October 20



Beyond the Hasheesh Eater: Fitz Hugh Ludlow, A Nineteenth Century Writer and Adventurer

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Fitz Hugh Ludlow (1836-1870) is best known to the Union College community for
penning our Alma Mater, the Ode to Old Union. But shortly after graduation he
became famous (and infamous) for writing the best-seller, The Hasheesh Eater. He
then proceeded to lead a colorful adult life as a New York City Bohemian, writer and
adventurer, before that life was sadly cut short by tuberculosis.

Union, Hashish, and the Literary Life in New York

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Fitz Hugh’s personal and professional life were shaped by his father, the noted abolitionist preacher Henry Ludlow. Henry became the leader of the Spring Street Presbyterian Church in New York City. Henry’s vocal role brought him unwanted attention in the anti-abolitionist riots of 1834, when rioters were convinced he had conducted interracial marriages. Henry’s church and home were ransacked, leading him to move to New Haven and start a family.

Fitz Hugh was born there in 1836. He was a sickly child, but took very well to Henry’s intensive religious and secular education of both Fitz Hugh and his sister Helen (b. 1839). Their home became a way station on the Underground Railroad, and in 1841, Henry assisted the legal team in New Haven that successfully defended the African captives rebellion on board the slave ship Amistad. Henry’s role was to communicate the Africans’ understanding of Christianity. In 1842, the Ludlow family moved to Poughkeepsie, NY, the site of Fitz Hugh’s first introduction to hashish at the local pharmacy, where his poor health often landed him.

Fitz Hugh started college at Princeton in 1855, then transferred to Union. There he distinguished himself in literature, was influenced by the philosophy of Union Professor Laurens Hickok, socialized with the Kappa Alpha Society, and further explored the effects of hashish. Fitz Hugh was known for writing friendly and humorous poems to mark the birthdays of his KA brothers, and so Eliphalet Nott approached him to author a song for Commencement in 1856.

Fitz Hugh published The Hasheesh Eater in 1857, to instant success and notoriety. Moving to New York, he quickly fell in with the American Bohemians gathered around Pfaff’s Tavern in Manhattan, the most well-known of whom was Walt Whitman. Fitz Hugh was sought after for his knowledge of both literature and hashish (and probably beer.) But he soon settled down with an heiress named Rosalie Osborne, although that engagement apparently led Rosalie’s mother to conduct a background check with President Nott.

The Wild West, Divorce, and Opium

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In just 12 years, Fitz Hugh ended up writing over 4,000 pages of short fiction, novels, essays and criticism. But the literary life did not pay well during the Civil War. Fitz Hugh joined forces with painter Albert Bierstadt, and they traveled on the Overland Stage to California in 1863. Fitz Hugh was an early reporter of life out West – gold miners, American Indians, and Mormons. In San Francisco, they met then-unknown writers Mark Twain and Bret Harte. Fitz Hugh praised them –“[Twain] is a school by himself” - and that praise helped encourage Twain to seek his fortunes in the East.

The pair were feted upon their return. Bierstadt’s paintings became famous, including one featuring “Mount Rosalie.” This foreshadowed Rosalie’s divorce of Fitz Hugh for adultery and her remarriage to Bierstadt just six months later. Fitz Hugh suffered an emotional and physical collapse (the latter a result of tuberculosis which he contracted in Oregon) from which he never really recovered.

Fitz Hugh began using opium for the pain, experiencing its addictive properties. He spent his remaining years helping fellow sufferers (including many Civil War veterans) and appears to have originated the concept of a “halfway house” for addicts. Fitz Hugh died of tuberculosis in 1870.

He was survived by his sister Helen, who never married. Helen was a lesbian, in the closet in those days, but understood by Fitz Hugh who actually wrote a thinly veiled short story about her true gender identity. After her brother died, Helen was invited by an abolitionist friend of their father to become an English teacher at the Hampton Institute (now University), one of the first of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Helen visited Union several times in her retirement years.

The 1960s generation re-discovered and re-published The Hasheesh Eater. Three collectors created the Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Library of drug literature, now located at Harvard. That Library was a catalyst for The Collected Works of Fitz Hugh Ludlow, compiled by Don Dulchinos ’78 and Steve Crimi ’80.