5 Bizarre Ways People Got F'ed Up Throughout History
It seems like all old people want to do is talk about how things were so much better back in their day, that they didn't need gadgets like smartphones to entertain them when there were perfectly good hoops and sticks lying around. But maybe grandma just thinks that because in the good old days she was hopped up on more makeshift drugs than your average high school dropout. Even though each generation thinks that they're the MacGyvers of getting high, the truth is that people have been partying hard since the dawn of civilization. For example ...
People Used To Throw Laughing-Gas Parties And Watch Surgeries At "The Ether Dome"
Nitrous oxide, better known as laughing gas, is either a commonplace anesthetic or a dangerous chemical weapon depending on which Joker you ask. This compound has been around since 1772, but it took doctors a long time to see its medicinal value. Mostly because they were too busy getting seriously high off it.
It was either this or typhoid.
Laughing gas wasn't used for anything surgical for about 70 years after its synthesis. Before that it was marketed as a novel carnival gag. Samuel Colt, who later went on to ruin both the musket industry and the Second Amendment, funded his gunsmithing dreams by selling laughing gas at the circus. Under the alias Dr. Coult (is it an alias if it sounds exactly the same?) his roadshow would "educate" people on the wonders of the goof gas for a quarter per hit -- though we're sure that the first giggle was free. Colt/Coult was far from the only guy passing the gas around. It quickly transformed into a high-society fad to sit in a parlor room and get a bunch of people to start laughing like fools. Famed poet and original druggie rock star Samuel Coleridge once said of the laughing-gas parties: "The first time I inspired the nitrous oxide, I felt a highly pleasurable sensation of warmth over my whole frame. ... The only motion which I felt inclined to make was that of laughing at those who were looking at me."
"Plus, it really keeps the broads in line!"
Colt did the stuff no favors with his snake-oil mercantilism. Because of its circus origins, anyone who suggested that this magic gas could have actual medical value was laughed out of the room. That was until 1846, when a dentist named William Morton put a patient under using nitrous oxide at Massachusetts General Hospital and removed a tumor from the patient's neck. Up to that point, surgery patients had been put under with generous doses of alcohol or opium and on occasion were literally beaten unconscious. When the patient didn't howl in pain, Morton knew he was on to something. And so did everyone watching from the audience stands, because the carnival aspect of medicine didn't going away until much, much later.
Not pictured: The unicycle-riding bear who juggled the discarded tumor.
To wit, the operating theater at Massachusetts General Hospital wasn't even called "the operating theater at Massachusetts General Hospital." It was known as the Ether Dome. Curious onlookers (who were probably also high on ether) could come in and watch all sorts of surgeries being performed, including amputations done by Robert Liston, who was known for his ability to saw off limbs in under three minutes. This was a big draw, because television had not yet been invented, and everyone in the middle- to upper-class was getting high off of medical sedatives all the time.
U.S. Soldiers Used Their Guns As Bongs
The Vietnam War took a tremendous toll on the United States. A whole generation of young men went overseas to fight (and often die) in one of the most senseless conflicts. But the men who were sent out into the jungle did have one way of taking their mind off the relentless horror: The jungle was chock-full of pot, and weapons can send you to heaven in more ways than one.
This is for fighting and for fun.
It's no surprise that there was heavy drug use during the Vietnam war. Being in the center of a brutal conflict seemingly without end while surrounded on all sides by naturally growing pot and heroin will do that to you. But it was a little trickier to get your hands on the paraphernalia with which to get high. That video shows a bunch of U.S. soldiers putting their mouths to the barrel of a 12-gauge shotgun (which they've named Ralph), literally shotgunning some sweet Vietnamese kush. The footage was taken by a documentary crew in 1970, and it became so popular back in the States that 15 years later Oliver Stone paid homage to it by including a very similar scene in Platoon:
But as our hippie grandparents have demonstrated, weed won't exactly kill you. C-4, on the other hand, is pretty famous for doing exactly that. Because of rumors that nibbling on C-4 produced the same kind of high as huffing ethanol gas, some soldiers decided that eating plastic explosives was a good idea. It isn't. To quote some doctors who witnessed this debacle:
"Composition C-4 is the most common plastic explosive employed by the military in Vietnam. Ingestion is followed in a few hours by multiple generalized seizures, hematuria, severe nausea and vomiting, muscle twitching, and mentation changes. Six patients requiring hospitalization were treated by gastric lavage, maintenance of airway, control of seizures, monitoring of urine volume, and maintenance of fluid and electrolyte balance. No fatalities were observed."
Unfortunately, the same couldn't be said for the hospital toilets.
Honestly, if given the choice between being sober in Vietnam and getting dangerously high on plastic explosives in Vietnam, we'd probably snort the C-4 too.
All Female Ailments Were Solved With Cocaine And Opium Tampons
Throughout history, women's healthcare has traditionally been just a notch above terrible, particularly when it comes to vagina-related problems. Most (a term here meaning "pretty much all") doctors were men, who didn't know much about the female body and didn't care to learn. For example, to deal with virtually any female ailment, the prescription for an alarming period of time was simply cocaine tampons. Although, in fairness to the old-timey doctors, this probably did eliminate some of the discomfort women were experiencing, or at the very least made them no longer care about it.
The 19th and early-20th centuries was a time where doctors claimed that everything could be made better with just a little helping of medical-grade cocaine. Women's hoohas were no exception. Cocaine was supposed to become the one-stop shop for all your vagina aches and pains. Painful childbirth? Cocaine tampons. Urethral pain? Cocaine tampons. Does sex hurt sometimes? Cocaine tampons. Even sore nipples? Yeah, try a cocaine tampon and see if that helps.
"You're suffering from cocaine tampon withdrawal? I have just the thing."
As it turns out, "learned" men have always assumed that women's ailments could be cured by some combination of alcohol and opiates stuffed into their vaginas. The Ancient Greeks used opiate-laced wool tampons to alleviate various vaginal pains, which is somewhat of a conundrum, because wool tampons would certainly be the cause of various vaginal pains and would require all of the opiates in the pharmacy just to administer. This classical cocktail of alcohol and opiates survived well into the 1800s, though the practice was mostly kept up by voodoo practitioners. The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum even still has a box of these tampons soaked in booze and drugs on display, for those who for some reason want to take a ride in a specifically disturbing time machine.
"Witches" And "Shamans" Were Really All About Partying
In the Middle Ages, a lot of crazy folk tales were attached to witches. They could fly around on brooms, brew magic potions to turn men into frogs, and they weighed the same as ducks. But while nonsense like flying broomsticks will never be real, no matter how much those real-life quidditch teams want that to happen, witch's brew really did exist. And it could get you high as a paper kite, man.
Ergot, which is a mold hosted by the rye plant (used for making bread), was discovered by housewives to have a unique psychotropic effect. When ingested, it produces a feeling of weightlessness as if flying. Unfortunately, it also produces another side effect associated with flying, namely, intense nausea. Ingested raw, the fungus causes a great deal of gastric distress, so these bored stay-at-home moms needed a way to "tame" their buzz. The solution was to distill the fungus into an ointment (using a cauldron) and then apply the ointment to the skin to produce a more mellow high. To efficiently apply the ointment to the most sensitive and absorptive area of skin, women turned to a common household item: the broom. So, while no one ever actually spotted a green-skinned witch flying through the sky on a broomstick, many a Medieval husband did come home to find his wife drugged out of her mind and galloping around on a broomstick.
"This is ... not what it looks like."
"You're naked and partying?"
"This is ... exactly what it looks like."
Still, that doesn't really sound like a proper brew, which is where Viking shamans come in. The Middle Ages were a time when craft beers weren't on the menu, because hops were thought to "make the soul of man sad and weigh down his inner organs." In other words, regular beer made people sleepy and gassy. To avoid this, many brewers preferred to brew their beers with foraged herbs and spices. Because the job of brewing was typically left to the village shaman, they particularly liked using those with "magical" properties, medicinal and/or hallucinogenic. Beers were brewed with highly toxic substances like henbane, hemlock, meadowsweet, nightshade, and our good friend ergot. Henbane beer in particular became very popular, despite or maybe because of its tendency to transform men into the "perfect picture of mania." Per the brewers' insistence it had to be dug out of the ground by pretty virgin girls (which you'd think would be the creepiest brewing technique to date, but somehow it isn't).
Eventually, the magical beer spread outside of the Nordic lands, reaching down to countries like Germany and Scotland. The word "pilsner" even comes from the German word for henbane (pilsenkraut), showing how popular beer became after introducing the imported version. The practice of henbane brewing did become outlawed in the 16th century, which was still plenty of time to turn the countries it touched into beer fanatics. This isn't too surprising, considering they were basically chugging LSD.
Don't know if you've noticed, but the Germans are somewhat fond of their beer.
Eating People Could Make You Feel Amazing
One of the things that's so fascinating about how ancient humans solved problems is that they just made logical associations and rolled with them. Why does the sun cross the sky? It's probably attached to a flying chariot. Need more crops to grow? Killing that virgin sure did the trick last time. Want to feel like a million bucks? Why not eat the powdered skull of a rich man? Science is easy.
Cannibalism as a means of absorbing the strength of your enemy is a trope usually reserved for Italian horror movies and the Civil War docudrama Ravenous. But up until the late Renaissance, folks from every continent and class believed that there was a strong medical connection between the soul and the body, and that by eating parts of the body one could also absorb part of that person's essence. Even Leonardo da Vinci was on board with this, claiming that the flesh of the dead regains its vigor and intelligence when served up with a nice Chianti and some fava beans.
"Vitruvian Man is actually a serving-size suggestion."
A particular favorite since Roman times was drinking blood, with many wealthy citizens tapping the blood of slain gladiators to get their strength -- which seems dumb, right? Those gladiators lost. Maybe drink the blood of the ones who didn't get killed. Later, nine out of 10 doctors agreed that the fresher the blood, the more potent it would be. Drinking the blood of a virgin straight out of his or her arm, for example, could provide an incredible sensation of youth and vigor. Even poor people, who couldn't afford to buy fresh blood, would crowd the executioner's stand, cups readied to catch the overflow. If Game Of Thrones really were all about medieval realism, peasants would have been doing keg stands on Ned Stark's corpse before the executioner had time to mop up his sword.
"Calm down, calm down. You'll all get some. You're worse than kids crowding a pinata."
On a less vampiric level, people started thinking that maybe mixing other body parts with their food and drink was a good idea. The skull was particularly valued, because that's where smartness came from. King Charles II of England was a big fan of this, spiking his wine with sachets of powdered skull, believing it to be the ultimate pick-me-up for when he really needed to focus. These assumptions endured until terrifyingly recently, with academics like 17th-century "brain scientist" Thomas Willis (we're not sure what credentials he had to back up that title) claiming that mixing powdered skull with chocolate was a good way to alleviate brain hemorrhaging. We can only imagine what it was like to trick-or-treat at that guy's house.
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