Biography of a Hasheesh Eater


by Dave Gross

I. Early Family Life

Fitz Hugh's father, the Rev. Henry G. Ludlow, was a outspoken abolitionist minister at a time when anti-slavery enthusiasm was not popular, even in the urban North where he preached. Rev. Ludlow was one of the more radical and emotional of the abolitionists; one source has him "[going] so far as to appeal to all Northern negroes for support, and to defend intermarriage between whites and blacks" another says that "[i]n his pulpit ministrations he would frequently weep copiously in his appeals to his people - indeed tears were said to be an invariable accompaniment of his sermons."

Rev. Ludlow's position of prominence in the New York abolitionist movement made him a frequent target of the (often equally emotionally charged) opposition. One of the churches where he preached was partially demolished in 1834 in a night of anti-abolitionist rioting, and on another occasion he complains in a letter to his brother that he was "mobbed and egged... in broad day light... in the presence of approving & assenting justices of the peace and other officers of the town set to preserve the Constitutional rights of its Citizens."

Hostile crowds commonly attacked abolitionist speakers like the Rev. Henry Ludlow, Fitz Hugh's father.

Only months before his birth, wrote Fitz Hugh, "my father, mother, and sister were driven from their house in New York by a furious mob. When they came cautiously back, their home was quiet as a fortress the day after it has been blown up. The front-parlor was full of paving-stones; the carpets were cut to pieces; the pictures, the furniture, and the chandelier lay in one common wreck; and the walls were covered with inscriptions of mingled insult and glory. Over the mantel-piece had been charcoaled 'Rascal'; over the pier-table, 'Abolitionist.'"

Stories of abolitionist heroes and martyrs were "[a]mong the earliest stories which were told me in the nursery," and as young Fitz Hugh so often saw guests at his home who had come there after having preached against slavery to hostile crowds, he wrote that "I find it hard to rid myself of an instinctive impression that the common way of testifying disapprobation of a lecturer in a small country-town is to bombard him with obsolete eggs, carried by the audience for that purpose."

His father was also a "ticket-agency on the Underground Railroad," as Fitz Hugh discovered when he was four, although, misunderstanding the term in his youth, he would occasionally be seen "going down cellar and watching behind old hogsheads by the hour to see where the cars came in."

Little is known of Fitz Hugh Ludlow's earliest years. What we do know comes through the occasional reminiscence in his published works or from the few family letters preserved. A family legend, later used to explain his attraction for intoxicants, is that when Fitz Hugh was two years old he "would climb upon the breakfast table and eat Cayenne pepper from the castor!"

His father, in addition to the moral lessons implicit or explicit that he imparted through his social activism and his ministry, taught his son the basis of a more standard education at home, including Latin and Greek, and had high hopes for his education. "He has learned to read almost without help and is we think a bright boy," he wrote when Fitz Hugh was five.

In the pages of The Hasheesh Eater we are introduced to the bookish young Fitz Hugh: "A feeble childhood soon exhausted its superfluous activities, and into books, ill health, and musing I settled down when I should have been playing cricket, hunting, or riding. The younger thirst for adventure was quenched by rapid degrees as I found it possible to ascend Chimborazo with Humboldt lying on a sofa, or chase harte-beests with Cumming over muffins and coffee."

He was found to be very nearsighted at age twelve, and was fitted with "a large pair of barnacles" that opened him up to "four-eyes" ridicule by those around him, even though, as he explained it, it was unfair to ridicule one whose "infirmity is so compassionably great as to render his making a sight of himself to others the only alternative to his enjoying no sight of them."

While Fitz Hugh's father had obvious and enormous influence on him, his mother played a more marginal role in his life. Abigail Woolsey Wells contracted a very painful and debilitating illness which, as early as 1842 (when Fitz Hugh was five), made her husband fear (with good reason) that she would never be much better. "She coughs incessantly," he wrote, "and has a constant pain in her breast. Poor woman. She is literally worn out..."

She lived until 1849, dying a few months after Fitz Hugh's twelfth birthday. At her funeral, the presiding minister said that "[f]or many years she has scarcely known what physical ease and comfort were. She labored with a body prostrated and suffering; and laid herself down to sleep in pain."

Fitz Hugh's mother may have brought out in him an obsession with the problem of mortality and the connection between the spiritual and animal in man. It was observed that "through all her life [she] had a constitutional and indescribable dread of death; not so much the fear of being dead, as of dying itself. An appalling sense of the fearful struggle which separates the soul from the body."

Fitz Hugh was probably remembering his mother's death when the eleven-year-old character of one of his short stories has her mother's impending death explained to her: "[I]n a few days your mamma will leave you, and go alone to a country where she will be quite well, and will not cough or have this hard pain of the head, that you feel so sorry for, any more. Oh how she wishes she could take you with her! By-and-by you will be with her - very soon, but not quite yet; and till then you will go and live with... your uncle, Golorum Grimm."

As the name Golorum Grimm implies, this uncle wasn't the most appealing of prospective caretakers to the youngster, and we can imagine that when Fitz Hugh was sent off to live with his uncle, Samuel B. Ludlow, he was none too pleased with the situation.

His mother being incapacitated by illness during his youth, and his father being - although very concerned about Fitz Hugh's moral guidance and education - somewhat detached emotionally (he wrote early in Fitz Hugh's childhood that his son "is a sweet child and is improving every way. But he fills not up the vacancy occasioned by the departure of our blessed Mary. I can never feel as I have felt towards children. The gloss is rubbed off by that blow which withered my heart like grass and burned it up like an hearth."), Fitz Hugh exhibited more than his share of teenaged rebellion.

His father, for the most part, blamed himself. "I mourn in bitterness of spirit that myself have miserably blended love and firmness in my management of him... I can only weep tears of blood over my unfaithfulness - not to say cruelty in his government." Letters from his uncle showed that the "waywardness" of Fitz Hugh survived the move.

"What will become of him I know not," Henry Ludlow wrote to a woman he was courting. "That he will have to pass through terrible heart-breaking - bow breaking afflictions, I have little doubt - ere his proud & arrogant spirit is subdued & humbled..." Still, he said, "[f]ew understand that Boy - and early education has made him something of an Ishmael - whose 'hand was against every man and every man against him.'"

The moral lessons learned at home were certainly principles hard to maintain among his peers, especially when expressed with his father's exuberance.

Among the large crowd of young Southerners sent to [my] school, I began preaching emancipation in my pinafore. Mounted upon a window-seat in an alcove of the great play-hall, I passed recess after recess in haranguing a multitude upon the subject of Freedom, with as little success as most apostles, and with only less than their crowd of martyrdom, because, though small boys are more malicious than men, they cannot hit so hard.
Experiences like these may have been what inspired Fitz Hugh in his earliest published work that has survived to this day, a poem published in a school literary magazine at about the same time as his father was composing those worried letters about the boy. The poem, "Truth on His Travels" has "Truth" personified and wandering the earth, trying to find some band of humans who will respect him, but being soundly rejected at every turn.

The woman Henry Ludlow was wooing, his future wife Marie Tappen, felt confident about the future, but counseled a strong hand: "I only ask my dear dear husband elect that he will maintain his ground.... They make the better children whose parents err on the side of sternness rather than on the side of indulgence." Henry warned Marie: "You little know dear what it is to have the incessant wear and tear arising from the care of such a boy as F."

We can only speculate as to family attitudes toward intoxicants. Henry Ludlow's father was a pioneer temperance advocate, according to one source "adopting and advocating its principles before any general and organized effort for them." Henry himself, in one of his few preserved sermons, attacked Great Britain for "her cruel oppression of her East India subjects, often starving... and forced to cultivate opium on land they need to supply themselves with bread..." and defended China "for resisting a traffick which was sapping, by its terrible effects upon her citizens, the very foundation of her empire..." But what Fitz Hugh learned about intoxicating drugs from his father and uncle we do not know.

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