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The True West – History that Inspired Red Dead Redemption: Patent Medicines, Drink and Drugs

Early 20th century America saw not just a rapid period of innovation in the areas of technology, commerce, communications and weaponry – but in the vast ways in which man seeks to improve or cure his health - or simply enhance his pleasure with the aid of drugs. While the use of alcohol, tobacco, stimulants and narcotics both medicinal and recreational date back to the earliest days of recorded history, modern science and industry made their proliferation and popularity widespread. Rash indulgence in dubious patent medicines and "snake oils", illegal alcohol, and extralegal drugs gave way to scrutiny, then caution, and finally, regulation following President Teddy Roosevelt’s election, when Progressive policies of government began actively working to distinguish cures from quackery, and helpful remedies from dangerous poisons via legislation like the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the Harrison Act of 1914. Rockstar Games' latest instalment in the True West series highlights these particular sorts of mind-altering products that players may see historically-relevant references to in the Red Dead Redemption game world.

(Left: An in-game advertisement for Jolly Jack’s chewing tobacco brand as it appears in the Blackwater Ledger.  As was typical of unregulated drugs and tobacco products of the time, false health benefits were promoted with no mention of associated risks.  Right: A real packaged goods tin container of Bright Tiger chewing tobacco circa 1905 as exhibited by the New York Historical Society [Wikipedia Loves Art photo pool: credit _cck_])

The cowboy who chews slowly and shoots quickly is iconic; that’s because, at the time in which Red Dead Redemption takes place, chewing tobacco was arguably the most popular method for getting the stimulation of nicotine, as well as tobacco’s strongest form. Use of the drug in its chewing form dated back to the natives Europeans met upon colonising America—and these new Americans quickly found it pleasurable and irresistible. John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States, once confessed that in his "early youth [he] was addicted to the use of tobacco in two of its mysteries—smoking and chewing.”

In the early 1900s, chewing tobacco was also commonly used as a poultice for wounds, and was believed to relieve toothaches, among other pains. The southern United States dominated tobacco production, and many current major tobacco companies today began by selling it in its chewing form well over a century ago. The chewing form of the drug was so persistently embraced that it even survived bans on smoking tobacco in the nation’s House (1871) and Senate (1914)—by the time of the latter ban, cigarettes had begun to challenge (and eventually overtake) chewing tobacco in sales, as pre-blended and pre-rolled smokes provided a boost in their popularity.

Cocaine, another infamous stimulant, has been consumed in societies for at least the last 15 centuries or more; evidence of usage of coca leaves, from which cocaine is derived, has been found in Peruvian grave-sites ca. 500 AD, and controversially, perhaps even among the Egyptian Pharaohs millennia earlier. By the mid-19th century, the development of a coca-wine by a Corsican businessman (the original French Connection!) spurred the subsequent sale of cocaine less than 50 years later in catalogues and drug stores around the world (for ills such as depression, headaches, toothaches, insomnia and neuralgia), and the creation of the quite famous soft drink Coca-Cola by Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton.

Red Dead Redemption’s Professor Harold MacDougal, who found cocaine "a remarkable drug,” wasn’t alone among society highbrows in praising this vice. Victorian-era celebrities who promoted cocaine use included psychologist Sigmund Freud, actress Sarah Bernhart, and inventor Thomas Edison. Novelists Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who portrayed his fictitious detective hero, Sherlock Holmes, using the drug, and Robert Louis Stevenson, whose Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde tale is thought to have been either influenced by or an allusion to cocaine, even represented cocaine in classic literature of the time. 

Cocaine use exploded in the early 20th century, but ironically, by that time, the same elites that had embraced cocaine now condemned its evils. First, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1914, the precursor for the modern Food and Drug Agency, called for the regulation of habit forming drugs in food and drink, forcing brands like Coca-Cola to alter their formulas. Four years later, President Taft warned Congress that the drug was "more appalling in its effects than any other habit-forming drug used in the United States…[and was] the most threatening of the drug habits that has ever appeared in this country.”  In stark contrast to its earlier portrayal as a wonder-remedy for the well-to-do, lurid stories of crazed "Negroes” imbued with scary rage and superhuman powers re-depicted cocaine as a racially-driven menace; the Harrison Act, heavily controlling and taxing the distribution of previously legal drugs like cocaine, opium and heroin, was passed that same year.

(Left: Snake Oil is among John Marston’s Consumables, providing restoration of your Dead Eye abilities; Right: Nigel West Dickens, the game’s charlatan traveling salesman and purveyor of the essence.)

The term "snake oil” is so closely associated with quacks, crooks and frauds, the legitimate origins of the product often go unreported. In China, where it is known as shéyóu, snake oil was and still is considered a reputable remedy for arthritis, bursitis, and other forms of inflammation and joint pain; and Native Americans used rattlesnake fat for a similar purpose. Even the ancient Egyptians were said to use snake fats in some of their remedies. Made from the fats and oils of the Chinese Water Snake, snake oil is higher in timnodonic acid (a form of omega-3, the substance found in fish oils like salmon oil, and in human breast milk) than any other known source. Think of it as a natural alternative to aspirin, a pick-me-up that helps John Marston completely restore his Dead Eye meter and plug his enemies with a clear head and keen eye.

Some say the pejorative use of "snake oil” for patent medicines began when Chinese immigrants brought the snake oil remedy with them to the Old West and lent it to their European-American contemporaries. Others cite the aforementioned use of rattlesnake fat by Native Americans. In any case, competing patent medicine salesmen would themselves ridicule the legitimate snake oils and talk up their own dubious "miracle” cures, often pitched in colorful travelling medicine shows like the one Dr. Nigel West Dickens hires Marston to perform in during the early missions of Red Dead Redemption.

When famed skeptic and muckraking Collier’s Weekly journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams began debunking fraudulent claim after fraudulent claim, public opinion finally shifted from wide-eyed gullible wonder to a demand for better government supervision of the remedies flooding the market. Adams’ work is often cited as a major inspiration for the Pure Food and Drug Act, a signature policy of President Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive philosophy of government, and the beginning of the end for the wild free-for-all of unregulated drugs and drinks that were peddled to an increasingly consumer-minded citizenry.

(Left: This 1906 "Death’s Laboratory” Collier’s Magazine cover story highlighted the movement against dangerous opium, laudanum and morphine based patent medicines. [Wikimedia Commons]; Right: In Red Dead Redemption, visit the schoolhouse in Armadillo to watch the silent cartoon PSA, "The Dangers of Doctors and Patent Medicines”)

Opium has been cited for its medicinal uses almost from the beginning of human history, and at least one of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, was said to have grown it in his Monticello gardens. Furthermore, the poppy-derived drug was embraced by highbrow 19th century writers like Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and others.

But the widespread abuse of opium and its by-products during the bloody carnage of the US Civil War precipitated a new population of addicted war veterans. Add to that the establishment of opium dens for recreational smoking by some of the Chinese that migrated to America in large numbers during the days of the Gold Rush and later, the Wild West; and finally, the widespread curiosity, if not gullibility, towards consumption of the increasing variety of drugs at the time of Red Dead Redemption; these factors made the explosion of opium, laudanum and morphine users going into the 20th century almost inevitable. Laudanum in particular was widely prescribed for diarrhoea, or for women suffering from morning sickness or menstrual pain, and could be obtained through catalogues of the day like those offered by Sears. Women suffered disproportionately from addiction to opiates: President Abraham Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd was famously a laudanum addict. 

Ironically, morphine was often used the way methadone is used by heroin addicts contemporarily - as a milder alternative to the drug intended to wean users off of opium and laudanum.  As with other strong drugs with addictive properties that were initially underestimated, there was an increasing push to regulate and control these narcotics immediately prior to and during Red Dead Redemption's timeframe.  This movement is represented in the game by the "The Dangers of Doctors and Patent Medicines" PSA cartoon presented by the Temperance Union and Anti-Saloon League that you see at the cinema - our nod to influential organisations like the Prohibition Party, The Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League that successfully pushed for government regulations like the Pure Food and Drug Act, the Harrison Act of 1914, and eventually, Prohibition.

With a name derived from the rural 18th century English smugglers called moonrakers, the home-brewed alcohol known as moonshine evoked illicit origins centuries before Prohibition’s ill-fated attempt at outlawing liquor nationally. That’s because, like many persistent American traditions, moonshine came about thanks to a mix of entrepreneurship and resentment of taxes. The high costs of America’s two greatest wars, the American Revolutionary War and the Civil War, led politicians to raise revenue in both instances by taxing alcohol sales.  For rural folks who relied on moonshine as a way to raise a little extra cash during tough economic times, handing that cash over to the government was unacceptable, and they continued selling the drink without reporting the income to tax collectors.  One source estimates that between five and ten million gallons of illegal liquor was sold annually right before the turn of the century.

Many Americans, even well-to-do folks like doctors and store owners, sold moonshine on the side for extra money off the books; and in Red Dead Redemption, it can be commonly found on the shelves of doctor’s offices and general stores.  While a common misconception of the time was that a swig of alcohol would restore a jolt of sense to a weary or sickened soul, many moonshine drinkers risked a less beneficial result given the lack of regulations on moonshine production.  Certain elements were at times added to moonshine, whether inadvertently in the creation process or to make it seem or taste more potent; and were potentially toxic, whether methanol, lead or even lye.

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