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There seems little doubt that the hardy cannabis sativa plant was major agricultural crop for much of its early history. Widely cultivated across much of Europe due to the need for strong cloth and industrial rope, Great Britain's navies ruled the seas due to the strong hemp ropes and sails they purchased from from hemp-growing countries such as Russia.
With the continuing demand for hemp, it also became a major cash crop in the British colonies in what is now the United States and Canada. First introduced to New England in 1629, hemp crops became a major part of the New World’s economy and was actually accepted as legal tender in some places. George Washington was one famous early colonist who grew hemp and many of his diary entries in the years leading up to the American Revolution describe his careful notes on proper hemp cultivation. While there is no evidence to show that he ever used his hemp crops for recreational drug use, a little “quiet enjoyment” would certainly have been an option for him and his fellow hemp growers.
Though virtually all of the cannabis trade focused on industrial and medical uses, there were still a few hardy psychonauts who dared to write about their experiences with using it as a recreational drug. Fitz Hugh Ludlow was one of America’s earliest drug pioneers whose detailed writings about the altered states of consciousness attained under the influence of cannabis and hashish had few parallels in the era in which he lived.
Born and raised in New York during the middle of the 19th century as the son of an abolitionist preacher, Ludlow first discovered hashish through an article by travel author Bayard Taylor. First experimenting with chloroform, Ludlow 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 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 discovered that what his doctor had purchased was better known as 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 his 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 drug gurus of the 1960s, 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 his 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. Though the notoriety over The Hasheesh Eater ensured his place in the American literary scene, health problems stemming from his chronic battle with addiction overshadowed Ludlow's 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.
Ironically, despite Ludlow's own crusade on behalf of drug addicts, one of the most visible results of his book's popularity was a renewed interest in cannabis and the rise of cannabis products such as "hasheesh candy." By the end of the 19th century, many American cities had "hashish parlors" though that was likely as much due to the popularity of cannabis in Europe as it was to Ludlow's book. Still, whatever he had intended, Ludlow's writing gave cannabis a greater respectability than ever.
Today, Fitz Hugh Ludlow's book is still regarded as a seminal classic though many modern historians question his claims of hashish addiction and even suggest he was prone to exaggeration for literary effect. As cannabis slowly emerges from decades of prohibition in most places, Ludlow's own surreal description of his cannabis use has found supporters in both the pro- and anti-legalization camps. Still, his psychedelic writing about the hashish experience has rarely been matched, before or since.
In many ways, Ludlow was both a pioneer and a prophet. A fitting role perhaps for a man who sought to experience visions.
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