Louisa May Alcott (November 29, 1832 - March 6, 1888)
Hear a "CannaBite" on Alcott (produced by KMUD radio).
The woman best known as the author of Little Women started to contribute to her family's income at the age of 15 with various positions including teacher, seamstress, and servant before earning an income with her pen.
In 1860, Alcott began writing for the Atlantic Monthly, and she worked as a nurse in the Union Hospital at Georgetown, D.C., for six weeks in 1862-1863. Her letters home, collected as Hospital Sketches (1863), garnered her first critical recognition for her observations and humor. But like many other nurses, Alcott contracted typhoid fever and although she recovered, she would suffer the poisoning effects of calomel, a drug laden with mercury then used to cure typhoid, for the rest of her life.
In 1869, Alcott published Perilous Play, a short story wherein a group of young socialites enjoys hashish bon-bons. Harriet Reisen in Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind LIttle Women, the character of Rose St. Just is a likely stand-in for Alcott. At the beginning of the story, Rose sits apart from the group, reading the legend of The Lotus Eaters. She confesses that she tries the hashish because, "I hoped it would make me soft and lovable, like other women. I'm tired of being a lonely statue." It ends with her love interest declaring, "Heaven bless hashish if its dreams end like this!"
Starting in the 1860s, the Ganja Wallah Hasheesh Candy Company made and marketed maple sugar hashish candy, and in Philadelphia during the American Centennial Exposition of 1876, the Turkish exhibition included a hookah and at least one pharmacist sold hashish.
Alcott scholar Madeline Stern writes, “Had Louisa Alcott ever used hashish? It was freely available at six cents a stick. Had Louisa Alcott ever heard of the Hashish Club of writers and artists modeled in the 1850s upon the French Club des Hashishins? Had she pondered upon the ‘joy-giver’ of the Hindu sages, Rabelais’s ‘Herb Pantagruelion’ that induced ‘cerebral excitation’? Her description of the effects of hashish in Perilous Play certainly suggests either an incomparable imagination or a familiarity with the drug.”
A Modern Mephistopheles, the novel Alcott published anonymously in 1877, contains a much fuller description of hashish's effects. Jasper Helwyze, the book's devilish character, is an opium addict who slowly seduces Gladys, the innocent young wife of his colleague Felix Canaris (note the similarity to "Cannabis") with Eastern delights. Afterwards, Gladys displayed “shining eyes, cheeks that glowed with a deeper rose each hour, and an indescribably blest expression in a face which now was both brilliant and dreamy.”
"I feel as if I could do anything to-night," Gladys announces, and she came to them "with a swift step, an eager air, as if longing to find some outlet for the strange energy which seemed to thrill every nerve and set her heart beating audibly." Gladys then begins, “slipping fast into the unconscious stage of the hasheesh dream, whose coming none can foretell but those accustomed to its use.” She was soon, "Carried beyond self-control by the unsuspected presence of the drug, which was doing its work with perilous [that word again] rapidity." The book ends on a shudderingly moralistic note.
Even in Little Women, Alcott shows signs of rebellion and an interest in magical brews. Her character Jo, the "little woman" who wrote plays her sisters performed (as did Alcott), once wrote of a villain named Hugo who demanded a love potion and a second one to destroy his rival from a witch named Hagar. Hagar calls up the spirit who will deliver:
Hither, thither from thy home
Airy sprite, I bid thee come!
Born of roses, fed on dew
Charms and potions canst thou brew?
Bring me here, with elfin speed
The fragrant philter which I need;
Make it sweet and swift and strong,
Spirit, answer now my song!