Sunday, November 30, 2014

Bohemian Babes and Hashish

Ada Clare, the Queen of the Bohemians
A new book, Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and Americans First Bohemians by Justin Martin contains a fascinating cast of characters who hung out at Pfaff’s bar in NYC in the mid 1800s. Among them were Fitz Hugh Ludlow, author of The Hasheesh Eater (1857) and Ada Clare, an actress and writer crowned “Queen of the Bohemians.”

Clare wrote this in The New York Saturday Press, January 1860:

"The February number of Harper's Magazine publishes a story by [fellow Bohemian] Fitz James O'Brien, which attracts much notice. The story 'Mother of Pearl,' opens with an exquisitely beautiful chapter on pearl-fishing, but it seems to me that the crisis of the story is a little uninteresting. The drug called hasheesh has become too well domesticated to assist in a crisis now. It is on too good terms with the digestion. Let us have some drug more awful and mystic to round off our harrowing climaxes—buckwheat for instance : it is time that the buckwheat-cake-eater should come forth and soliloquize."

In the Fitz O’Brien story she cites it is a female who takes the hasheesh, and commits murder. Clare rightly dismisses this as poppycock.

An acolyte of Clare’s, actress/poet Dora Shaw was apparently inspired by Ludlow’s writings to try hashish on July 4, 1859 with novelist Marie Stevens Case, who recorded the event in The New York Saturday Press (7/16/59).

"It promised to be a gloomy day to us; all our friends were out of town, and we had nothing to interests us in the wide city round," the story begins. Planning to sleep during the day of the Fourth and later visit a friend to see the fireworks from her roof, Dora suggests they take opium in order to sleep through the day's "crackers and guns," but Marie suggests instead they try Hascheesh. “Good!” exclaimed Dora. “Where can we get it? I’ve heard of that; it gives one exquisite dreams and fantastic visions—the real becomes the unreal, and the dream is the actual—every moment seems an age of ecstasy.”

Procuring the green powder from a gentleman friend, the ladies took a careful dose, but then added to it after they felt no effect: Dora doubled, and Marie tripled her dose. Marie writes:

"Dora, who is always witty, was especially happy on this occasion, and we remained convulsed until laughter seemed the most boundless and exquisite pleasure in the world. Just then some one tapped at the door for Dora, and I went to excuse her. I remember I did not open the door, but stood with my face close to it, and answered the questioner. A painful sense at length came over me. This person seemed to question me forever. I answered mechanically—in fact I was fast becoming a sphinx—my head expanded to the size of the room, and I thought I was an oracle doomed to respond through all Eternity.

"The wicked laugh of Dora, and her soft arms about me, recalled me partially to the fact that I was answering imaginary questions; but the phantasy would not leave me, and I implored my friend to spare me from laughing—'Do you not see,' I cried, 'that I am stone....and if you make me laugh, I shall be scattered to the four winds.' My words had no effect: she laughed, and instantly I felt a convulsion in my frame—a deafening explosion followed and I flew asunder in all directions. Then I heard at the explosion of the fragments—a myriad of sounds succeeded each other, until I was reduced to a most impalpable powder, and caught by the breeze I was wafted away into space. Still was my consciousness preserved, and a circum-folding sense of joy and perfect peace possessed me."

Presently, Marie writes, "my eye rested on some Egyptian vases in the room, and I led Dora to the place where they stood. Over them hung a picture of Cleopatra dying, and we remained transfixed before it. The diadem of Egypt sat proudly upon the brow of the queen, and there seemed a living agony in her face. She moved, breathed, and spoke. As we looked upon her in her gorgeous robes of State, the whole scene changed, and we were in Egypt. We passed through all the suffering of the unfortunate Queen—the poison of the asp curdled our blood also, and our difficult and painful breathing died on the air with hers. After a while, we returned to life, and Dora, shutting her eyes, turned the picture to the wall—no longer a picture to us, but the place, the time, the living reality."

Marie then imagines that mummies tended to she and Dora, one of whom she determines to be a mathematician (Seshat?), but who Dora informs her was a Quaker friend of hers. Feeling as though years had passed, the women are surprised to discover that their adventures lasted only two hours, so they dress and go to watch the fireworks. "The effect of the hascheesh was still upon us a little," Marie wrote, "and the rockets seemed the most astonishing and gorgeous things in the universe."

Adah Isaacs Menken in her "nude girl on a horse" routine
Could this be the first recorded occurrence of women taking hasheesh in the US? Since Clare famously had a child out of wedlock, was she perhaps the first mother to fear involvement of child protective services over the use of cannabis, and so made light of it?

Marie Stevens Case went on to marry “social radical” Edward Howland and live with him in various utopian communities in France, Mexico, New Jersey and Alabama. Her best-known work, Papa's Own Girl (1874), is a novel about an American father and daughter living in a fictional intentional community in New England.

Another Bohemian actress, Adah Isaacs Menken (pictured) has been called the Marilyn Monroe of her day. She had a famous affair in Paris with Very Important Pothead Alexandre Dumas.

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