Rat Poison And Coca Leaves In Victorian Sports Doping

“Since this is the age of science, not religion, psychiatrists are our rabbis, heroin is our pork, and the addict is the unclean person.” —Thomas Szasz

In A Nutshell

We know strychnine as a poison, but in the right dose, it can act as a stimulant, too. It was so popular in the Victorian era that athletes would dope up using strychnine or coca leaves before events. The first US Olympics had their marathon won by a man who made it across the finish line driven by brandy, strychnine, and egg whites (and another who was just driven), and it was also common practice in a strange sport called “the wobbles.”

The Whole Bushel

Today, we all know that strychnine is a poison. It’s an incredibly complex plant-synthesized compound, and it causes violent convulsions. In a final, horrifying touch that makes it the perfect poison for murder mysteries, the victim often dies with tight facial muscles and a terrifying smile. It’s not even commonly used in rat poisons anymore because it’s such an awful way to die.

In Victorian America and Britain, though, it had a very different use. You’ve probably read about all the vintage medicine that used strychnine as an ingredient, and if you’ve ever wondered why that seemed like a good idea, the reason’s a strange one.

Doping in sports isn’t new, and at the turn of the 20th century, athletes were doing it with strychnine. This was considered perfectly acceptable.

Strychnine injections were commonplace, used as medicines to cure the aches and pains that go along with extreme athletic ability. It was only around 1917 that scientists studying the impact of the “tonic” realized that it was helping people function at a higher level than they would usually be capable of.

Until then, athletes were using it rather like we use coffee—it’s a pick-me-up that some of us can’t get through the day without. They have some important things in common, too. Both strychnine and caffeine bind to neurotransmitters, changing the speed at which they fire. In low doses, the poison does much the same as caffeine does, but in higher doses, it causes neurotransmitters to fire so rapidly that it quickly turns into restlessness and the trademark convulsions.

The first recorded instance of using an injection of strychnine purely as a performance enhancer came in the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. The marathon was just as bizarre as the rest of the events, but one of the favorites to win was an American named Thomas Hicks. Denied water (Olympic overseers also thought this was a great time to study the effects of dehydration on athletes), he was given a dose of strychnine and egg whites about 11 kilometers (7 mi) before the end of the race. (They also had brandy, but they were saving that for emergencies.)

After the first person to cross the finish line was disqualified (he’d ridden part of the way in a car), Hicks finished the marathon, fueled with more strychnine and egg whites, this time washed down with some of the brandy. He started suffering from hallucinations, his skin turned grey, and he finished the race carried by the trainers that had doped him. They carried him across the finish line (pictured above), but it counted. He was upright, and his feet were moving back and forth.

Chewing coca leaves was also pretty popular among athletes, for obvious stimulant reasons, and it was a favorite in one of the strangest of strange Victorian sports—the wobbles. Also called go-as-you-please races, they were slightly more hard-core than they sound. Walkers would cover hundreds and hundreds of miles over the course of a race that might last a handful of days, and participants could suffer from injuries from the run-of-the-mill bleeding feet to tension throughout their legs and thighs, which would then be sliced open to relieve the pressure.

These athletes in particular were known for chewing coca leaves as they walked, and we can’t say that we entirely blame them.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo via Wikipedia
The Guardian: Sports doping, Victorian style
io9.com: Rat poison strychnine was an early performance-enhancing drug
Royal Society of Chemistry: Strychnine
Smithsonian: The 1904 Olympic Marathon May Have Been the Strangest Ever

  • I wonder if there’s any euphoria in using strychnine. Everything in moderation, but especially rat poison.

    • OldBoris

      “In this moment, I am euphoric. Not because of any phony performance-enhancing drug. But because, I am enlightened by this dose of strychnine.”

    • Clyde Barrow

      I certainly remember the ‘strychnine in LSD’ myth. The saying was “You’re on strychnine, not cloud nine.”

      Of course, the use of strychnine in LSD manufacturing or distibution has never been documented.

      • I just did some research, and wasn’t really surprised to discover strychnine contains a tryptamine backbone (psychedelics are typically either tryptamines or phenethylamines, or analogues of them). From what I’ve read, a small (sub-toxic) amount of strychnine can be a good high. I don’t think the amount required for any effect at all would even fit on a hit of acid, though. A fatal dose of strychnine is 60-100 mg; 100 mg of LSD would equal roughly 1,000 hits of acid. I’m guessing 100 hits of acid is, likewise, just way too much acid.
        If someone took I’m guessing the myth about it and LSD came from people who did actually use a small amount of strychnine for themselves. I’m wondering what the doses required for a recreational dose are. I’ve been meaning to check this out for a while, but now I’m really curious. Also, I was never really sure if Lux was kidding when he sung this; I’m starting to think maybe he wasn’t.

        https://youtu.be/7T7fQp-Dbks

        • Clyde Barrow

          That doesn’t look like credible scientific information….but then again, the user is the best source.

          • I replied to you earlier, but they removed it. Here:

            I just did some research, and wasn’t really surprised to discover strychnine contains a tryptamine backbone (psychedelics are typically either tryptamines or phenethylamines, or analogues of them). From what I’ve read, a small (sub-toxic) amount of strychnine can be a good high. I don’t think the amount required for any effect at all would even fit on a hit of acid, though. A fatal dose of strychnine is 60-100 mg; 100 mg of LSD would equal roughly 1,000 hits of acid. I’m guessing even 100 hits of acid is, likewise, just way too much acid.
            If someone took I’m guessing the myth about it and LSD came from people who did actually use a small amount of strychnine for themselves. I’m wondering what the doses required for a recreational dose are. I’ve been meaning to check this out for a while, but now I’m really curious. Also, I was never really sure if Lux was kidding when he sung this; I’m starting to think maybe he wasn’t.

            [The Cramps “Strychnine” video]

          • Clyde Barrow

            That’s pretty interesting. It appears it takes far less strychnine to get high than nutmeg, which I’ve been told, gets you higher than a rocket if done right.

          • I didn’t really like nutmeg when I did it. It’s more of a delirium similar to belladonna alkaloids (found in jimson weed, which I’ve had). It was better than jimson weed, but that’s not saying much; jimson weed was terrible. Nutmeg contains myristicin, which is the precursor for a psychedelic amphetamine called MMDA.
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myristicin

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MMDA_(drug)

          • Clyde Barrow

            Yeah, I wan’t suggesting nutmeg was pleasurable. That’s the thing these kids on the street has to realize about these new class of “spice” drugs, they aren’t necessarily fun or safe. Some guy in China cooked them up in a lab, alternating a few molecules, to bypass the law. That’s doesn’t sound like a recipe for fun. Good ol’ fashioned mushrooms will do the trick, to the right minded individual.

          • Yeah. I’ve read there are some decent synthetic cannabinoids, but I never really had to do any. I smoked spice (god knows what kind out of hundreds), and I didn’t like it. This one girl I was going out with brought some over; she couldn’t smoke real weed because of work. Maybe we just smoked way too much; all we could do was sit there awkwardly and wait for it to pass.
            Have you ever smoked that butane hash oil? It’s pretty much just pure 100% THC. I’m not the biggest fan of pot, but I’ve smoked it. That shit is pretty crazy, but I did enjoy it to some extent. I don’t smoke weed very much; the BHO was very psychedelic for me.