Luther Benson.

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After driving about eight miles we halted at a place called Smelser's
Mills, where we were supplied with a bottle of Hostetter's Bitters, which
we drank without delay, and which was strong enough to make us reasonably
drunk, but which, nevertheless, did not come up to our ideas of what liquor
should be. My experience has been that about the worst and cheapest whisky
ever sold is that sold under the name of "bitters," and it costs more than
the best in the market. Excuse the word "best," but certain parts of
Dante's hell are good by comparison. I say to all and every one, shun every
drink that intoxicates, and shun nothing quicker than the patent medicines
which contain liquor, and while you are about it, shun patent medicines
which do not contain liquor. The chances are that they contain a deadlier
poison called opium. At any rate they seldom cure and often kill.

After drinking our bottle of poisonous slop - that is, Hostetter's
Bitters - my friend and I began to boast, and each labored hard to impress
the other with his greatness. In order to make the proper impression, we
agreed that it was highly important that we should demonstrate the large
quantity we could drink and still be reasonably sober. I knew of a place a
few miles further on - a place called Hittle's - where I felt sure I could
get whisky without an immediate outlay of cash, a consideration of
importance since neither I nor my friend had a penny. We went to Hittle's,
and there I was successful in an attempt to get a quart of whisky, which we
at once proceeded to mix with the Hostetter article already burning up the
lining of our stomachs. The effect was not long in appearing, for in a
little while we were both very drunk, and I in particular was in the
condition best described as howling, crazy drunk. We stopped at a house to
light our cigars - for of course we both smoked and chewed tobacco - and as
my friend did not feel like getting out, I reeled into the kitchen and
picked up a shovelful of coals, which I lifted so near my mouth that I
scorched my hair and burnt my face, and, worse than all, singed the faint
suggestion of a mustache that was visible by the aid of a microscope, on my
upper lip. While I was engaged in lighting my cigar, a large dog - a tall,
lean, much-ribbed, lank and hungry-looking hound - went out to the sleigh,
and my friend induced him to accept passage with us; so when I got back to
my seat it was proposed that the hound should accompany us. I have often
wondered since if he was not heartily ashamed of being seen in our company
that day; but we made a martyr of him all the same.

We drove off with a succession of whoops and yells, and carried the hound
in front. Our first halt was at Falmouth, where we ordered oysters. The
room in which we sat at table was quite small, and a large stove whose
sides were red with heat made it uncomfortably hot - especially for us who
were already in a sultry state. I had not sat at the table a minute when I
fell from my chair against the stove. My leg struck a hinge of the door,
and as my friend was too much overcome to realize my condition, I lay there
until the hinge burnt a hole through the leg of my pantaloons and then into
the flesh. I carry a scar to-day in memory of that time, and the scar is
about three inches long. The burn was over half an inch in depth. God only
knows what might have been the final result had not assistance soon come in
the person of the owner of the house. He called for help, and as soon as it
arrived we were placed in our sleigh, and by a kind of instinct drove to
Fairview. It was dark by the time we got into Fairview, but we contrived
to get our horse within the stable and that unfortunate hound into a
corn-crib, in which durance he howled so vigorously that the wild winds
which whistled and shrieked around the barn could not be heard for him. His
complaining lasted all night, and I do not think any one within a mile
of the crib slept that night, my friend and myself excepted. Ay, we
slept - slept as I have so often slept since - a slumber as deep and
oblivious as death - a drunken sleep, from which we awoke to suffer hell's
tortures so justly merited by our conduct. I awoke with a throbbing, aching
heart, but by slow degrees did I become conscious that I had been somewhere
in a sleigh and done something either very desperate or very foolish, or
both. At first my mind was so muddled, so beclouded with the fumes of
the infernal "bitters" and whisky that I thought I had burned a city.
While I was trying to solve the mystery of my course, I was aided by a
revelation so sudden that it startled me, for the owner of the hound came
galloping up and fiercely demanded to know where his dog was. He rated us
severely - accused us of stealing the animal, and threatened to prosecute us
then and there. I knew what we had done. In the meantime some one opened
the door of the crib and turned out the hound. He must have recognized the
voice of his master, for he joined the latter in his howling, and between
them they gave us good reason to wish that our ambition to keep that dog's
company had been in vain. The dog was more easily pacified than the man,
but finally on our offering to give him three plugs of tobacco to hush up
the affair, he became quiet and smoothed the ragged front of his anger. On
adding a cigar or two to the plugs, he brightened up and said we might have
the "darned houn'" any how, if we wanted him. But we had had enough of his
society and were willing to part from him without further expense.

I don't think, seriously speaking, that I ever suffered more keenly from
the stings of remorse and fear than I did for one week after this debauch.
The remarkable part of it to me was our determination to take the dog. All
my life I have disliked dogs - dogs in general and hounds in particular. I
resolved never to drink again, and for some time kept the resolution.

A few weeks following this "spree" there was an exhibition at the school
house, and several of the larger boys - myself among the number - assembled
themselves together, and, after a consultation, decided that, in order to
make the exhibition a success, there should be a limited amount of whisky
secured for our special use. We took up a collection, each contributing a
few cents, and two of the largest, tallest, and stoutest boys were
dispatched to Vienna, a small village three miles distant, to get it. A
vision of hounds passed before me, but the desire to get a drink drove them
yelping out of memory. The boys, on reaching Vienna, bargained for three
gallons of liquor, and brought it to our general headquarters. It was
wretched stuff - the vilest, meanest, rottenest poison that ever went under
the name of whisky. The boys who got it had carried it the three miles by
passing a stick through the handle of the jug. They got drunk on the way
back with it, and one of them fell into a branch, dragging the jug and the
other boy after him. Unfortunately the jug was not broken, and fortunately
the boys were not seriously hurt. It was a little after dark when they
stumbled across the meeting house yard to where we awaited them. The
following day we attacked the contents of the jug, and before midnight we
were all drunk - some rather moderately drunk, some very drunk, and some
dead drunk, as the phrase is. I myself was of the number that were dead
drunk. Some of the boys kept sober enough to fight, but I never would
fight, drunk or sober. I do not think I am a coward as regards personal
courage, and I really think the fear of hurting others restrained me from
ever mixing in brawls in those days.

As the night wore away two or three of the boys became sober enough to hide
the jug, which they concealed in a corn-shock. These dragged the rest of us
to bed, although one of the party woke up in the wood-box with his head
downward and his feet dangling over the top of the box. Only those who have
been so unfortunate as to be in a similar condition can realize our state
of mental and physical feeling. Parched lips, scalded tongues, cracked
throats, throbbing temples, and burning shame were indisputably ours. So we
awoke on the morning of the day set apart for the exhibition, an exhibition
in which we were to appear before our respected teacher, friends and
relatives, besides all the people of the surrounding country. Early in the
day we commenced to get ready for the afternoon's work by resorting to the
same jug that so recently had bereft us temporarily of reason, and laid us
in the mud and snow. I only got one big drink of the poison and so
contrived to get through passably well with my part of the performance;
some of the boys got too much, and failed to remember anything, so that
they failed utterly and hid behind the curtains, and, taken all in all, we
did little or nothing toward the success of the exhibition or to making
those interested gratified with our parts. Some of the boys who figured on
the stage that day are dead; but others are alive and of those I am not the
only one writhing in the coils of the serpent of alcohol, though not one of
them has fallen so low as I. If at that time I might have been permitted to
lift the curtain and looked down future-ward through the unlighted years of
shame, and weariness, and suffering, I think the dreadful vision would have
stayed me forever in a career which has only grown darker and more
unendurable with every step. I kept on much in the same way, increasing in
length and frequency my ever recurring debauches, until the end of the
school term.

I was well nigh twenty years of age, and from this place went to Cincinnati
to attend college. Here the opportunities to gratify my hereditary
appetite, made keen and sharp, and ever keener and sharper by indulgence,
were all about me. My companions were older and further advanced on the
road to ruin than I. My steps were more swift than ever before to tread the
path which leads surely to the everlasting bonfire. I could not fail to
notice while at college that the most brilliant and intellectual - those
whose future prospects were the most pleasing and bright - were the very
ones who most frequently drowned their hopes, and sapped their strength and
energy in alcoholic stimulants. O, vividly do I recall to mind examples of
heaven-bestowed genius, talent, health, and abilities, sacrificed on the
worse than bloody teocalli of this hideous and slimy devil, Intemperance!
How many master minds, instead of progressing sublimely through the broad,
deep, and august channels of thought, became impeded by the meshes and
clogs of intoxication, and were thus worse than prevented from exploring
the regions of immortal truth! How many dallied with the sirens of the wine
cup, until all power to grapple with great subjects was lost irrevocably!
How many are the instances in the world's history of great minds debased
and ruined by alcohol! Look back and around you at the lives of the
brightest literary geniuses and see how many are under the spell of this
Circe's baleful power! Think of the rich intelligences whose brightness has
prematurely faded and died away in the darkness of alcoholic night! What
hopes has alcohol destroyed! What resolves it has broken! What promises it
has blighted! Think of any or of all these things, and hasten to say with
Dr. Johnson that this vice of drink, if long indulged, will render
knowledge useless, wit ridiculous, and genius contemptible. Oh! how many
lost sons of earth, whose lamps of genius blazed only to light their
pathway to the tomb, might have achieved an inheritance of immortal fame
but for this vice, or disease as it may be.

I write this with a hope that it may be a heeded warning to the
intellectual of earth, not less than the illiterate. The educated man is
more liable to suffer from strong stimulants than the man who is not
educated. Never was there a greater or more dangerous fallacy than that so
often urged, that the thinking functions are assisted by the use of
stimulating liquors or drugs. O, say some, Byron owed a great portion of
his inspiration to gin and water, and that was his Hippocrene. Nonsense!
His highest inspiration came from the beauty of the world and from God.
Lord Brougham, it has been declared, made his most brilliant speeches of
old port. Sheridan, it has been told, delivered some of his most sparkling
speeches when "half seas over." Eugene Sue found his genius in a bottle of
claret; Swinburne in absinthe, and so on. But who shall say what these
great, men lost and will lose in the end by this forcing process? Dr. W.B.
Carpenter, in referring to the supposed uses of alcohol in sustaining the
vital powers, says emphatically that the use of alcoholic stimulants is
dangerous and detrimental to the human mind, but admits that its use in
most persons is attended with a temporary excitation of mental activity,
lighting up the scintillations of genius into a brilliant flame, or
assisting in the prolongation of mental effort when the powers of the
nervous system would be otherwise exhausted. Concede this, and then answer
if it is not on such evidence that the common idea is based that alcohol is
a cause of inspiration, or that it supports the system to the endurance of
unusual mental labor. The idea is as erroneous as the no less prevalent
fallacy that alcoholic stimulants increase the power of physical exertion.
Physiologically the fact is established that the depression of the mental
energy consequent upon the undue excitement of alcoholic stimulants is no
less than the depression of the physical energy following its use. In
either case the added strength and exhilaration are of short duration, and
the depression and loss exceed the increased energy and the gain. The
influence of alcoholic stimulants seems to be chiefly exerted in exciting
to activity the creating and combining powers, such as give rise to the
high imaginations of the poet and the painter. It is not to be wondered at
that men possessing such splendid powers should have recourse to alcoholic
stimulants as a means of procuring often temporary exaltation of these
powers and of escaping from the seasons of depression to which they and
others of less high organizations are subject. Nor is it to be denied that
many of these mental productions which are most strongly marked by the
inspiration of genius, have been thrown off under the inspiration of the
stimulating influences of liquor. But it can not, on the other hand, be
doubted that the depression consequent upon the high degree of mental
excitement is, as already observed, as great as the first in its way - a
depression so great that it sometimes destroys temporarily the power of
effort. Hence it does not follow that the authors of the productions in
question have really been benefited by the use of these stimulants.

It is the testimony of general experience that where men of genius have
habitually had recourse to alcoholic stimulants for the excitement of their
powers they have died at an early age, as if in consequence of the
premature exhaustion of their nervous energy. Mozart, Burns, Byron, Poe and
Chatterton may be cited as remarkable examples of this result. Hence,
although their light may have burned with a brighter glow, like a
combustible substance in an atmosphere of oxygen, the consumption of
material was more rapid, and though it may have shone with a more sober
lustre without such aid, we can not but believe that it would have been
steadier and less premature without it. We may also doubt that the finest
poems and the finest pictures have been written and painted even by those
in the habit of drinking while they were under the influence of liquor. We
do not usually find that the men most distinguished for a combination of
powers called talent or genius, are disposed to make such use of alcoholic
stimulants for the purpose of augmenting their mental powers, for that
spontaneous activity of mind itself which alcohol has a tendency to excite
is not favorable to the exercise of the observing faculties, which are so
important to the imagination, nor to those of reason, nor to steady
concentration on any given subject, where profound investigation or clear
sight is desirable.

Of this we have an illustration in the habit of practical gamblers who,
when about to engage in contests requiring the keenest observation and the
most sagacious calculation, and involving an important stake, always keep
themselves cool either by total abstinence from fermented liquors, or by
the use of those of the weakest kind, in very small quantities. We find
that the greatest part of that intellectual labor which has most extended
the domain of thought and human knowledge has been performed by men of
sobriety, many of them having been drinkers of water only. Under this last
category may be ranked Demosthenes, Johnson, Haller, Bacon, Milton, Dante,
etc. Johnson, it is true, was a great tea drinker. Voltaire drank coffee at
times to excess, and occasionally a small quantity of light wine. So, also,
did Fontenelle. Newton solaced himself with the fumes of tobacco. Of Locke,
whose long life was devoted to constant intellectual labor, who appears
independently of his eminence in his special objects of pursuit one of the
best informed men of his time, the following explicit testimony is found by
one who knew him well: His diet was the same as that of other people,
except he usually drank nothing but water, and he thought that his
abstinence in this respect had preserved his life so long, although
naturally his constitution was so weak. In addition to these examples,
which I have quoted at length, I might also mention the case of Cornaro,
the old Italian philosopher, who at the age of thirty-five found himself on
a bed of misery and imminent death through intemperance. He amended his way
of life, and for upwards of four score years after, by a temperate course
of living, lived happily and did all the important work which has placed
his name among the men of great intellectual powers.




CHAPTER V.

Quit college - Shattered nerves - Summer and autumn days - Improvement - Picnic
parties - A fall - An untimely storm - Crawford's beer and ale - Beer
brawls - County fairs and their influence on my life - My yoke of white
oxen - The "red ribbon" - "One McPhillipps" - How I got home and how I
found myself in the morning - My mother's agony - A day of teaching
under difficulties - Quiet again - Law studies at Connersville - "Out on
a spree" - What a spree means.


I left college in the spring of 1866, and returned home to the farm where I
spent the summer and autumn months in a very nervous and discontented
manner. For over four months my mental condition bordered on that of a
maniac, so completely had the use of liquor shattered my nervous system. I
became alarmed at my state, and for a time was deterred from drinking, or,
if I drank at all, the quantity was small. But fresh air and the little
work which I did on the farm, soon restored me. As the summer wore away I
attended pleasure parties, and found, not happiness, but a moment's
forgetfulness among the merry picnic parties in the woods. I had also the
distinguished honor of actually superintending and presiding over two of
these festivities, both of which were held in Horace Elwell's woods, on the
unsung, but classically rustic banks of Tom. Hall's mill-dam, near the
village which bears the historic and great name of Raleigh. I succeeded in
tiding myself through the first picnic without getting drunk. I mean more
particularly that I remained sober during the day - that is, sober enough to
keep it from being known that I had drank more than once or twice; but that
night at the ball at Louisville, I bit the dust, or, to get at the truth
more literally and unrhetorically, I fell down stairs and came within a
point of breaking my neck. Had I been sober the fall would have put an end
then and there to my miserable and worthless existence; but lest any one
should argue from this that after all whisky sometimes saves life, I would
have them bear in mind that if I had been sober the chances are I would not
have fallen.

The next picnic was sadly interfered with by a violent storm of wind and
rain, which came up the day before the one set apart for it. The water
washed the sawdust which had been sprinkled on the ground for the dancers'
benefit into Hall's fretful mill-race, and thence down into the turbulent
and swollen Flat Rock. This, as well as other creeks, became so high that
it was out of the question to ford them. The boys could get to the grounds
very well, and many of them did get there, but the girls were not of a
mind to risk their lives for a day's doubtful amusement, and so the
picnic failed in the beginning. The young men - myself, of course, in the
lot - determined to have what was called "fun" at any rate, and to this end
they congregated during the day at Raleigh. Mr. Sam Crawford had an
abundant supply of beer and ale, and I wish to say that if there are any
persons so innocent as to doubt that beer and ale intoxicate they would
change from doubt to faith in the power of these slops to make men drunk,
could they experience or see what took place at Raleigh on that day. They
would be willing to testify in any court that beer will not only
intoxicate, but, taken in sufficient quantities, it will make men beastly
drunk and fill them with a spirit of fiendish cruelty. There were on that
day as many as four fights, with enough miscellaneous howling, cursing and
billingsgate to fill out the natural make-up of a hundred more. I was
drunk - so drunk that I did not know at the last whether my name was Benson
or Bennington. I suppose I would have sworn to the latter, had the question
been raised, but it was not. I did not fight, for, as I have said, I seemed
to have an instinctive dread of doing something terrible in the event of my
getting engaged in combat with another. Like Falstaff, it may be, I was a
coward on instinct. I have always thought, moreover, that the Hudibrastic
aphorism is worthy of practice, because nothing can be more evident than
the fact that

" - - He who runs away
May live to fight another day."

From that time to the commencement of the season for county fairs, five or
six weeks later, I kept in a condition of sobriety. County fairs, I wish to
say, and especially the Rush county fairs, did more toward bringing on the
disastrous career which has been mine - a career which has befouled the
record of my life and marked almost every page of its history - witness this
biography - with blots of shame, discord and unholy suffering than any other
cause of an external character. I was very young when I first commenced to
take stock to the fair to exhibit for premiums. I always went on the first
day, and always remained until the fair came to a close, staying on the
grounds night and day. There was a vagabond element in my nature which
harmonized perfectly with this sort of life. The men with whom I associated
were, in general, of that class who like liquor alone or in company, and
each had his jug of favorite whisky, which was supposed to be a sure
preventive against cold and colds in cold weather, and against heat and
fever in hot weather. If invited to drink the rule was to accept
immediately and return the courtesy as soon as convenient.

In those days I was the proud possessor of a yoke of white oxen, and I made
it a point to exhibit them at every fair within my reach, for they
invariably won the Red Ribbon, then a mark of the first prize. Alas, that
it did not mean to me what it now does! It meant anything rather than total
abstinence; it was an unfailing sign of drunkenness; it told of shameful
revels, of days of debauchery and nights of misery when not passed in
beastly slumber. That ribbon is now a symbol of holy temperance - it was
then a souvenir of days of disorder and evil-doing.

During the winter I was engaged to teach a district school, and for three
months managed to keep tolerably sober - that is, I did not get drunk more
than three or four times, and then on Saturday nights and Sundays. One
Sunday - it was the coldest day that winter - I went to Falmouth and visited
a drinking place kept by one McPhillipps. While there I drank eleven
glasses of whisky. At nine o'clock in the evening, I can indistinctly
remember, I mounted my horse and started home, and from that moment until
the next day I knew nothing whatever that took place. From the way I was
bruised and battered I judge that I must have struck almost every fence
corner between McPhillipps' place and home. My legs were in a woful plight,
and having turned black and blue, they were frightful to see. On arriving


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Online LibraryLuther BensonFifteen Years in Hell → online text (page 3 of 12)