The Archaeology of Morphine – Michael Jackson’s Darkest Hours

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Morphine is one of the most famous drugs in the world and has brought to an end, the lives of some of the most famous people on the planet. Morphine abuse is news nearly every day of the year throughout the world.

In the Irish national newspaper the Independent, a report on the 22nd of July A.D. 2013 discusses how Dr. Liam Farrell, a GP became addicted to Morphine, a result of the stress brought on by being in positions of “immense responsibility and trust”.

There are a myriad of factors which bring on the need to take Morphine or any other drug, but once you begin it is difficult to stop. How did we get this far with Morphine? Well, its history is quite recent, but its roots go much deeper. This article will look at the history of morphine, the use of opium in prehistory and Michael Jackson’s portrayal of the drug in a practically unknown song he wrote and recorded.


The Structure of Morphine : Wiki Commons
The Structure of Morphine : Wiki Commons

A new more potent drug was unleashed on the world 209 years ago in the dead of winter A.D. 1804 by Friedrich Wilhelm Adam Sertürner (A.D. 1783 – A.D. 1841). The uneducated 21 year old pharmacist assistant had a curiosity to rival that of Alice in her wonderland. Friedrich was interested in the properties of opium, eventually isolating an organic alkaloid compound. He asked three of his friends to ingest 30 mg of this compound each, after 45 minutes the three experience abdominal pain like no other and Friedrich had to induce vomiting on all three.

Friedrich Sertürner : Wiki Commons

Unperturbed, he continued to test the positive and negative effects of the drug, often on himself. A side effect he noticed in particular – sleepiness – gave him a reason to name the new drug Morphine after Morpheus, the Greek God of Dreams. Friedrich announced his discovery on the 21st of May 1805 in a letter to a pharmacy journal. Twelve years later, he wrote another paper which helped launched a new sub-discipline called Alkaloid Chemistry. Interest in the drug was not truly sparked until a year later when a French physician François Magendie published a paper describing the beneficial effects of the drug on a young ill girl who required sleep. The drug was made available to the public in 1817 by Sertürner & Co. And by the 1820’s many manufacturers were producing the drug thereafter. Initially, it was marketed as a treatment for alcohol and drug addiction, but the drug was found to be more addictive than opium and as the decades passed by, it became clear that Morphine needed to be used carefully.

During the American Civil War, hundreds of thousands of soldiers suffered from the so called Soldier’s (Army’s) Disease, a disease which is claimed to have been a basic Morphine addiction. The drug found its way into the United States of America and by the early 20th century the drug could be bought easily without prescription. Estimates are difficult to confirm, but depending upon who you read 250,000 to 1,000,000 Americans were addicted to Opium by A.D. 1900.

A.D. 1853 sees the invention of the hypodermic needle, which allowed drug users to bypass the respiratory system to enter the blood. The combination of bypassing the various anatomical systems of the human body and the refining of the poppy’s sap to a pure organic chemical that led to the thousands of addicted war veterans of the major wars to come. Laws were introduced to ban drugs within certain cultures, such as the Mexicans and Chinese immigrants.

American Civil War : Wiki Commons
American Civil War : Wiki Commons

In A.D. 1876, the inhabitants of Chinatown, San Francisco were prohibited from smoking opium and opium dens were shut down. The Narcotic Act of A.D. 1914 made the sale of such drugs illegal, though prescription continued unhindered. The law in the United States continued to wrestle with drug abuse. Drug use and human nature go hand in hand. Humans have used drugs to achieve alter states of consciousness for thousands, maybe tens of thousands of years. Prior to the refinement of drugs such as Heroin, Morphine and others, the sap of the opium poppy was consumed. Let’s look at the deeper roots of humanity’s love affair with drug use.

Opium Poppy : Wiki Commons

Opium was extracted from the Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum) and evidence of cultivation goes back as far as 6,000 years ago in ancient Sumeria. Thus far, the oldest reference to the use of Opium is on the Ebers papyrus scroll, written about 3550 years ago in an Ancient Egyptian tomb near Luxor. The papyrus discusses the benefits of opium ingestion such as a sedative for children and relief from teething pain. About 3,400 years ago, the famous Minoan culture worshipped the Goddess of the Poppies.

Aelius Galenus or Claudius Galenus : Wiki Commons

How do we know this if there are no written records? Well, the goddess in question was crafted in clay with the key feature of three hairpins in the shape of well-slit poppy capsules (Mekones). A religious rite associated with this Goddess was portrayed on a gold ring from the ancient city of Mycenae in the Peloponnese.

There is reference to opium consumption in the Homeric epic about Helen of Troy. She has been returned to Greece after the successful employment of a wooden horse to infiltrate the city of Troy. After the celebration of Helen’s return, she retires to her room and mixes a drug with some wine. This combination helped Helen forget painful memories. No person “could shed a single tear that day” after ingesting such a combination. Opium is almost certainly the drug that was slipped into her wine. Herodotus noted that northern coastal communities of the Caspian Sea inhaled the smoke of burnt poppy heads bringing on a sense of euphoria, 2600 years ago.

The 2nd century A.D. sees the Greek physician Galen promote its use and it is from him that we get the first known warning about the potency of this drug. Opium was also prescribed by Arab physicians for the treatment of eye problems and diarrhea in the Middle Ages (A.D. 500 to A.D. 1500), while Arab traders brought it to China and India. Chinese physicians prescribed opium for the ailments of diarrhea, stomach aches, dysentery, coughing and ailments of the intestines, lungs and kidneys.

The site of Viborg Søndersø, Denmark, dating to between A.D. 1018 – A.D. 1035, had faecal deposits, which contained traces of poppy seeds. Poppy ingestion was therefore part of eating practices in Viking Denmark. The introduction of tobacco from the America’s brought about a new age in drug consumption. Why ingest the sap, when you can smoke it, by-passing the digestive process to the lungs straight to the blood. In the late 1700s, there began a booming opium trade in India, particularly around Bengal. The British East India Company traded opium for silver, which was in turn used to purchase tea. So important was this trading that it brought two countries into conflict, a war often referred to as the Opium War.

An Opium Den in Chinatown, San Francisco, USA, c. A.D. 1880’s – Credit: Wiki Commons

A link can be found between the use of particular medicines and different societies. Recent research examined the evidence of narcotics from five sites in San Diego, California between A.D. 1876 and A.D. 1920. These sites represented different cultures, one of which was Chinese. Chinese labourers consumed the least amount of patent medicines, nevertheless the researchers found that all five sites had patent medicines bottles. Depending upon what culture one grew up in, this would determine which form of medicinal treatment one relied upon. Chinese labourers relied on medicinal practices from the motherland and their familiarity with Opium.

Patent medicines (products sold without prescription, list of ingredients and ironically usually without an official US patent) were at best useless and a “dose of poison” at worst. Some patent medicines contained 50% morphine. But people still fell for these, primarily through the effectiveness of the product to give them that, high and also the advertising campaigns. Early 20th century America experience its first taste of aggressive advertising, in the form of print media and radio advertising.

A form of peer pressure finished off the process, where the minority would have to buy the products because the majority were doing so. Consumer behaviour was and still is determined by the need to fit in to society. Manufacturers also enlisted doctors to help promote their products. Another factor was the expensiveness of professional care, compelling purchase of cheap products. We will now move forward in time and examine the portrayal of Morphine in music and its most famous addict.

Michael Jackson with the Reagans : Wiki Commons

Known the world over, the musical works of Michael Jackson became a staple of radio airtime and personal music collections. The creative hits of this musical genius have been played over and over again. He was the man that helped break down the racial barriers in popular culture, particularly music. In the mid A.D. 1990’s, Jackson began to experience a decline in his popularity, incurred by the constant tabloid attention, the molestation cases, marriages and divorces. This period of Jackson’s musical adventure is the most underappreciated of his four decades as a musician.

The album Blood on the Dance Floor – HIStory in the Mix to date is the best selling remix album of all time, with over 11 million copies sold as of A.D. 2011. But alongside the seven remixed versions of songs from the earlier album HIStory, there are four new songs recorded mostly during the HIStory Tour period. Morphine ranks as the darkest song on this concept album, with an addict facing the power and deadly grasp of a powerful drug. It is a song drawing from the Industrial Genre, a genre which has its origins in 1970’s Britain and Germany. You can sense real anger and frustration in Jackson’s vocals accompanied by that relentless funky crashing of Slash’s guitar and percussion. The song is made all the more poignant after the tragic death of the man himself.

The song is a rollercoaster ride of emotion, from sadness, to anger, to desperation all in a state of euphoria. Half way through the song the relentless funky beat gives way to orchestral pop, representing the relaxing effects of the drug Demerol. The toxicology report in the aftermath of Jackson’s death found traces of Demerol in his system. This drug is an opioid analgesic and though not Morphine it acts in much the same way. About 90 seconds later the addict returns to harsh reality, with the return of the crashing percussion. Michael Jackson chose to turn his experience of Demerol into a song.

He was introduced to morphine after the pyrotechnical accident of the 1984 Pepsi commercial. It was not until the 1993 Child Molestation case that Jackson, deprived of sleep brought about by stress, needed narcotics to relieve pain and allow him to sleep. A friend of his, Elizabeth Taylor intervened to help Jackson fight his drug habit. Sadly, this was ineffective and he persisted in taking drugs until Doctor Conrad Murray unintentionally brought Michael Jackson’s life to an end, through negligence as a doctor and breaking key rules. Many famous celebrities have died of drug overdoses, Elvis Presley died of polypharmacy amongst other factors. Michael Jackson in a deep discussion with Lisa-Marie Presley made his worst fears known.

‘I am afraid that I am going to end up like him (Elvis), the way he did’.”

His worst fears were realised on the 25th of June A.D. 2009. He will be missed but his music lives and lives on in one song to remind us of the power of Morphine. Archaeology talks too us through the artefacts humans left behind and through it we are beginning to understand our relationship to the drug over the thousands of years.

It was sometimes necessary, part of cultural rituals, but today primarily used for leisure, the power of the drug extracted from the poppy and the ability for us to inject the dose directly into the blood stream means that we have tried in vain to eradicate the powerful grasp Morphine has on societies throughout the world.

It is sad that the curiosity of a simple pharmacy assistant 209 years ago, unleashed a truly harmful and life-threatening chemical into the world. Indeed, shortly after Friedrich Sertürner discovered the new drug, his own wife became the first recorded victim of Morphine. Distraught, Sertürner warned all of the danger associated with such as powerfully refined drug. He was too late; the damage was done.


2005 – Hughes – Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore – Random House
2010 – MacGregor – A History of the World in 100 Objects – Penguin Books Ltd.
2011 – Seppala & Rose – Prescription Painkillers: History, Pharmacology, and Treatment – Hazelden Publishing
2011 – Vogel, John – Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson – Sterling Publishing
2013 – Collins, L. Katherine – An anthropological and archaeological analysis of American Victorian (1876- 1915) and Progressive Era (1900-1920) – San Diego State University
2013 – Sloth et al – Viking Age garden plants from southern Scandinavia diversity, taphonomy and cultural aspects – Danish Journal of Archaeology

Michael Jackson sculpture – Header Image Credit : WikiPedia

Written by Charles T. G. Clarke

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