American history is full of bigger than life characters with bigger than life appetites for all manners of vices. The University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Matthew Warner Osborn delves into our fascinating history of heavy drinkers in his book, Rum Maniacs. Osborn will be speaking at the Kansas City Public Library’s Central Branch (14 W 10th Street) this Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. The Recommended Daily put five questions to the local author about his new work.
1. What led you to write Rum Maniacs?
I have long been fascinated by alcohol and drug history, and especially how controversial alcohol became in the early United States. Most respectable early nineteenth-century Americans saw liquor as the most pressing social problem facing the nation, despite the existence of other, seemingly, far more pressing horrors like slavery, for instance. It is true that people drank a lot back then. Historians estimate that the average man drank eight ounces of liquor a day, and of course that’s average, some drank much more. The men who dug the Erie Canal, for instance, commonly drank 22 ounces of liquor a day.
The early nineteenth-century is also the historical moment when people began to think of habitual drinking as being as much a medical as a moral problem. Poking around in nineteenth-century periodicals, I came across some medical journal articles from the 1810s and 1820s that contained fascinating descriptions of alcohol-induced insanity. The more research I did, it became clear that early nineteenth-century physicians were intensely fascinated by delirium tremens, or the “DTs.”
So the book kind of took on its own momentum. Once I started looking, I found descriptions of alcoholic insanity in all sorts of places: medical journals, magazines, newspapers, novels, plays, popular illustration, even down to modern popular culture. Think about the Disney movie Dumbo and the wild dream sequence featuring pink elephants, or the popular Belgian beer “Delirium Tremens” that has a pink elephant on the label.
2. What’s the focus of your talk on July 9?
At the library, I plan to talk about the history of alcoholic hallucinations. I will describe how it came to be that apparitions, once thought to be supernatural phenomenon, became psychological, and how that shifting understanding of the supernatural came to inform our modern conception of addiction.
In our post-Enlightenment age, we know that apparitions are illusions, and we dismiss ghosts as fantasy, but in many ways the supernatural became more powerful when ghosts came to inhabit our minds. When ghosts lived in graveyards or other haunts, you could run away from them. In our modern age, we are pursued by inner demons. Alcoholic hallucinations are an excellent illustration of this historical development. In the movie The Shining, for instance, Jack Torrance is a struggling alcoholic, a condition that suggests a medical basis for his insanity, but the demons that haunt him, and the horrific things they make him do, are absolutely terrifying. The Shining comes right out of the popular culture of the 1840s.
3. What did you uncover that surprised you about how we, as a society, approach or deal with heavy drinking or drinkers?
I guess I was surprised at how often concerns about heavy drinking have had very little to do with how much people are drinking. In pre-Civil War America, the time period I study, it’s pretty clear that outpourings of concern about heavy drinking had more to do with fears about things like terrible economic instability, growing urban poverty, and the spread of epidemic disease. Anti-alcohol reformers, most of whom were well-to-do middle class people, were especially focused on the behavior of the poorest members of society: laborers, immigrants, and the homeless. This is something we know today about our modern war on drugs. I grew up during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 90s. The enforcement and prosecution of our modern drug laws disproportionately target poor black and Hispanic Americans. Throughout our nation’s history, people in positions of authority and influence have used accusations of excessive drinking and drug use to alienate the most marginal members of society.
4. Got a good cocktail party fact from Rum Maniacs that you can share?
The first widely accepted theories of alcohol addiction focused on the stomach. Physicians dissected dead drunkards and found that the stomachs often looked very red and inflamed. Physicians then popularized their findings in temperance lectures and images, which circulated even in grammar schools. Today schoolchildren are shown horribly ugly smokers’ lungs to scare them away from cigarettes. In the 1840s, full-color images of the dissected images of drunkards’ stomachs were shown to schoolchildren to dramatize the horrors of alcohol abuse.
5. In the course of writing the book, did you explore any of the modern-day watering holes in Kansas City? If so, did you find any libations to tempt you?
I generally don’t frequent watering holes, and my research certainly didn’t encourage me to start doing it more frequently! I am intrigued by the Kill Devil Club, only because “kill devil” is a pretty interesting term for liquor that dates back at least to the 17th century. I appreciate the historical resonance of the name.[Images courtesy of Matthew Warner Osborn]