RHODYLIFE

The human toll of opium addiction

By KELLY SULLIVAN
Posted 11/19/20

By KELLY SULLIVAN In 1868, it was estimated that up to 100,000 Americans were addicted to opium. Derived from the poppy plant, opium changed the chemistry of the brain, becoming a very powerful painkiller. For this reason, it was administered freely to

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RHODYLIFE

The human toll of opium addiction

Posted

In 1868, it was estimated that up to 100,000 Americans were addicted to opium. Derived from the poppy plant, opium changed the chemistry of the brain, becoming a very powerful painkiller. For this reason, it was administered freely to sick and wounded soldiers in the field hospitals of the Civil War. Many of those who survived their injuries and ailments returned home as opium addicts.

William Driscoll of Johnston was born in 1844, the son of Irish immigrants. On Jan. 12, 1864, while residing in Massachusetts, he enlisted to serve in the war. He was assigned to Company G of the 58th Massachusetts Infantry after its organization in April of that year.

The regiment left Rhode Island on the 28th of April and arrived in Virginia two days later. It saw heavy combat in the Battle of the Wilderness, the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse and the Siege of Petersburg. While 139 of the regiment’s men were killed in action or fatally wounded, 156 died from the effects of disease.

Driscoll’s regiment took part in the Union offensive known as Battle of Peebles Farm, near the rustic log Poplar Grove Church in Virginia. The battle began on Sept. 30, 1864, and went on for two days. Driscoll and several of his comrades were taken prisoner by Confederate forces on the first day. He was later freed during a prisoner of war exchange on March 15, 1865.

Following his honorable discharge three months later, Driscoll removed to Pawtucket where he found work as a file cutter. But it seems his experiences in war might not have been left behind.

On April 6, 1896, he was admitted to the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Kennebec, Maine. He was suffering from diarrhea, dilation of the heart and an opium habit.

He died there at the facility of chronic inflammation of the kidneys on Aug. 8, 1907. His body was shipped back to Pawtucket along with his personal effects in the form of 11 cents in change. The funeral was held Aug. 14. Taps was sounded as his body was committed to the ground of Saint Mary’s Cemetery.

The addiction of opium controlled the lives of many Americans during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, not only soldiers who had returned home from battle. Fathers and farmers, mothers and housewives, the young and the old; no one was exempt from the potential fatal reliance on this readily available painkiller.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.

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