IMPERFECT HISTORY OF AN IMPERFECT LIFE

LUTHER BENSON wrote in FIFTEEN YEARS IN HELL…….“Much of my life is a complete blank to me, as I have often, very often, alas! gone for days oblivious to every act and thing, as dead to all about me as the stones of the pavement are dumb. Nor can I connect a succession of incidents one after the other as they occurred in the regular course of my life.
Every effort of my life has been a failure. Surely and steadily the hand of misfortune has crushed me until I have looked forward to my bier as a blessed bed of repose–rest from weariness–forgetfulness of remorse–escape from misery.
I shall not attempt in these pages any learned disquisition upon the nature of alcohol–its hideous effects on the system–how it disarranges all the functions of the body–how it impairs health–blots out memory, dethrones reason, and destroys the very soul itself–how it gives to the whole body an unnatural and unhealthy action, crucifying the flesh, blood, bones and marrow–how it paints hell in the mind and torture on the heart, and strangles hope with despair.
Like the trail of the serpent it is over all. Look where you will, turn where you may, you can not be blind to its evils. It despoils manhood of all that makes manhood desirable; it plucks hope from the breast of the weeping wife with a hand of ice.
You have seen virtue crushed by vice; the bright eye lose its lustre, the lips their power of articulation; you have seen what was clean become foul, what was upright become crooked, what was high become low–man, first in the order of created things, sunken to a level with brute beasts; and after all these you have or may have said to yourself, “All this is the work of the terrible demon, alcohol.”
I shall only endeavor to give a plain, truthful history of one who has felt every pang, every sorrow, every agony, every shame, every remorse, that the demon of drunkenness can inflict. I have nothing to thank this demon for, beyond a few fleeting–oh, how fleeting–hours of false delight. He has wrought only woe and loss to me. Even now, as I sit here in the stillness of desperation, afraid of I know not what, trembling with a strange dread of some impending doom, gazing in fright backward along the shores of the years whereon I see the wrecks of a thousand hopes, the destruction of every noble aspiration, the ruin of every noble resolve, I cry aloud against the utterness of the destroyer. My life has indeed been a sad one; so sad, so lonely, that no language in my power of utterance can give to the reader a full conception of its moonless darkness.
I have no recollection of a time when I had not an appetite for liquor. My parents and friends of course knew that if it was taken in excess it would lead to destruction, but in our quiet neighborhood, where little was known of its excesses, no one dreamed of the fearful curse which slumbered in it for me to awake. Had they had the least dread, fear, or anticipation of it they would have left nothing undone that being done might have saved me. My appetite for it was born with me, and was as much a part of myself as the air I breathed. There are three kinds of inheritances, some of money and lands, some of superior or great talents, and others of misfortunes.
I recollect with painful clearness the first drink of liquor that ever passed my lips. It has been more than twenty-four years since then, but my memory calls it up as if it were only yesterday, with all the circumstances under which I took it. It was in the time of threshing wheat, and then, as in harvesting, log-rolling, and everything that required the cooperation of neighbors, whisky was always more or less used. I was little more than six years of age. A bottle containing liquor was set in the shadow of some sheaves of wheat which stood near a wagon, and taking it I crawled under the wagon with a neighbor now living in Raleigh. We began drinking from this bottle and did not stop until we were both pitiably drunk. The boy who took that first drink with me has since had some experience with the effects of alcohol, but at this time he is bravely fighting the good battle of sobriety and may God always give him the victory. I never could taste liquor without getting drunk. When one drop passed my lips I became wild for another, and another, until my sole thought was how to get enough to satisfy the unquenchable thirst.
I would get drunk if hell burst up out of the earth around me–yes, if I could look down into the flames and see men whose eye-brows were burnt off, and whose every hair was a burning, blazing, coiling, hissing snake from their having used the deadly liquid.
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.
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.
I read a little law, and drank a great deal of whisky, and as a natural consequence the time then passing was for the most part worse than lost. Up to this period the duration of my sprees was not longer than a day and night. They now were not confined to one day, for when I went out on what is called a “regular spree,” it was liable to be two or three days, as it has since been two or three weeks, before I got back. Got back! Where from? The reader knows too well.
Out on a spree! These are melancholy and heart-breaking words. Out on a spree! Oh, how much of misery is implied! Out on a spree! Readers, every one, I hope you will never have it said that you are out on a spree. Don’t go out on sprees. Think of the pity of them, the wrong, the disgrace, the remorse, the misery. Going on an occasional spree only will not do. Some men will keep sober for weeks, and even months, but a birthday, or a wedding, or a national holiday, or a fit of the blues, or a streak of good luck, starts them off, and habit, like a smouldering flame, breaks out, and for a time all is over. Such men scotch, but they do not kill the cobra of intemperance, and soon or late the other result will follow, the snake will kill them. The reptile is tenacious of life, and so long as the life remains there is danger from the deadly venom of its tooth. Those who have never formed the habit of drinking had better die at once than live to form it.
Wives are driven to desperation, mothers to despair, children to want. Demoralization, starvation, damnation follow. Friends are separated, homes are desolated, and souls are driven to hell itself, and yet people will talk lightly, and even jokingly of the very thing which leads to these terrible losses and sufferings–out on a spree. Debauches not only destroy all capacity for usefulness while they last, but they demand the vital strength which has wisely been gathered in the system for days of possible need, when sickness and natural infirmities will lay hands on the mind or body. The debauch of to-day will borrow from to-morrow or from next week, or month, or year, that which can not be restored.
When I drank after my mother’s death, many persons took occasion, on learning of it, to censure me in unsparing terms. It was even said that I did not love my mother in life, that I had no respect for her memory in death, and that I was a heartless wretch. These persons had no knowledge of the power of my appetite. They did not know that the passion for liquor, once developed or firmly established, is stronger in its unholy energy than the love of the heart–of my heart, at least–for mother, father, brother, or sister. But let me beg that I may not be charged with indifference to my mother’s memory. She comes before me now; she who was a true wife, a faithful friend, a loving and gentle mother, and I kneel to her and pray her blessing and pardon–I would clasp her to my heart, but alas! when I would touch her, the bitter memory comes that she is gone.
More than once I made desperate efforts to escape from my humiliating thraldom, and, as I was sober during the days of struggle, I sought and found business, and thus managed to secure a little money, although most of my clients were poor and anything but influential. I always did my best for them, however, and seldom lost a case. But at the end of a few days a strange, undefinable, uneasy feeling began to crawl over me and crept into my heart; I became more and more restless, anxious and nervous. I was soon too uneasy to sit still or lie down. Horrible sufferings, agonies untold, woe unspeakable, deprived me of reason, and when I had the inclination I had not the will to guide myself aright. Then all of a sudden, my fierce and unrelenting appetite would sweep, vulture like, down upon me, and I would feel myself on the point of giving way. After this I would rally for a brief season, but only to sink into still deeper misery and desperation. There were days without food, and nights without sleep.
My condition now grew worse from day to day. I descended step by step to the lowest depths of wretchedness and degradation. Often my only sleeping- place was the pavement, or a stairway, or a hall leading to some office. I lost my clothes, pawning most of them to the rum-sellers, until I was unfit to be seen, so few and dirty and ragged were the garments which I could still call my own. In ten years I have lost, given away, and pawned over fifty suits of clothes. Within the three years just past I have had six overcoats that went the way of my reputation and peace of mind.
My appetite was burning and raging, and notwithstanding my almost miraculous escape from a drunken death, I watched my opportunity, like a man bent on self-destruction, and again mounted the same horse and started for Raleigh. But my father had preceded me, and given orders at the saloon and elsewhere that I should not be allowed more liquor. I was determined to satisfy my appetite, and with this purpose subjugating every other, I went on to Lewisville, where I remained for more than a week, drinking day and night. Finally one of my brothers, hearing of my whereabouts, came after me and took me home. I was so completely exhausted the moment that the liquor began to die out that I had to go to bed, and there I remained for some time. After such debauches the physical suffering is intense and great; but it is little in comparison with the tortures of the mind.
The drink taken by me as usual wrought havoc. I wanted more, as I always do when I take one drink, and I got more. I got more than enough, too, as I always do. On the way home with a gentleman whom I knew, I fell into a ditch, but was extricated with difficulty, and finally carried to the house of a friend. My clothes were wet and covered with mud. After sleeping awhile I got up and stole from the house very much as a thief would have sneaked away. I was fairly started on another spree, and for three weeks I drank heavily and constantly.
Sometime during the third week of my debauch I received a telegram stating that my brother was dead. The suddenness and terrible nature of the news caused me to become sober at once. It was just at twilight when I received the telegram, and there was no train until nine o’clock the next morning. That night seemed like an age to me. I never closed my eyes in sleep, but lay in my bed weak and terror-stricken, waiting for the morning. It came at last, for the longest night will end in day. I got on the train and sat down by a window. I was so weak and nervous that I could not hold a cup in my hand. But I wanted no more liquor. The terrible news of the previous day had frightened away all desire for drink.
On again recovering my health, I began to look about for something to do, and hearing of a vacant school east of Falmouth, and about four miles from my father’s, I made application and was employed to teach it. It is with pride (which, after the record of so many failures, I trust will readily be pardoned) that I chronicle the fact that from the beginning to the end of the term I never tasted liquor.
At the close of my school I was in better health and spirits than I had ever before been. I began to feel that there was still a chance for me to redeem the losses of the past, and I can not describe how happy the thought made me. I again began the practice of law, and for six months I devoted myself to my duties. I had a large and paying practice, and not once but often was I engaged in cases where my fees amounted to from fifty to one hundred dollars, and once I received two hundred and fifty dollars. I will further say that my clients felt that they were paying me little enough in each case, considering the service I rendered them. But during the latter part of the time I suffered much from low spirits and nervousness, and my desire for whisky almost drove me wild at times. I fought this appetite again and again with desperate determination, and how the contest would have finally ended I can not say had I not been taken down sick. The physician who was sent for prescribed some brandy, and on his second visit he brought half of a pint of it, to be taken with other medicine in doses of one tablespoonful at intervals of two hours. I followed his directions with care, so far as the first dose was concerned, but if the reader supposes that I waited two hours for another tablespoonful of that brandy he does my appetite gross injustice. Neither would I have him suppose that I confined the second dose to a tablespoon. I waited until my friends withdrew, making some excuse about wanting to be alone in order to get them to go out at once, and then I got out of bed and swallowed the remainder of that brandy at a gulp. A desperate and uncontrollable desire for the poison had possession of me, and beneath it my resolutions were crushed and my will helplessly manacled. I slipped out of the room at the first opportunity, and managed to get a buggy in which I drove off to Falmouth where I immediately bought a quart of whisky. This I drank in an incredibly short space of time, and after that–after that–well, you can imagine what took place after that.
Days and weeks of drunkenness; days and weeks of degradation; money spent; clothes pawned and lost; business neglected; friends alienated; and peace and happiness annihilated by the fell, merciless, hell-born fiend–Alcohol! So much for a half pint of brandy prescribed by an able physician. The vilest and most deadly poison could scarcely have been worse.
Down, down, down I went, lower and ever lower. Down, into the darkness of desperation!–down, into the gulf of ruin!–down, where Shame, and Sin, and Misery cry to fallen souls–“Stay! abide with us!” I felt now that all I had gained was lost, and that there was nothing more for me to hope for. The destroying devil had swept away everything. I was no longer a man. When a man has become a drunkard his punishment is complete.
For ten months from the time I quit drinking and began to lecture, I averaged one lecture a day. I lived on the work and its excitement, making it take, as far as possible, the place of alcohol. I learned too late that this was the very worst thing I could have done. I was all the time expending the very strength I so much needed for the restoration of my shattered system. For ten months, lacking two days, I fought my appetite for whisky day and night. I dreamed that I was wildly drunk night after night, and I would rise from my bed in the morning more weary than when, tired and worn out from overwork, I sought rest. The horror of such dreams can be known only to those who have experienced them. The shock to my nervous system from a sudden and complete cessation of the use of all stimulating drinks was of itself a fearful thing to encounter. I was often so nervous that, for nights at a time, I got little or no sleep. The least noise would cause me to tremble with fear. I suffered all the while more than any can ever know, save those who have gone through the same hell.
The experience of ages proves that the use of intoxicating agents invariably tends to engender a burning appetite for more; and he who indulges in them shall do it at the peril of contracting a passionate and rabid thirst for them, which shall ultimately overmaster the will of his victim, and drag him, unresisting, to his ruin. No man can put himself under the influence of alcoholic stimulants without incurring the risk of this result.
Day by day my appetite grew fiercer and more unbearable, until in my misery I walked my floor hour after hour, unable to sleep, and feeling that if I lay down I should die. One night, about a week before I yielded, I walked my room until midnight, suffering the torments of hell. I felt that I was dying, and rushed out of my room and walked and ran across fields and through the woods, panting and gasping for breath. I felt that my head was bursting to pieces. My blood boiled, and hissed, and foamed through my veins. I could feel my heart throb and beat as though it would burst out of my body. At that time I would have torn the veins of my arms open, if I could have drawn whisky from them. When light came, I found that I had walked and run seven miles since leaving my room at midnight. All that day I was burning up for liquor. Had I been where I could lay my hands on it, a thousand times that day I would have drank though it steeped my soul in rivers of death.
There is another class of individuals who have said to me, “When you get into that condition, when you feel that you must have liquor, why don’t you just take a little in moderation?” Moderation! A drink of liquor is to my appetite what a red-hot coal of fire is to a keg of dry powder. You can just as easily shoot a ball from a cannon’s mouth moderately, or fire off a magazine slowly, as I can drink liquor moderately. When I take one drink, if it is but a taste, I must have more, if I knew hell would burst out of the earth and engulf me the next instant. I am either perfectly sober, with no smell of liquor about me, or I am very drunk. Some of those moderate drinkers, who are increasing their moderation a little every day, and also some pretended temperance people, who are always suspicious of others, because they are sneaking, cowardly, sly, deceitful and treacherous themselves, are constantly asking me if I do not drink a little all the time. And then they say I use morphine and opium.
There is nothing that has made me more wretched, and done more to weaken and drag me down, than the continued accusation of doing something that it is just as impossible for me to do as it would be to live without breathing; that is, to take a drink of liquor without getting drunk. And if there is any one thing that will make me hate a man–loathe, abhor, and despise him–it is to have him accuse me of drinking or using any kind of stimulants regularly and moderately. I just want to say here, now, and for all time, that they who thus accuse me, lie in their teeth, mouth, throat, and away down deep in their dirty, cowardly, craven, black hearts.
Know just how much charity I am to expect and receive from the corrupt wilderness of human society, for it is a rank and rotten soil, from which every shrub draws poison as it grows. All that in a happier field and purer air would expand into virtue and germinate into usefulness is converted into henbane and deadly nightshade. I know how hard it is to get human society to regard one’s acts as other than his deliberate intentions. But of being a drunkard by choice, and because I have not cared for the consequences, I am innocent. I can say, and speak the truth, that there is not a person on earth less capable than myself of recklessly and purposely plunging himself into shame, suffering and sin. I will never believe that a man, conscious of innocence, can not make other men perceive that he has that thought. I have been miserable all my life.
I have been harshly treated by mankind, in being accused of wickedly doing that which I abhor, and against which I have fought with every energy I possessed. The greatest aggravation of my life has been that I could not make mankind believe, or understand, my real and true condition. I can safely affirm that a blasted character, and the curses that have clung to my name, have all of them been slight misfortunes compared to this. I have for years endeavored to sustain myself by the sense of my integrity; but the voice of no man on earth echoed to the voice of my conscience. I called aloud, but there was none to answer; there was none that regarded. To me the whole world has been as unhearing as the tempest, and as cold as the iceberg. Sympathy, the magnetic virtue, the hidden essence of our life, was extinct.
During the day I drank as many as twenty glasses of liquor, and by evening I had got myself so steadied that I took the cars for home. I got as far as Connersville, where I remained during the balance of my drunk. I kept drinking for three or four days, and then commenced to vomit again. By this time I had got so weak that it was with the greatest effort that I could stand on my feet or walk one step. I felt the madness coming on again with tenfold fury. My terrible fear gave me more strength. I left the house, and started out on the road, and in an instant I was surrounded by what seemed a million of demons and devils; it seemed as though hell had opened up before me. The earth burst open under my feet, and hot, rolling flame was all around me. I could feel my hair and eyebrows scorch and burn; then in a moment everything would change. I could hear a thousand voices, all talking to me at the same time, and every one threatening me with some horrid death; then I would be surrounded with wild animals, fighting and tearing each other to pieces, and glaring at me, while devils told me they would tear me to pieces; then a tiger took my whole arm between his bloody jaws, and mashed and mangled it to pieces, and tore that arm from my shoulder; then some fiend, in the shape of an old hag, would come up and pour red-hot embers into the bleeding wound, from which my arm had been torn. When I screamed in agony, devils would laugh a horrid, devilish laugh. I looked down and saw a jug of liquor at my feet, and when I reached down to get it I heard the click of a hundred pistols, and a grinning black devil threw his claws over the jug; then devils and witches boiled the whisky. I could see it on the fire, and hear it seethe and foam; then they danced around me, and said they had the liquor so hot that it would scald me to death; then they pried open my mouth, and poured it down my throat. I could feel my brain bursting out of my head, as that boiling liquor scalded and burned my tongue out of my mouth, and that tongue turned to a snake, and with forked tongue hissed at me. No language can give the least idea of the horrid sights and sufferings in the drunkard’s madness.
Alcohol, ruin, and death go hand in hand. The region over which Alcohol is king is one of decay. It is full of graves. The ghosts of the million joys, he has slain wail amid its ghastly desolations; there are sounds of sobbing orphans there; echoes of widows’ shrieks; and the lamentations of fond mothers and wives, heart-broken, vex the realm; youth and age lie here dishonored together; in vain the sweetheart begs her lover to return from its fatal mists; in vain the pure sister calls with trembling tongue for her erring brother. He will not come back. He is the slave of a tyrant who has no compassion and knows no mercy. Oppose this tyrant, all ye who love the home circle better than the bawdy house; fight him all ye who set honor above dishonor; curse him all ye who prefer peace to discord, and law to anarchy; war against him in all ways unceasingly all ye to whom the thought of liberty and safety is dear, to whom happiness and truth are more desirable than misery and falsehood.
I had been using enormous quantities of tobacco, and the use of this narcotic increased, if it did not aid in bringing on my appetite for liquor. I have at times suffered keenly from suddenly renouncing its use, but from the time God fully restored me I have not tasted nor touched tobacco and whisky or any other stimulants. Do not understand me as saying that the appetite for them is dead, or that I have had no hours of depression and struggle in which the old Satan tempted me.”
(Excerpts from FIFTEEN YEARS IN HELL, AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY, BY LUTHER BENSON,1885, The Project Gutenberg EBook of Fifteen Years in Hell, by Luther Benson)
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