie ability to see what the average human doesn’t, but rather his experience with drug abuse. Was Sherlock Holmes an addict? Let’s find out.
The 19th century, or the Victorian era, was a crucial period in the development of drug abuse in terms of potency and frequency of use. Not only were alcohol and coca popular substances of use, but opium use took the number one spot as the most common drug problem in the Victorian era.
While opioid abuse was considered drug misuse among the lower classes, it was seen as nothing more than a habit among the middle and upper classes. Opium dens were especially popular during this time. These were establishments where opium was sold and smoked. Patrons would recline on chairs to hold the long opium pipes over oil lamps that would heat the drug to create a vapor that users would inhale.
In addition to opium dens, the drug was so common that infant cordials containing opium were used to quiet babies and young children. Even written classics set in this era mentioned opium use, including Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, where he wrote, “There were opium dens where one could buy oblivion, dens of horror where the memory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of sins that were new.”
At this time, the India-China opium trade was crucial to the British economy. In fact, Britain had fought in two wars called the “Opium Wars” because of the immense profit that could be gained from trading opium (although Britain at the time claimed they fought simply to support free trade against the Chinese restrictions).
After the British captured Calcutta in 1756, the cultivation of poppies for opium was encouraged by the British, and the trade of this drug contributed to the formation of the East India Company.
Opium and other narcotic drugs that are either illegal or only obtainable with a prescription today were readily available during the Victorian era. People could walk into a chemist to buy laudanum, cocaine, opium, and even arsenic without a prescription.
Laudanum, a tincture of opium containing 10% powdered opium, was the “aspirin” of the 19th century and was used as a painkiller and relaxant, recommended for ailments like coughs, rheumatism, menstrual cramps, and perhaps the most disturbing of all, as use on babies and young children to help them go to sleep. Considering that 20 to 25 drops of laudanum only cost a penny, it was affordable for people of all social classes at the time.
Even famous poets, writers, and authors like Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot were laudanum users. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley even suffered terrible laudanum-induced withdrawal symptoms and hallucinations.
Victorians with laudanum addictions would enjoy euphoric highs followed by deep lows of depression, along with other side effects like slowed speech, impaired judgment, and inhibited coordination and movement. Withdrawal symptoms include aches, cramps, and nausea, but at the time, there were no medically monitored detox services to help.
Despite these recognizable changes, it wasn’t until the 20th century that laudanum addiction was recognized as a problem. And it wasn’t until 1910 when the anti-opium movement finally won a victory and had Britain agree to dismantle the India-China opium trade.
Now that we have a better idea of what drug use was like in the Victorian era, we can better analyze Sherlock Holmes’ addiction. Yes, Sherlock Holmes was a drug addict and used multiple substances, especially tobacco and cocaine.
Although Holmes seems to have been a wine connoisseur, with his preference being French wines, there weren’t any signs of alcoholism in Doyle’s writing. For instance, in The Sign of Four, he drank burgundy for lunch, and in The Adventure of the Gloria Scott, he drank after dinner, but there was never any indication that he did this too frequently or compulsively.
However, he was a compulsive smoker, and in that sense, was addicted. Holmes smoked cigars, cigarettes, and pipes. He kept his cigars in the coal-scuttle and his tobacco in the toe of a Persian slipper.
If you recall the telltale logo on the Sherlock Holmes books, you’ll notice that there’s always a pipe in his mouth. But at the time, Victorian readers wouldn’t have thought twice about this fact because smoking was so common, and therefore wouldn’t have thought to consider his compulsive smoking an addiction.
However, despite his compulsive tobacco smoking, his true nemesis was cocaine. Cocaine’s history begins centuries ago, when the Incas of Columbia, Peru, and Bolivia chewed coca leaves for their stimulating side effects as well as mystical religious, social, and medicinal purposes.
When the Spanish settlers arrived, they initially banned the use of coca leaves, believing them to be an agent of the devil. However, they eventually realized that without coca, the natives couldn’t work as quickly or efficiently. Thus, coca leaves were distributed to laborers three to four times a day. Eventually, coca leaves made their way to England and soon became a common antidote for various ailments.
Keep in mind that Victorians often used cocaine regularly. In fact, people would even send it to British soldiers during World War I in kits that were sold at Harrods described as a “Welcome Present for Friends at the Front.” These kits contained not only cocaine but also morphine, syringes, and needles.
Because Arthur Conan Doyle’s practiced ophthalmology, he might have been familiar with the medical uses of cocaine. However, there’s no specific evidence of him ever being a cocaine user. But the same cannot be said for his famous character.
Conan Doyle first introduced Sherlock Holmes’ cocaine addiction in 1887 in A Study in Scarlet. In this book, Dr. Watson observes, “On these occasions, I have noticed such a dreamy, vacant expression in his eyes, that I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic.”1 Sherlock’s cocaine addiction is mentioned again in The Sign of Four when he injects himself with a seven percent solution of cocaine.
As Dr. Watson watches Sherlock do this, he says, “It is cocaine, a seven-percent solution. Would you care to try it?” In subsequent Sherlock Holmes stories, Watson continues to observe the detective’s cocaine habit and even mentioned that the occasional use of cocaine was Sherlock’s only vice in The Adventure of the Yellow Face.2
It wasn’t until the publication of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution: Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson M.D. that Sherlock Holmes’ cocaine addiction was solidified. This “lost manuscript” of Dr. Watson was a 1974 novel written by Nicholas Meyer.
In the novel, Holmes tells Watson that he thinks Professor James Moriarty is the “Napoleon of Crime.” However, Watson soon discovers that Sherlock’s reality is distorted, and his belief is the result of unaddressed childhood trauma.
Moriarty was Sherlock’s and his brother Mycroft’s mathematics professor when they were children. When Watson meets Moriarty, the professor explains the trauma that Sherlock and his brother experienced as children.
Specifically, their father murdered their mother for committing adultery and then committed suicide. Watson can lead Holmes to Vienna on the “trail” of Moriarty.
However, the doctor’s true intention was to introduce Holmes to renowned psychologist Sigmund Freud, a recovered cocaine addict himself.
Watson wanted Freud to use hypnosis to cure Holmes of his cocaine addiction. The novel concludes with Watson returning home to London and Holmes remaining in Europe, apparently cured of his addiction.
Although Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, and ignorance could be used as an excuse for the frequency of drug abuse in the Victorian era, today there’s no excuse. We know enough now to understand the dangers of drug abuse.
In 2019, nearly 50,000 Americans died from opioid-related overdoses.3 Today, 31.9 million people in the United States ages 12 and older currently use illegal drugs like cocaine.4
If you’re struggling with drug addiction or alcoholism, we can help. Not only does Banyan Treatment Centers offer various forms of drug and alcohol treatment in Massachusetts, but we also offer family therapy to help our patients’ loved ones recover from the impact of substance abuse, as well.