The Conversation: UMKC professor Matthew Osborn talks alcoholic insanity

07/06/2014 7:00 AM

07/05/2014 6:41 PM

Matthew Osborn of Kansas City is an assistant professor of history at University of Missouri-Kansas City and author of “Rum Maniacs: Alcoholic Insanity in the Early American Republic.” Osborn will speak about his new book at 6:30 p.m. July 9 at Kansas City’s Central Library, This conversation took place at Rozzelle Court in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

You teach a class called “Getting High: Alcohol and Drugs in American History.” That sounds like a classic slacker course, but we seem to be at a pivotal point with two states legalizing recreational marijuana use.

Cracks are starting to appear in the drug wars, where students who know that marijuana is a relatively benign drug are really geared to reject the warnings of authorities about more serious drugs and about alcohol, which is a much more serious problem.

Students come because it’s a fun course title, but then I can raise very serious questions like: On college campuses, 18 percent of female students are raped during their time at college. Eighty-five percent of those rapes involve drinking. Shouldn’t we ban drinking on campus?

Alcoholic insanity seems like an oddball topic for a book. Why did you think it was important enough to write about?

Think about the animated movie “Dumbo.” There’s a sequence in which Dumbo and his mouse companion drink alcohol inadvertently, and they have these wild alcoholic dreams of pink elephants.

That story — a young, impressionable youth gets drunk and experiences a wild nightmare that leads to a turning point in his life — comes out of the medical journals of the early 19th century in the United States.

I was reading these medical journals as a graduate student and was struck by these wild accounts of alcoholic hallucinations. The disease delirium tremens, what lay people call the DTs, is first described in 1813. I was pursuing the question: Why did doctors become so fascinated by such hallucinations at that particular moment in history?

Why did they?

Throughout popular culture, in the early 19th century there is a fascination with hallucinations, trace states, phenomena like hypnotism or what they called mesmerism at the time. This is when opium dreams show up in romantic literature and nitrous oxide is being experimented with.

Can you give a literary example?

“Confessions of an English Opium Eater” (by Thomas De Quincey) is published in 1821 and widely read. At the same time, Charles Brockden Brown is the earliest American author who spends a lot of time talking about hallucinations, and he is the predecessor of Edgar Allan Poe, who writes later and takes delirium tremens as an inspiration for his Gothic stories.

Why do historians tend to talk in the present tense when describing things that happened long ago?

(Laughs.) I live in the early 19th century, so I’m speaking in my present tense. It’s an interesting question. I always tell my students to write in the past tense.

Why would non-historians want to read your book?

Today we focus on alcoholism as being the central problem with heavy drinking, when actually there are other ways of thinking about it. People in the early 19th century did not think compulsive drinking was the central problem; they saw alcoholic insanity as being the central problem. But they were also focused on loss of respectability and status, that it throws you into poverty — what we describe as alcoholism is freighted with all sorts of cultural meanings that don’t necessarily have anything to do with drinking.

Why is it on the one hand that we all agree that alcohol addiction is terrible, but on the other hand we are fascinated by wealthy celebrities who fall into addiction? We can’t stop looking at it. We find alcohol and drug addiction horribly terrifying and also horribly alluring. Those attitudes can be traced back to this romantic fascination with insanity and hallucinations.

What are the round illustrations on the jacket of your book?

A lot of the book is about theater. Those are magic lantern slides that tell stories about alcoholic hallucinations.

A magic lantern was a large glass-slide projector. The glass slides were hand-painted and projected through a lens in a darkened theater. The first ones were vivid images of supernatural creatures. First the announcer would say, “These images are not real, ghosts only exist in the mind.” Then they would shut the lights and project these images and try to scare people.

Medical professors lecturing in the 1820s drew on theatrical tropes of the magic lantern era — demons and hallucinations — to entertain their students. Accounts of delirium tremens are entertaining and part of a broader cultural fascination.

To reach Cindy Hoedel, call 816-234-4304 or send email to

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