Primo Levi wrote that at Auschwitz “a large amount of alcohol was put at the disposal of” members of the Special Squad, inmates of the concentration camp who were forced to work the crematoriums, “and that they were in a permanent state of complete debasement and prostration.” One such inmate said, “Doing this work, one either goes crazy the first day or gets accustomed to it.”
In An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits upon the Human Body and Mind, published in 1785, physician and Founding Father Benjamin Rush wrote that drunkenness, an “odious disease (for by that name it should be called),” appeared with, among other symptoms, “unusual garrulity…unusual silence…a disposition to quarrel…uncommon good humor and an insipid simpering or laugh…disclosure of their own or other people’s secrets…a rude disposition to tell those persons in company whom they know, their faults…certain extravagant acts which indicate a temporary fit of madness.”
On November 22, 1963, Aldous Huxley, bedridden and dying, requested on a writing tablet that his wife Laura give him a 100 microgram dose of LSD. As she went to get the drug from the medicine cabinet, Laura was perplexed to see the doctor and nurses watching TV. She gave him a second dose a few hours later, and by 5:20 p.m. he had died. Laura later learned that the TV had been showing coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, who had been pronounced dead at 1:00 p.m. that day.
In 1387 the physicians to Charles II of Navarre, in order to treat his illness, soaked his sheets in aqua vitae, a distilled wine, and wrapped him in them to enhance the curative power that the liquid was supposed to possess. The sheets were then sewn shut by a maid, who, instead of cutting the final bit of string, set a candle to it. The alcohol-soaked king went up in a blaze and the maid ran away, leaving him to burn to death.
“I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been in the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories,” wrote Edgar Allan Poe in a letter in the last year of his life.
“Woe to you, my princess, when I come. I will kiss you quite red and feed you till you are plump. And if you are forward you shall see who is the stronger, a gentle little girl who doesn’t eat enough or a big wild man who has cocaine in his body,” wrote Sigmund Freud to his future wife, Martha Bernays, on June 2, 1884. On February 2, 1886, toward the end of another letter to Bernays, Freud wrote, “Here I am, making silly confessions to you, my sweet darling, and really without any reason whatever unless it is the cocaine that makes me talk so much.” The two married later that year.
Sent to suppress elements of Nathaniel Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, British soldiers made a soup seasoned with Datura stramonium, a hallucinogen, “the effect of which,” as an eighteenth-century historian put it, “was a very pleasant comedy; for they turned natural fools upon it for several days; one would blow up a feather in the air, another would dart straws at it with much fury, and another, stark naked, was sitting up in a corner, like a monkey, grinning and making mows at them.” D. stramonium became known as jimson weed, named after Jamestown, Virginia, where the soldiers had been sent.
Isolated from opium by the German chemist F. W. A. Sertürner around 1804, morphine (named after Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep and dreams) was used to treat opium addicts. Invented by Bayer Pharmaceuticals in 1898, heroin (derived from the Greek word for hero) was used to treat morphine addicts.
While on his American speaking tour in 1882, Oscar Wilde visited Leadville, Colorado, where he went into a saloon. There was a piano player in the corner with a sign over him that said: DON'T SHOOT THE PIANIST; HE'S DOING THE BEST HE CAN. It was, observed Wilde, “the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across.” He also visited a nearby mine where, upon reaching the bottom, the miners implored him to stay for supper: “the first course being whiskey, the second whiskey, and the third whiskey.”
“Bomb the shit out of them!” was reportedly a drunken President Richard Nixon’s conclusion as to what should be done about Cambodia. Henry Kissinger recalled in an interview in 1999 that “two glasses of wine were quite enough to make him boisterous, just one more to grow bellicose or sentimental with slurred speech.”
In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macduff asks the Porter, “What three things does drink especially provoke?” The Porter replies, “nose painting, sleep, and urine”—the first of which is usually taken to mean the red flush that comes across a drinker’s face. It also leads to lechery, the Porter says, adding, “it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.”
In his Brief Lives, John Aubrey wrote that in 1618 Walter Raleigh “took a pipe of tobacco a little before he went to the scaffold, which some formal persons were scandalized at, but I think ’twas well and properly done to settle his spirits.” Often credited with popularizing smoking in England, Raleigh was sentenced to death for treason by King James I, who had published his Counterblaste to Tobacco in 1604.
Overworked and suffering from chest and stomach conditions, Emperor Marcus Aurelius took a prescription from his physician, Galen, for opium. According to Galen, the emperor did not like that the drug made him drowsy, so he stopped taking it. Then he found himself unable to sleep, so he started taking it again.
George Washington completed his second and final term as president in 1797 and moved back to Mount Vernon, where his farm manager, a Scotsman, convinced him to build a whiskey distillery to earn higher profits on his estate. “I make use of no barley in my distillery,” he wrote in 1798. “Rye chiefly and Indian corn in a certain proportion compose the materials from which the whiskey is made.” Having expanded operations by 1799, the year of his death, he owned five stills in a building of 2,250 square feet with a yearly yield of nearly 10,500 gallons. It is considered to have been one of the country’s largest distilleries at that time.