In the days of my earliest recollection, physicians had no more sense of civic responsibility than so many stockbrokers or policemen. A doctor of any decency not only had nothing to say against the use of distilled or fermented beverages; he was himself, nine times out of ten, an appreciative customer of them and argued openly that they sustained him in his arduous and irregular life. Old Dr. Z. K. Wiley, our family practitioner in Baltimore, always took a snifter with my father when he dropped in to dose my brother Charlie and me with castor oil, and whenever, by some unusual accident of his heavy practice, he had any free time afterward, he and my father gave it over to friendly communion with the decanters. His favorite prescription for a cold was rock-and-rye, and he believed and taught that a shot of Maryland whiskey was the best preventive of pneumonia in the “r” months.
I was thus greatly surprised when, as a young newspaper reporter, I first heard a medical man talk to the contrary. This was in the winter of 1899-1900, and the place was a saloon adjacent to a messy downtown fire. I was helping my betters to cover the fire and followed them into the saloon for a prophylactic drink. The doctor, who was a Fire Department surgeon, thereupon made a speech arguing that alcohol was not a stimulant but a depressant, and advising us to eschew it until the fire was out and we were relaxing in preparation for bed. “You think it warms you,” he said, supping a hot milk, “but it really cools you, and you are seventeen and a half per cent more likely to catch pneumonia at the present minute than you were when you came in to this doggery.”
Such heresies naturally outraged the older reporters, and they became so prejudiced against the doctor that they induced the Fire Board, shortly afterward, to can him—as I recall it, by reporting that he was always drunk on duty. But his words made a deep impression on my innocence and continue to lurk in my mind to this day. In consequence, I am what may be called a somewhat cagey drinker. I never touch the stuff by daylight if I can help it, and I employ it of an evening not to hooch up my faculties but to let them down after work. Not in years have I ever written anything with so much as a glass of beer in my system. My compositions, I gather, sometimes seem boozy to the nobility and gentry, but they are actually done as soberly as those of the late William Dean Howells.
But this craven policy, I should say at once, is not general among the literati, nor was it to be noted among the journalists of my apprentice days. Between 1899 and 1904 there was only one reporter south of the Mason and Dixon line who did not drink at all, and he was considered insane. In New York, so far as I could make out, there was not even one. On my first Christmas Eve in the newspaper business but two sober persons were to be found in the old Baltimore Herald office, one of them a Seventh Day Adventist office boy in the editorial rooms and the other a superannuated stereotyper who sold lunches to the printers in the composing room. There was a printer on the payroll who was reputed to be a teetotaller—indeed, his singularity gave him the curious nickname of the Moral Element—but Christmas Eve happened to be his night off. All the rest were full of what they called hand-set whiskey. It was sold in a saloon next door to the Herald office and was reputed to be made by the proprietor in person—of wood alcohol, snuff, tabasco sauce, and coffin varnish. The printers liked it and got down a great many carboys of it. On the Christmas Eve I speak of, its effects were such that more than half of the linotype machines in the composing room broke down and one of the apprentices ran his shirttail through the proof press. Down in the cellar four or five pressmen got hurt, and the city edition was nearly an hour late.
Nobody cared, for the head of the whole establishment, the revered editor in chief, was locked up in his cubbyhole of an office with a case of Bourbon. At irregular intervals he would throw a wad of copy paper over the partition which separated him from his slaves, the editorial writers, and when this wad was smoothed out it was always found to be part of an interminable editorial against General Felix Agnus, editor of the rival American. The General was a hero of the Civil War, with so much lead in him that he was said to rattle as he walked, but the town scandalmongers alleged that he had come to America from his native France as a barber, so the editorial was headed “The Barber of Seville.” It never got into the paper, for it was running beyond three columns by press time and the night editor killed it for fear that its point was still to come. When the editor in chief inquired about it two or three days afterward, he was told that a truck had upset in the composing room and pied it.
The hero of the Herald composing room in those days was a fat printer named Bill, who was reputed to be the champion beer-drinker of the Western Hemisphere. Bill was a first-rate linotype operator and never resorted to his avocation in working hours, but the instant his time was up he would hustle on his coat and go to a beer-house in the neighborhood and there give what he called a setting. He made no charge for admission, but the spectators, of course, were supposed to pay for the beer. One night in 1902 I saw him get down thirty-five bottles in a row. Perhaps, in your wanderings, you have seen the same, but have you ever heard of a champion who could do it without leaving his place at the bar? Well, that is what Bill did, and on another occasion, when I was not present, he is said to have reached forty-two. Physiologists tell me that these prodigies must have been optical illusions, for there is not room enough in the coils and recesses of man for so much liquid, but I can only reply Pfui to that, for facts are facts.
In the year 1904, when the Herald office was destroyed in the great Baltimore fire and we had to print the paper for five weeks in Philadelphia, I was sent ahead to look for accommodations for the printers. I found them in one of those old-fashioned dollar-a-day hotels that were all bar on the first floor. The proprietor, a German with goat whiskers, was somewhat reluctant to come to terms, for he had heard that printers were wild fellows who might be expected to break up his furniture and rough his chambermaids, but when I told him that a beer champion was among them he showed a friendly interest, and when I began to brag about Bill’s extraordinary talents he proposed amiably that some Philadelphia foam jumpers be invited in to make it a race.
The first heat was run the very next night, and Bill won hands down. In fact, he won so easily that he offered grandly to go on until he had drunk twice as much as the next-best entry. We restrained him and got him to bed, for there had been some ominous whispering among the other starters and it was plain that they were planning to call in help.
The next night it appeared in the shape of a tall, thin man from Allentown, Pennsylvania, who was introduced as the champion of the Lehigh Valley. He claimed to be not only a beer-drinker of high gifts but also a member of the Bach Choir at Bethlehem, and when he got down his first dozen mugs—the boys were drinking from the wood—he cut loose with an exultant yodel that he said was one of Bach’s forgotten minor works. But he might very well have saved his wind, for Bill soon had him, and at the end of the setting he was four or five mugs behind and in a state resembling suffocation. The next afternoon I saw his fans taking him home, a sadder and a much less melodious man.
On the first two nights there were only slim galleries, but on the third the bar was jammed, and anyone could see that something desperate was afoot. It turned out to be the introduction of two super-champions, the one a short, saturnine Welshman from Wilkes-Barre and the other a hearty, blond young fellow from one of the Philadelphia suburbs, who said that he was half German and half Irish. The Welshman was presented as the man who had twice drunk Otto the Brewery Horse under the table, and we were supposed to know who Otto was, though we didn’t. The Celto-Teutonic mongrel had a committee with him, and the chairman thereof offered to lay twenty-five dollars on him at even money. The printers in Bill’s corner made up the money at once, and it had grown to fifty dollars in forty minutes by the clock, for the hybrid took only that long to blow up. The Welshman lasted much better, and there were some uneasy moments when he seemed destined to make history again by adding Bill to Otto, but in the end he succumbed so suddenly that it seemed like a bang, and his friends laid him out on the floor and began fanning him with bar towels.
Bill was very cocky after that and talked grandiosely of taking on two champions at a time, in a marathon series. There were no takers for several nights, but then they began to filter in from the remotest wilds of the Pennsylvania-Dutch country, and the whole Herald staff was kept busy guarding Bill by day, to make sure that he did not waste any energy on malt liquor in the afternoons. He knocked off twenty or thirty challengers during the ensuing month, including another alleged member of the Bach Choir, two more Welshmen from the hard-coal country, a Scotsman with an ear missing, and a bearded Dunkard from Lancaster County. They were mainly pushovers, but now and then there was a tough one. Bill did not let this heavy going interfere with the practice of his profession. He set type every night from 6 p.m. to midnight in the office of the Evening Telegraph, where we were printing the Herald, and never began his combats until twelve-thirty. By two o’clock he was commonly in bed, with another wreath of laurels hanging on the gas jet.
To ease your suspense, I’ll tell you at once that he was never beaten. Germans, Irishmen, Welshmen, and Scotsmen went down before him like so many Sunday-school superintendents, and he bowled over everyday Americans with such facility that only two of them ever lasted more than half an hour. But I should in candor add that he was out of service during the last week of our stay in Philadelphia. What fetched him is still a bone of contention among the pathologists at the Johns Hopkins Medical School, to whom the facts were presented officially on our return to our rehabilitated printing plant in Baltimore. The only visible symptom was a complete loss of speech. Bill showed up one night talking hoarsely, the next night he could manage only whispers, and the third night he was as mute as a giraffe.
There was absolutely no other sign of distress. He was all for going on with his derisive harrying of the Pennsylvania lushers, but a young doctor who hung about the saloon and served as physician at the bouts forbade it on unstated medical grounds. Some of the Johns Hopkins brethren argue that Bill’s potations must have dissolved the gummy coating of the pharyngeal plexus and so paralyzed his vocal cords; the rest laugh at this as nonsense savoring of quackery and lay the whole thing to an intercurrent laryngitis induced by insufficient bedclothes on very cold nights. I suppose that no one will ever know the truth. Bill recovered his voice in a couple of months and soon afterward left Baltimore. Of the marvels, if any, that marked his subsequent career I can’t tell you. He was only one of a notable series of giants who flourished along the Eastern seaboard in the early twentieth century. ♦