Biography of a Hasheesh Eater


by Dave Gross

XII. Agony of Seeking

The last years of Fitz Hugh Ludlow's life seem to have been a constant struggle with addiction. Family letters, when they mention him, are usually either hopefully discussing his latest release from habit, or mourning his latest relapse. Less than a year before his death, his cousin wrote:

Gus said he had seen Helen, she & Fitz came into the Office a few days ago - and Gus said Fitz was certainly intoxicated either with whiskey or Opium & he thought Opium. he acted dreadfully, and tho Helen was with him, &, the Office full of gentlemen, he commenced talking & going on like a crazy man...
By this point, his family had lost hope in his recovery. In his final months, he was desperate to find a cure, but no hope could be found. Carrie wrote, in March of 1870, that "Dr. Smith has been treating him for a while but he said to a lady the other day - that there was no use in his wasting his strength [treating] Mr. Ludlow, for he took a teaspoonful of morphine in a glass of whisky every day - and while he persisted in doing that it was only time & strength thrown away..."

His writing focus, as well as the focus of his life, had turned to the problem of opium addiction. He described this quest as "one of my life's ruling passions - a very agony of seeking to find - any means of bringing the habituated opium-eater out of his horrible bondage, without, or comparatively without, pain."

His essay "What Shall They Do to be Saved" from Harper's was included in the 1868 book (written by Horace Day, himself a recovering addict, and edited in part by Ludlow) The Opium Habit, one of the first books to deal in a medical way with the problem of opium addiction, which had become a national crisis in the wake of the Civil War. For the book Ludlow expanded on his original essay with "Outlines of the Opium Cure," a portrait in words of what the ideal, perhaps utopian, drug addiction treatment clinic would be like.

Although the Civil War had made opiate addiction an epidemic among veterans, Ludlow worried that it was among the average American worker that the addiction would spread. As early as 1857, in The Hasheesh Eater, he wrote that "opium-eating in all countries is an immense and growing evil. In America peculiarly it is so, from the constitution of our national mind... a stifled craving for something higher," or "the long pent-up craving for a beauty of which business-activity has said, 'It is not in me,' [which] rises from its bonds, and, with a sad imperativeness, asks satisfaction."

When the dissatisfied worker looks for that satisfaction, "the devil stands at his ear, and suggests opium. From that moment begins the sad, old, inevitable tale of the opium-eater's life." He resumed his connection of drug addiction to the demands of modern life a decade later, writing that

The habit is gaining fearful ground among our professional men, the operatives in our mills, our weary sewing women, our fagged clerks, our disappointed wives, our former liquor-drunkards, our very day-laborers, who a generation ago took gin; all our classes, from the highest to the lowest, are yearly increasing their consumption of the drug. The terrible demands, especially in this country, made on modern brains by our feverish competitive life, constitute hourly temptations to some form of the sweet, deadly sedative. Many a professional man of my acquaintance, who twenty years ago was content with his tri-diurnal "whisky," ten years ago, drop by drop, began taking stronger "laudanum cock-tails," until he became what he is now - an habitual opium-eater.
"All our classes, from the highest to the lowest, are yearly increasing their consumption of the drug."
But the opium addict, according to Ludlow, in a view which even today seems progressive, "is a proper subject, not for reproof, but for medical treatment. The problem of his case need embarrass nobody. It is as purely physical as one of small-pox.... [He] is suffering under a disease of the very machinery of volition; and no more to be judged harshly for his acts than a wound for suppurating or the bowels for continuing the peristaltic motion."

Ludlow's writings on opiate addiction led addicts from all over the country to write him for advice, and he spent a great deal of time in his last years answering this correspondence. He would also take an active role as a physician in treating addicts, and one friend said that "I have known him to go for three weeks at a time without taking off his clothing for sleep, in attendance upon the sick. His face was a familiar one in many a hospital ward.... During the last weeks of his residence in New York, he supported, out of his scanty means, a family of which one of the members had been a victim to opium. This family had no claim upon him whatever excepting that of the sympathy which such misfortunes always excited in him. The medicines and money he furnished this single family in the course of the several weeks that I knew about them, could not have amounted to less than one hundred dollars, and this case was only one of many."

But Ludlow himself was unable to break the habit. The same friend writes,

Alas, with what sadness his friends came to know that while he was doing so much to warn and restore others from the effects of this fearful habit, he himself was still under its bondage. Again and again he seemed to have broken it. Only those most intimate with him knew how he suffered at such periods... I recall a night he passed with me some months after the publication of ["What Shall They Do to Be Saved?"]. He was in an excited state, and we took a long walk together, during which he spoke freely of his varied trials, and he finally went to my house to sleep. I went directly to bed, but he was a long time making his preparations, and I at length suspected he was indulging his old craving. For the first and only time in my life I spoke harshly to him, and characterized his abuse of himself and of the confidence of his friends as shameful. He replied depreciatingly, and turning down the gas-light came around and crept into bed beside me. We both lay a moment in silence, and feeling reproved for my harshness, I said: "Think, Fitz, of your warnings on the subject, and of your effort, in behalf of other victims." In a tone and with a pathos I can never forget, he answered - "He saved others, himself he could not save."
The alcoholic, also, was a subject of Ludlow's pen. A serial he wrote for Harper's Bazar in 1868, called "The Household Angel" was widely praised as variously, "the only temperance story of genius ever written," and "a real work of genius amidst the usually rather vapid temperance literature." One New York critic wrote that "temperance societies could do nothing better than to republish this story as a tract for popular circulation."

The irony, of course, was that Ludlow spent his last several years in a state hardly sober and free from drug abuse, but perhaps it was this fact that gave his story a realism that outshone mere moralism. What really stands out in "The Household Angel" is the sympathy the author shows for the alcoholic. Cuthbert Kearney, the victimized character of his story finds himself lifted up by his first experience of alcohol intoxication:

...he felt a marvelous change stealing over his views of life.... he saw that ruin has no existence to a resolved spirit. The old self-respect... quietly returned to put its hand under his chin, and lift his head to the full stature of a man.... There was more goodness in the world; more confidence between man and man; more delicacy, mutual respect, toleration, and allowance than he had suspected.... he could not refrain from the enthusiastic observation what a lovely day it was; he had never, even in New England, seen the grass and trees greener at this season of the year....

Cuthbert had learned the only way by which he could escape from his worst tormentor. He was his own jailer - his own dungeon.... There was something so heavenly in the escape, that if once knowing the means he had refrained from using them, he would have been a stronger man than any prisoner in the Bastile who had sat motionless in his dungeon, with the master-key to all the barriers in his hand.... while the ticket-of-leave held good, no franchised bondsman, no uncaged wood-thrush, no racked person whose cruel ropes are slackened, knows sweeter ecstasy of deliverance.... The strength afforded is not mere semblance. Stimulus confers on a nature fresh to, or unjaded by it, a quickness of perception, a masterly promptness and giant facility of execution which enables the man to perform feats looked back on as incredible by his cooler head. If the man could remain for one year, without necessity of advance or danger of retrogression, at the point where he is left by the second glass of whisky, he could conquer the world.

However,
...all this divine power and ease is made a thing so evanescent - he hangs motionless just for an unappreciable instant on the pivot of an earthly omnipotence, and then the scale descends. He drinks again to retain the equilibrium; but that delicate poise is irrecoverable; he swings out of balance the opposite way. In the truth and the transitoriness - not in the spuriousness of the power - lies the danger of the fascination.
And unfortunately for Cuthbert, "He was one of the men who can no more hold themselves for years at a certain limit than they can jump off the eaves of a house and say, 'I will stop at the third story.'" Ludlow contrasted the drunkard, which Cuthbert would become, with the "chronic alcoholic," which he said could be found in "[o]ur best society in every city, in all professions and callings... they are a world-wide remove from the brawling drunkard or the fast man and voluptuary." At this point, Ludlow digressed into a lecture on chronic alcoholism, "a form of drinking which is the most insidious of all, because it never disgraces itself:"
Chronic alcoholism keeps a bottle on the top shelf of the closet - takes small drinks constantly - knows the exact line beyond which liquor shows, and that other line, considerably short of this, where it is pleasantly, subjectively sensible; then takes religious care never to reach the former mark, and never to fall below the latter one - never to betray itself, yet never to be free from the influence of stimulus during any hour of its waking life.
When Ludlow left for Europe in June of 1870 in an attempt to recover, both from his addictions, and from the tuberculosis he had contracted at the bedside of an addict patient he had been treating, he seemed resigned. "To-day sailing for Europe," he wrote to Harper's, "an invalid, with all the uncertainties of return which attend such a one..."

But the letter was optimistic, being an announcement that his quest for a cure for opiate addiction might well be over. "[I]n all probability, that wonderful discovery has now been made," he wrote. "[T]he discovery is one which ranks in importance to human weal and woe with vaccination, chloroform, or any grandest achievement of beneficent science which marks an age."

The specifics of this cure have been lost to history, and it seems unlikely that it was anything as exciting as Ludlow claimed. Harper's New Monthly Magazine, where Ludlow announced the discovery, was later led to comment that the magazine had received letters "from persons evidently painfully anxious upon the subject [that] stated that a large sum was required to be paid in advance, and that the whole business had a mysterious and suspicious aspect." It doesn't appear that Ludlow stood to profit financially from the "cure," and as a friend commented that "in the last months of his life he thought he had conquered" the opiate habit, it seems that he was probably sincere.

Ludlow left New York with his sister Helen, who had been a constant source of support, and his wife and one of her sons, for Europe. They stayed for a month and a half in London, leaving for Geneva, Switzerland when his health again took a downturn. "I am struggling for the sake of my angels in human form to stay a little longer," he wrote to a friend from his deathbed. "My sufferings are very bitter, but, oh! what love, what wisdom in them hovers round my bed; and, oh! how full of gratitude my soul is. Who am I that such devotion, such unutterable patience and self-abnegation gather round my bed?"

He died the morning after his thirty-fourth birthday, and, perhaps as he meant to predict in this passage in "What Shall They Do to Be Saved?": "Over the opium-eater's coffin at least, thank God! a wife and a sister can stop weeping and say, 'He's free.'"

Over his head the daisies swim
	In wind-swept eddies of sea-green grass
He hath rest in every limb,
	Nothing more can come to pass
		Which hath aught in it for him
			To weary or harrass.
-- Fitz Hugh Ludlow
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