Spirits go straight to your head

phenomena of the more advanced stages of intoxicationI recently stumbled across this intriguing snippet in John Cooke’s A Treatise on Nervous Diseases (1824):

I am informed by Mr. Carlisle, that “a few years since a man was brought dead into the Westminster Hospital who had just drunk a quart of gin for a wager. The evidences of death being quite conclusive, he was immediately examined; and within the lateral ventricles of the brain was found a considerable quantity of a limpid fluid distinctly impregnated with gin, both to the sense of smell and taste, and even to the test of inflammability.” The liquid, says Mr. Carlisle, “appeared to the senses of the examining students as strong as one third gin to two thirds water.”

From what I’ve read, it is just plausible that bodily fluids might take on the smell of strong liquor if a patient has drunk a very large amount; there are certainly numerous accounts of blood taken from alcoholics smelling of whisky or similar. So I would not reject this anecdote out of hand, although it seems highly unlikely that the alcohol was anything like as concentrated as is suggested. In article published in 1855, Dr John Macpherson claimed that

Alcohol is found in the brain, a fact I have witnessed when rum was very apparent in the lateral ventricles.

Another example can be found in an article in the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal from 1833 by Francis Ogston, a police surgeon who became one of the leading authorities on medical jurisprudence. It’s a serious and thorough examination of advanced alcohol intoxication which – unusually for the period – looks at the medical aspects of the problem without condemning the moral health of the affected patients. Ogston witnessed this case:

The body of a woman, aged 40, of the name of Caltie, who was believed to have drowned herself in a state of intoxication, was found on the 23d of August 1831 in the Aberdeenshire canal. In company with another medical man I was requested to inspect the body, in order to report the cause of death, no one having witnessed the act. In addition to the usual appearances in drowned persons, we discovered nearly 4 drachms [a third of an ounce, or ~10 g] of fluid in the ventricles, having all the physical qualities of alcohol, as proved by the united testimony of two other medical men who saw the body opened, and examined the fluid.

But the best thing about Ogston’s article is surely this little story about two old men behaving badly:

The subject of case 22, was an old man, of spare habit, of about the age of seventy. One evening in November last, he was entertaining a friend from the country, also an old man; the wife and a son of each being present. The bottle was produced, and, during its circulation, the elders began to boast of the high social qualities and superior strength of endurance of their generation as compared with the degeneracy of the rising race.

This narrative – the younger generation are worse than we used to be – is as old as Time. As long ago as 23 BC the Roman poet Horace lamented:

What does not threatening time presage?
Worse than their sires’, our fathers’ age
Produc’d ourselves still worse — in time
To blush for sons more stain’d by crime.

(translated by John Scriven, published 1843)

If they thought themselves morally superior to their children’s generation, these old chaps had a funny way of demonstrating it:

This being tacitly assented to on the part of the juniors, the conversation turned on the drinking feats of the seniors in their younger days; but not being able to maintain unanimity on this point, the two old men, backed each by his respective spouse, betted against each other which would be found to bear most drink. To settle the affair as speedily as possible, it was agreed that glass about of the undiluted spirit (whisky) should be swallowed until one or other confessed that he was vanquished.

Very grown-up!

This foolish contest continued till two bottles had been emptied of their contents, when our patient fell suddenly from his chair insensible. Alarmed at his situation, a medical gentleman in the vicinity was called in, and at his request, I saw him soon afterwards. The instant removal of the contents of the stomach did not afford any apparent relief. He was put to bed, the head kept elevated, and a stimulating cathartic enema ordered, to be followed by small doses of carbonate of ammonia at short intervals. Next morning by nine he was perfectly recovered.

Lucky fellow.

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