While you might think psychoauts writing their experiences with recreational drug use are a relatively modern development, they really aren't. Even back in the 19th century, there were always hardy drug pioneers who challenged conventional views about altered states of consciousness attained under the influence of assorted drugs, including cannabis and hashish. Even then, there were hardy drug pioneers who could be found just about everywhere, including in the often puritanical United States.
Such as, for example, the late great, Fitz Hugh Ludlow.
Born in 1836 and raised in New York, Ludlow was the son of an abolitionist preacher and part of the Underground Railroad. As such, he was frequently targeted by pro-slavery forces and Ludlow's earliest memories involved his entire family being chased out of town on more than one occasion by outraged mobs. After completing university, including a brief stint as a medical student, he soon distinguished himself as an author, journalist, and explorer. But his greatest claim to fame would be the graphic details he would provide in books and articles outlining his substance use, something that no other author of his time dared to match.
Ludlow's long, psychedelic journey actually began with chloroform, something that he was likely introduced to while training as an anesthesiologist. For there, he progressed through ether, morphine, and whatever other intoxicant he could discover “until I had run through the who gamut of queer chemicals in my reach.”
By 1855, Ludlow was introduced to cannabis indica courtesy of his doctor who had purchased a supply as part of his medical practice. Though the doctor insisted that it was only to be used for treating tetanus, Ludlow’s own research led him to the various writings of the Club des Hashischins and became intrigued by the possibilities of hashish. After sneaking some of his doctor’s supply, Ludlow began experimenting with different dosages until he discovered that he was truly “stoned.”
This seminal moment had enough of an impact for Ludlow to write about it in depth:
“Ha! what means this sudden thrill ? A shock, as of some unimagined vital force, shoots without warning through my entire frame, leaping to my fingers’ ends, piercing my brain, startling me till I almost spring from my chair. I could not doubt it. I was in the power of the hasheesh influence. My first emotion was one of uncontrollable terror— a sense of getting something which I had not bargained for. That moment I would have given all I had or hoped to have to be as I was three hours before.”
Continuing with the experiments which he later published in his 1857 book, The Hasheesh Eater, Ludlow was euphoric in describing how these experiments transformed his mood. “No pain anywhere— not a twinge in any fibre— yet a cloud of unutterable strangeness was settling upon me; and wrapping me impenetrably in from all that was natural or familiar. Endeared faces, well known to me of old, surrounded me, yet they were not with me in my loneliness. I had entered upon a tremendous life which they could not share.”
Using language that seems reminiscent of the writings of some of the chief drug gurus of the 1960s (and who may well have been influenced by his writing), Ludlow talked at length about his psychedelic experiences. “I dwelt in a marvelous inner world,” he wrote in one chapter. “I existed by turns in different places and various states of being. Now I swept my gondola through the moonlit lagoons of Venice. Now Alp on Alp towered above my view, and the glory of the coming sun flashed purple light upon the topmost icy pinnacle. Now in the primeval silence of some unexplained tropical forest I spread my feathery leaves, a giant fern, and swayed and nodded in the spice-gales over a river whose waves at once sent up clouds of music and perfume.”
Along with publishing his experiments in his book, Ludlow also wrote a widely-read article in Putnam’s Magazine and largely attributed much of his literary creativity to the influence of cannabis. Writing that, ““[M]y pen glanced presently like lightning in the effort to keep neck and neck with my ideas,” Ludlow often complained that his mind was racing so quickly that he couldn’t write at all. He also described his life as “one prolonged state of hasheesh exaltation.”
Despite this early advocacy of cannabis and hashish, Ludlow would come to regret his experimentation. Eventually denouncing cannabis as “the very witch-plant of hell, the weed of madness”, he concluded his book by giving the following warning:
“Hasheesh is indeed an accursed drug, and the soul at last pays a most bitter price for all its ecstasies; moreover, the use of it is not the proper means of gaining any insight, yet who shall say that at that season of exaltation I did not know things as they are more truly than ever in the ordinary state?.... In the jubilance of hashish, we have only arrived by an improper pathway at the secret of that infinity of beauty which shall be beheld in heaven and earth when the veil of the corporeal drops off, and we know as we are known.”
While actual cases of cannabis and hashish addiction are rare, Ludlow’s psychological dependence on his drug experiments apparently motivated him to crusade for better treatment of opium addicts later in his life.
Even as the notoriety over The Hasheesh Eater helped ensure Ludlow's place in the American literary scene, health problems stemming from his chronic battle with addiction overshadowed his attempts to gain better treatment options for addicts. Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s writings also inspired addicts from across the country to write him for advice. Along with answering the enormous number of letters he received, Ludlow also visited local hospital wards in New York City to provide counseling to the addicts he found there. Despite his own limited means, he often donated money to families of addicts, many of whom were on the verge of starvation.
But overcoming his own addiction was one battle he couldn’t win. As one friend would later write of him, “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.”
Traveling to Europe in 1870, Ludlow’s health worsened due to pneumonia and a body generally weakened by years of chemical abuse. While on his deathbed, he wrote the following epitaph for himself: “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 on September 12, just one day after his 34th birthday. Survived by his wife, Maria, and their children, as well as his sister, Helen, Ludlow probably supplied his own epitaph when he had presciently written, "“Over the opium-eater’s coffin at least, thank God! a wife and a sister can stop weeping and say, ‘He’s free."
Aside from his wife and family, Ludlow is mainly remembered for his numerous books and articles. In his honour, the Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Library was established in 1970. Perhaps the largest library of psychoactive drug literature in the world, it was originally based in San Francisco and served as an international resource for decades. The library is now part of the Houghton collection at Harvard University.