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Ten Nights In A Bar Room

June 2024
2min read

“Father! Won't you come home?” little Mary begged. And right before your eyes in the temperance speaker's slides you saw the grief his refusal caused. The melodrama was broad, but many a man paused before taking another drink

It is in man that the spark of divinity rests. But the beasts of the forest and the cattle of the fields, YES, the dogs in their kennels and the hogs at their troughs, do not destroy the muscles of their bodies and the tissues of their brain with THE BOTTLE.”

From torchlit platforms in countless American towns and villages, the warning was pounded home relentlessly throughout the nineteenth century: “ JUST ONE DRINK, ONE SMALL DRINK, is all the devil needs …” In ominous tones and with well-practiced flamboyance, temperance orators promised agonies, afflictions, and a pauper’s grave to those who gave in to the Fatal Thirst; their voices could sway the emotions of their audience from pity to anger and back to tears as they thundered perdition and demanded the breaking of the bottles, the smashing of the kegs, the destruction of the breweries and distilleries, the enforcement of total abstinence on those who were too weak by nature or habit to get past the corner saloon on their way home with the pay envelope.

They rarely lacked listeners. Probably no American crusade of major proportions, not even antislavery, has inspired such widespread and long-enduring fanaticism. In a nation where hard drinking was too often a way of life, who did not know some friend or relation who had succumbed to the vice? Those who fought rum fought not so much for morality or for physical welfare as for the elimination of social and economic ills. Prohibit the sale of alcohol, they maintained, and you choke off poverty and crime at the roots.

It was a persuasive message, and never more so than when the temperance lecturers illustrated their sermons with colored lantern-slides—for seeing, of course, was believing. An artist’s conception of the borers and the crawling things that devoured tissues and left lumps and tumors in a drunkard’s stomach was enough to make any man pause before taking another drink.

But as an object lesson, nothing quite matched the moral havoc portrayed in Ten Nights in a Barroom. In that famous cautionary tale, which Timothy Shay Arthur published in 1854, drink did away with an entire village. Small wonder that the book became a kind of dry bible. Ten Nights made fearsome enough reading, but when its searing scenes were projected upon a screen in the darkness of some crowded meeting hall, the cowed spectators might sign a pledge just to get their temperance tormentors out of town.

Here and on the next two pages, in a series of slides that travelled the rounds of the Chautauqua circuit some eighty years ago, little Mary Morgan once again pleads with her besotted parent (the words, “Father, dear Father, come home with me now,” were not Arthur’s but a later adapter’s). All is in vain, for now we witness the torrent of violence unleashed by the Demon Rum. The glass shatters as it bounces from the child’s head. The knife glitters as it enters the breast of poor Willy Hammond, seduced by drink into gambling with the villainous Harvey Green. And the bottle smashes as young Frank Slade brains his bartender father—who has already had an eye gouged out by the mob that kicked drunken Judge Lyman into a pulp, shot Harvey Green as he was being led to jail, and in an alcoholic frenzy wrecked that source and sewer of iniquity, the Sickle and Sheaf saloon.

Meanwhile mothers die from broken hearts, prominent and wealthy men are hauled away to the poorhouse, and the insane asylum bulges with daily additions. But such events were hardly considered dramatic enough for visual presentation; it was the glory of arrested action that the slides captured so well. Who knows how much the sight of them would influence the children of the eighties to back the “noble experiment” forty years later? As a temperance catechism spelled it out for those who would one day become the front-line soldiers of a great national cold-water army: A true and no-ble boy-hood/Will make a man-hood fine,/Then shun the wick-ed ci-der,/To-bac-co, ale, and wine.


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