Consumption, Cocaine and the Brontes

A glimpse into some horrifying cures during the time of the Brontes

The Brontes created innovative fiction despite their restricted 19th century lives. Their ill-fated characters like Helen Burns (Jane Eyre by Charlotte) and Mark Woods (Agnes Grey by Anne) died of consumption, revealing real life health issues faced by the Victorians which would be the fate of most of the Bronte family.

Working class folk, unable to afford doctors’ fees, could seek free advice from chemists. Offering home-made remedies (nostrums) or patented ones such as arsenic, morphine and cocaine, pharmacists were more likely to make matters worse! Anyone could become a chemist and they didn’t need formal training.

Victorian stethoscope
Victorian doctor

Typical Victorian Remedies

Bella donna, the toxic plant from the same family as the potato, was used by women to brighten their eyes, despite being a hallucinogenic. It was also a remedy for stomach pains but could cause death. Another example is cocaine (endorsed by Sigmund Freud in the 1880s as a “magical drug”) which was – believe it or not – used to cure alcoholism. Cocaine was the ingredient in many medicines and cordials as an energiser.

Morphine was given to children to treat coughs and toothache. Opium in its pure form was popular, being the chief ingredient in Godfrey’s Tonic along with treacle and water, a remedy for keeping children quiet. Laudanum, a derivative of opium was prescribed for toothache and as a pick-me-up.  Branwell Bronte, being frequently depressed, sought refuge in alcohol from the Black Bull pub and laudanum from John Hardakers in Haworth, (now the Cabinet of Curiosities).

Man of the Cloth or the Quack Doctor?

The alternative to consulting chemists was to turn to your local vicar. Patrick Bronte, clergyman in the Haworth community indeed made medicines. He had a copy of T J Graham’s “Domestic Medicine” and home-made headache tablets and opium remedies were discovered at the Bronte Parsonage.

A third option was to consult quack doctors, like John St John Long for example. He sold deadly “cures” for consumption, narrowily avoiding being charged with manslaughter, only to die of the disease himself at just 36!

Consumption

Consumption was caught by one in four people. Doctors were baffled and prescribed a light diet of port and jelly to relieve symptoms. It was often romanticised, associated with poets languishing on couches. The illness was named so because it was believed to consume the body. German physician Robert Koch discovered in 1882, that it was not a wasting illness but a virus travelling through the bloodstream. The condition was then renamed tuberculosis or TB. Today, the Institute founded in Koch’s name, (at time of writing) continues to analyse the corona virus.

Six Bronte Children

Out of the six children born to Patrick and Maria Bronte we know at least five of them died from the illness. First born Maria aged 12 and her sister Elizabeth, aged 10, died from the disease after attending Cowan Bridge School in Lancashire. The environment had clearly contributed to their deaths since pupils were starved, breakfasting on burnt porridge and washing in basins of ice-water, six pupils at a time.

Cowan Bridge School

Any form of over-crowding leads to easy infection and in regards to their homelife, the Brontes lived in cramped conditions, in their tiny parsonage. They often shared beds and rooms and were thus in clear danger of infecting each other. 

Cowan Bridge School

In 1848, Branwell died, aged 31, his alcoholism having masked many of his TB symptoms. He was swiftly followed by 30-year-old Emily nine months later, who had refused to see a doctor. In May 1849, aged 29, despite the error on her gravestone, Anne died of the same illness. Only Charlotte was left. She died in 1855, weeks before her 39th birthday. Multiple sources cite differing reasons from typhoid to excessive morning sickness to the dreaded consumption.


Cabinet of Curiosities (Haworth)

In short, the Brontes died far too young, all prospects of further novels and – in Branwell’s case, a chance to turn an unhappy life into a successful one – vanquished forever. Widower Patrick outlived them all. Their premature deaths reflect the unhealthy world they inhabited, in which sickness and its cures were as mysterious as their fiction.

Anne’s gravestone, Scarborough

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