A Poisonous Potion

Called by many names, Madame Geneva, Blue Ruin, Mother’s Ruin, the plague of the 18th century may well have been Gin.

William Hogarth‘s “Gin Lane


Madam Geneva was an unholy and unnatural creature that was described as “part whore and part witch.”

She is the central figure in William Hogarth’s 1751 satirical print “Gin Lane”: a drunken woman sprawled on the steps in St Giles’s. She is too drunk with gin to notice the squalor around her or her child falling out of her arms.With her blouse hanging open and the sores of syphilis on her legs, the observer learns what she has had to do to pay for her gin habit, a habit that has aged and destroyed her.  Madam Geneva epitomizes all the evils of gin and its corruption of women. She is the image of failed motherhood and immorality.

Hogarth choice of subject was not coincidence. He was a reformer and “Gin Lane” was his attack on the evils of the gin and this piece highlights the negative female imagery of the gin craze.

The highly published case of Judith Defour, that served as a rallying cry for the reformers, also contributed to the creation of this picture. Together, Hogarth’s work and the Defour murder helped make the case for the passing of the last Gin Act in 1751.

Defour was a single mother who was convicted for the murder of her young daughter, Mary. She strangled her daughter after stripping Mary of the new clothes given by a parish. Judith used the money from their sale to buy gin.47 The Defour case highlighted the dangers of gin that echoed those of reformers: the failure of motherhood and the murder of children.   (http://culturalshifts.com/archives/168)


A Brief History of Gin

Juniper berries, recognized as early as the 11th century by Italian monks for their medicinal properties were distilled and used as a remedy (though ineffectual) for bubonic plague although Franciscus Sylvius, a Dutch physician is accounted as the inventor of gin. By the mid 1600s, the Dutch had begun distilling malt spirit or wine with juniper, anise, caraway, coriander, which was sold by the apothecaries to treat kidney ailments, lumbago, stomach disorders,  gallstones, and gout.

It’s discovery by English troops fighting against Spain coined the term Dutch courage. This drink would later become the second greatest import from the Netherlands  in the 17th century (William of Orange being the first).

In the early 18th century, a period later known as the Gin Craze, the British government began assessing heavy duties on imported spirits, yet allowed unlicensed production of gin (an agricultural product). Distilled from the produce of native agriculture rather than from the grape, the government enthusiastically supported English farmers by banning the import of brandy. The result of these combined actions created a market for inferior quality grain considered unfit for beer brewing.While smuggling made Brandy yet available to the rich who could still afford it, gin became the drink of the poor.

Gin of the eighteenth century, was prepared in illicit stills and often adulterated with turpentine and sulfuric acid, but this cheap and often poisonous potion nevertheless took the lower classes of Britain by storm. By 1740 there were over 15,000 gin-shops throughout England, and production was six times that of beer, and while beer was often safer to drink than water, gin consumption is widely counted as a factor in the higher crime and death rates in London.

At the height of the gin craze London was replete with back-street dram shops and illicit stills. By  1726, London alone had 1,500 stills and 6,287 places where gin was sold. Much of this illegal drink was adulterated with turpentine, alum and sulphuric acid, although sometimes even the juniper juice was omitted, though many died by its consumption.

Gin was the original opium of the people. It replaced milk in a baby’s bottle. Women took easily to it and workmen sold the tools of their trade for gin. Crime and suicide rates increased, and the birthrate fell. During the gin craze, women began drinking side by side with men in gin-shops, leading to increased promiscuity and prostitution. The association between gin and prostitution came about because gin-shops were public places that brought prostitute and customer together. These same gin-drinking women were held responsible for the increased spread of syphilis, with the male responsibility in the spread of venereal disease, widely ignored. Women were singled out and vilified.

The association between alcohol and sexuality also led to assumptions that drinking wives would be adulterous, disorderly and a challenge to their husbands’ authority (and by extension, the authority of the state)  thereby disruptive to the natural order of things in a patriarchal society.

In response to the gin craze, Parliament passed a total of eight Gin Acts between 1729 and 1751. The aims of these Acts changed over this period. Generally, however, the Gin Acts sought to reduce gin consumption and to tax the spirit in order to levy funds for war efforts. The Acts were passed to levy licensing fees, provide rewards for informers of petty hawkers, protect informers from attack, empower private individuals to arrest gin-sellers, and regulate the issuance of licenses.

The Gin Act of 1736, imposing taxes on the gin retailers, the result was rioting in the streets, the growth of organised crime and bootlegging with the consumption of gin actually rising.

The 1751 act was the most successful. It forced distillers to sell only to licensed retailers and brought gin-shops under jurisdiction of the law. After 1751 the craze began to die away, partly because of a succession of failed harvests when no grain could be spared for distilling.

Later in the tropical British colonies, gin would be used to mask the bitter flavor of quinine, the only effective anti-malarial compound. When quinine was dissolved in carbonated water to form tonic water, the result became the origin of today’s popular gin and tonic, although modern tonic water contains only a trace of quinine as a flavoring.

Quote from The London Evening-Post, March 1751:

This wicked gin, of all Defence bereft,
And guilty found of Whoredom, Murder, Theft,
Of rank Sedition, Treason, Blasphemy,
Should suffer Death, the Judges all agree


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